A Study In Numerology

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In racing, the car number usually belongs to the team – not the driver. To some drivers, the car’s number is not important at all. To others, it’s their identity. In other series, drivers are even eulogized by the mere mention of their number. It’s an interesting study to see how some drivers want to hang on to numbers, while others could care less.

It’s been a fairly recent practice in IndyCars for most teams to keep the same car number, year after year. USAC and CART assigned car numbers based on the previous years point standings. Usually, this was not followed past the top twelve. No one was ever assigned No.13 and the number 14 was always reserved for AJ Foyt.

Foyt did not always carry the now-famous No.14. The first two years that he won the Indianapolis 500, he carried No.1 on his car – signifying his winning the USAC National Championship the year before. Foyt did not have a good year in 1966. He chose the No.14 for the 1967 season simply because it was the highest number available. In 1967, he won the Indy 500 and again won the USAC Championship thereby carrying the No.1 on his car in 1968.

Foyt was injured and out of the car for three months during the 1972 season, causing him to finish low in the rankings. The following year, he returned to the No.14 and never relinquished it. He carried the number to victory lane at Indianapolis again in 1977. His first two Indy victories were in car No.1. His second two were in car No.14. Foyt explained that he liked the number because it paid homage to other great drivers — such as Wilbur Shaw, Bill Vukovich and Tony Bettenhausen – that had carried the number at some point in their career. Now, former IndyCar driver Tony Stewart carries No.14 on his car in honor of Foyt.

Foyt is partial to other numbers as well. In the sixties and seventies, the second car in his stable usually carried No. 83 or 84 and was usually driven by George “Ziggy” Snider. In the eighties and early nineties, he reversed the No.84 and began running No.48 – the number usually run by Dan Gurney in the late sixties and early seventies – as his second car. In 1993, he reversed the No.14 and began running car No.41 as his second car. In the early days of the IRL, he ran No.11 as the second car to No. 14. For the past several years, Foyt has run No.14 as the primary car, No.41 as the second car and a third car at Indy would be No.48.

In the days when the top twelve numbers were assigned, sometimes deals would be struck if a team or driver really wanted a certain number. Such was the case in 1993. Michael Andretti had finished second in points for the 1992 season before he headed for his ill-fated attempt at Formula One in 1993. Nigel Mansell had won the 1992 World Championship but left Williams and Formula One to come to the IndyCars and replace Michael Andretti at Newman/Haas. Mansell had been carrying a red No.5 on his F1 car for several years. Scott Goodyear had finished fifth in 1992 while driving for Derrick Walker. Newman/Haas struck a deal with Walker Racing so that Mansell could carry the “red five” on his car. Mansell went on to win the championship in 1993 and decided to carry car No.1 for 1994.

Back then; it was considered an honor for drivers to carry No.1 on their car. It was the rolling trophy that you got to carry all throughout the next season to remind everyone who they had to beat. In recent years, championship drivers have chosen not to carry it. The last time a championship driver carried No.1 throughout the subsequent season was in 2004 when Scott Dixon had the honor following his 2003 championship. Tony Kanaan continued carrying his No.11 following his 2004 championship – possibly due to the fact that the number is tied to his sponsor, 7-Eleven.

Dan Wheldon said he would proudly carry No.1 on his car following his championship, but he changed teams the next year. His previous employer – Andretti-Green Racing – would not give him permission to carry it. Instead, Michael Andretti carried No.1 in the 2006 Indianapolis 500 – the last year that the number has appeared in the race. I hope that whoever wins this season’s championship will decide to carry the number next year. That was a nice tradition that has gone by the wayside.

Some teams have their numbers by mere happenstance, other have a story behind them. Gil de Ferran’s ALMS team carries car No 66. That was de Ferran’s number in the 2001 Indianapolis 500. Although his teammate Helio Castroneves won the race (in car No. 68), de Ferran was considered Penske’s lead driver. The Penske cars of Mark Donohue in the late sixties and early seventies all carried No. 66. That was a derivative of Penske’s own number as a driver while driving sports cars. A good portion of Penske’s driving career, he drove No.6. As a new entrant at Indy in 1969, AJ Foyt already carried No. 6, so Penske chose No.66. Curiously enough one of the two Penske cars – the car driven by Ryan Briscoe – still carries No. 6. Helio carries No. 3 simply because that was his number for the last two years in CART and when Penske moved over in 2002, the No. 3 was available.

Panther Racing began running car No.4 because one of their original car owners was former Colts and Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh who played with No.4 in college and most off his pro career. Dale Coyne always used to run No.19 on his car. I have no idea why that’s so but this year, he changed it to No.18 to satisfy the wishes for sponsor, Z-Line Design. They also sponsor Kyle Busch in the Nationwide Series. Busch is car No.18 and they wanted both car numbers the same, so Coyne obliged them.

Vision Racing is partial to car numbers that are made up of at least one “2”. As a play on 20/20 vision – all of the primary Vision cars in their short history carried No.20 for Ed Carpenter. Other Vision car numbers have been Nos. 02, 2 and 22. When Davey Hamilton drove the 02 Vision car in the 2007 Indy 500, it was the first time a car with a zero in front of a number had ever appeared in the race.

The car numbers that Newman/Haas/Lanigan had carried for the last few years in Champ Car were Nos.2 and 6. When they moved to the IRL in 2008, those numbers were taken so they just added a zero in front of their traditional numbers where they now carry 02 and 06.

CART started getting away from assigning the numbers in the mid-nineties. Michael Andretti had earned Chip Ganassi a fourth place ranking in the one year he drove for him in 1994. Therefore, new driver Bryan Herta carried No.4 on his Ganassi Reