Did Foreign Drivers Ruin Indy?

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When the British Invasion hit the Indianapolis 500 in the sixties, some thought that it was the greatest thing ever; others took it as a sign of the apocalypse. For decades, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had been the destination of midget and sprint car drivers across America. From time to time, there might have been the occasional interloper like the great Grand Prix driver, Alberto Ascari who tried Indy in 1952. Juan Manuel Fangio thought he might give it a go as well, but could never get up to speed. Other than that however, Indy was considered an American race for the most part.

With the sixties, came Australian Jack Brabham and his rear-engine Cooper Climax. Scot Jim Clark soon followed him with British designer Colin Chapman, in a rear-engine Lotus. On the heels of Clark’s 1965 Indy win, rookie Englishman Graham Hill became the second foreign driver to grace Indy’s Victory Lane in as many years. Scotsman Jackie Stewart, who led in 1966 but fell out with engine problems, had joined Hill as a teammate. Stewart still managed to finish sixth while garnering Rookie of the Year honors – an oddity, since another rookie had won the race.

The late sixties saw the floodgates open for the foreign invasion. Formula One drivers Denis Hulme, Jochen Rindt and Mike Spence followed to try their hand at the famed Brickyard. Mike Spence would lose his life in a turn one practice accident and never raced, but the others enjoyed varying degrees of success at the Speedway.

Did this influx of foreign-born drivers harm the allure of the Speedway? Far from it. Most would agree that the sixties were some of the best years in the past century at the Speedway. Innovation ruled the day, there were record numbers of driver’s trying to qualify and the crowds had swelled even for qualifying The foreign drivers may have encroached on a few American drivers’ starting positions, but with them also came worldwide attention. These were heady times at 16th and Georgetown, and the fame of the Speedway exploded.

There were a couple of more foreign drivers in the seventies. David Hobbs comes to mind, but by the end of that decade, the field was entirely made up of Americans again. The early eighties saw a couple of foreign drivers make their debut. Josele Garza of Mexico and Geoff Brabham, the son of Jack Brabham arrived in 1981. But the biggest foreign name to hit the Speedway in years showed up in 1984. Former World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi from Brazil, along with Roberto Guerrero of Columbia both made their Indy debuts that year. An unknown Dutchman named Arie Luyendyk made little fanfare when he broke through in 1985, along with Jim Crawford of Scotland and Raul Boesel – another Brazilian.

To my knowledge, Emerson Fittipaldi was the first Brazilian to race in the Indianapolis 500. Brazil is a country with a rich racing history. Up until Fittipaldi’s arrival, most Brazilians followed Formula One exclusively. Fittipaldi’s presence and subsequent success at the Speedway and IndyCar racing in general, awakened a whole new following in South America. Soon after his arrival, Brazil produced a healthy crop of drivers to the Speedway. When Fittipaldi first won in 1989, he became the first foreign driver to win the Indy 500 since Graham Hill in 1966—he certainly would not be the last. Arie Luyendyk would win the following year, while Fittipaldi would win again in 1993.

When Jaques Villenueve of Canada won in 1995, the anti-foreign faction felt confident that, with the formation of the IRL the next year, this would be the last of the foreigners in Victory Lane. Kenny Bräck of Sweden put an end to that myth in 1999. In fact, that year started a ten-year string that saw only two Americans win Indy in that period; Buddy Rice in 2004 and Sam Hornish in 2006 — neither of whom is in this year’s race.

Only one-third of this year’s field is made up of American drivers. Is that the problem with the Indianapolis 500? The answer is…not really. I have a friend that says “…if I can’t pronounce their name, they don’t need to be in the race”. Well, that’s a little strong. Such exclusivity would have deprived us of many great drivers who were actually fan favorites. Raul Boesel had a HUGE following of American fans in the nineties. Like him or hate him, Nigel Mansell of Great Britain brought worldwide notoriety and interest to the Speedway.

One of the biggest reasons why Americans have lost interest in the Indy 500, is that those golden years of the sixties produced some incredible names that raced for years. Perhaps, it was because cars were becoming safer and we weren’t losing our stars like we did in the 40’s and 50’s. Maybe with the advent of the rear engine car, sprint car experience no longer translated to success at the Speedway. This meant that there was no true ladder system for producing drivers for IndyCars. Indy Lights and Atlantics existed, but were not overly successful at consistently feeding the series with fresh American talent.

Whatever the reason, the early nineties saw dramatic numbers of long-time American drivers retire with few Americans to replace them. Within a two-year period, we lost iconic names like Johncock, Rutherford, Foyt, Mears, Andretti, Bettenhausen, Sneva and Unser Sr; all due to retirement. The 1992 race had five drivers over the age of fifty — an unheard-of age by today’s standards.

There is no easy answer as to why the Indianapolis 500 does not have the appeal it once did. Foreign drivers are nothing new. Besides the foreign invasion of the sixties and late eighties, there was another one as far back as 1913. The first decade of the race saw almost as many foreign drivers win as Americans. That certainly didn’t dissuade interest back then, but the term “back then” may explain a lot. Times were different one hundred years ago, forty years ago and twenty years ago. The tastes of the American public have changed. Skilled, brave drivers strapping themselves into mechanical wonders no longer stir the imagination as they once did.

The soaring popularity of NASCAR in the early years of this decade, has probably done it’s own damage. Not to mention that American drivers are flocking to tin-tops, but here in the south, when I say I’m going to the Indianapolis 500…more times than not, people assume it is a NASCAR race. Then the usual jokes of Bubba and flying chicken bones soon follow. In today’s world, racecar drivers are a caricature of either a Jeff Gordon corporate automaton or an Elliot Sadler…who sounds more foreign than most IndyCar drivers. They are laughed at, instead of revered.

There is not an easy solution to this problem. But the problem is to decide how to make the Indianapolis 500 — and thus, IndyCar racing in general — significant again in the eyes of the American public. Terry Angstadt, the President of the IRL Commercial Division is looking closely at racing in Brazil next year. Building a fan base there is attractive, along with the money it can bring. In this economy, that is a short-term fix. But this is primarily an American series and he’d better focus more on shoring up an eroding American fan base first, regardless of what the last names of the drivers sound like.

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “Did Foreign Drivers Ruin Indy?”

  1. One of the biggest factors contributing to the decline in popularity of the Indy 500 is the now-healed schism between CART and IRL. By splitting the sport, and the fans, into two distinct and mutually exclusive groups – the sport as a whole suffered. The ‘big names’ were no longer running at Indy as they were comitted to CART teams excluded from that track. Television advertising money gravitated towards NASCAR where the fan base was unified. The result was a huge increase in the NASCAR audience and a dwindling in the audience of open-wheel racing.

  2. Travis R Says:

    I think another factor is the cars themselves. Now that it’s one chassis, one engine, and one tire, the cars themselves have no allure or persona. The cars should add an element of drama, but they don’t anymore. The Honda engines are almost too reliable – the heartbreak stories of having the engine blow up while leading with 10 laps to go just don’t happen anymore. Paddle shifting and other driver aids take some of the driver skill out of the equation, further making it hard to tell the good drivers from the bad. Our advances in technology have taken away a lot of the guesswork, experimentation, and advantages through “thinking out of the box” innovation.

    Nobody’s going to talk about Scott Dixon’s 2008 winning car like they will the Marmon Wasp’s rearview mirror, or some of the experimental cars of the 50’s and 60’s – cars that actually had names. The cars were unique and innovative, and when someone would roll their entry off the trailer, people took notice. Some of the radical designs would work, others not so much. Practice, qualifying, and racing all had an element of surprise, because we didn’t know if the cars would be fast or break. Those unique cars are the cars that are in the IMS museum today, and every one has a story to tell. I think they are as much a part of the history and aura of the Indy 500 as the drivers themselves. These newer cars? They just don’t add much.

  3. Simply put, IndyCar had a TON of high-profile retirements in the early-mid ’90s (Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock, Nigel Mansell, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser), plus Jacques Villeneuve went up to F1. These were the marquee names, besides Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Jr. who were still around. When they retired, the next wave of stars like Gil de Ferran, Dario Franchitti, Greg Moore, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, etc… didn’t get the opportunity to be household names to the same degree because the split happened just as they were emerging basically… I think with no split, several of those guys would have been known to the general public, and CART would still have been a formidable challenger to F1 and NASCAR. NASCAR didn’t actually win until the pace lap crash at Michigan ruined CART’s reputation as having the elite drivers (even though it did until about 2003 when it was more even), while the Indy 500 had a field of mostly nobodies…

    It has nothing to do with internationalism. CART was booming in the early ’90s with Andretti, Fittipaldi, Luyendyk, Mansell, Villeneuve, etc… It has everything to do with the split happening before the next generation’s stars emerged.

  4. George,

    Great post, as usual. There is no easy answer as to the decline of interest in the Indy 500. If you look at the numbers for ratings and attendence (as we know, there are no official attendence numbers for Indy) the slide began right about the time of the CART – IRL split. The loss of the name drivers and teams, coupled with the retirement of the BIG names (the Senior Unsers, Foyt, Andretti, as well as Jonhcock and Mears) hurt the name recognition with the general public. NASCAR’s epic rise in the 90’s happened at the same time. So it’s hard to point to any one thing.

    I grew up in Upstate NY. Auto racing was the Indy 500. Sure we had the Glen, (F1 and Sports Cars), but NASCAR was still viewed as a Southern sport. My memorial day memories of the 70’s always involved watching the replay of the race with Dad, cheeering on our favorites. Then the sport would recede again until next year. Which I think leads to the underlying issue between the IRL / CART split and the current camps of Open Wheel supporters.

    Indy is bigger than IndyCar racing. It is a part of the national consciousness in a way that the other races on the schedule could never be. It is like the Knetucky Derby in that sense. It’s an American tradition based on an old-tyme-Midwestern-motherhood-apple pie-hotdogs-4th of July-fireworks-inward looking sort of tradition. It draws people that only watch one day a year. Like my experience as a kid, Indy is a world unto itself.

    IndyCar-CART-ChampCar is a different sort of thing. It is a league, a sport, a business, that is more outward looking but has a dedicated core of followers and fans. It moves around the country, (and world) and changes venues regularly. It also has traditions, like the Glen, Long Beach, Milwaukee, etc., but they don’t exist in the Public Consciousness the same way that Indy does. They exist only in the consciousness of the dedicated fan base. There’s a reason Milwaukee can only draw 50K, but Indy can draw 250K.

    The marketing trick that Terry Angstadt faces is to help Indy regain that place in the broad Public consciousness, and then parlay some of that interest into an increased following for the IndyCar series. Racing is a different sort of sport in that it relies on sponsorship $ to exist, and sponsors are only interested if they see the benefit of wide exposure for their brand. The stick and ball sports can get by on ticket & merchandise sales and TV contracts. They don’t need Target to pay their expenses. (I say that in irony, with full knowledge that Target is the new name sponsor for the Twins new ballpark).

    It’s a bit like putting the “CART” before the horse, meaning that the exposure has to come before the sponsorship dollars to fund the league will follow. Basically, he needs to SELL the product before he HAS a product. Not an easy task, since they don’t have an unlimited war chest of $$$$ to buy exposure. Tony George has pumped a lot of the family fortune into getting it this far. His pockets were deepers than CART’s which is the reason the IRL won the war. But now that they are together, they have to spend wisely to build that brand. That’s why like it or not, the open spec days of the 60’s and 70’s, with multiple engines and chassis are not coming back soon. The sponsorship $ just won’t support it right now. So better to dress up the pig (Dallara) and do their best to put on a show with Daniker and the Dancing King, and hope the public interest increases. Not the best situtation, but it’s where we are…

  5. Thanks, interesting.

  6. What hurt Indy was the CART/IRL war. I want gorgeous indycars for the 2012 IndyCar Series. Helio’s win in the 2009 Indy 500 was very nice.

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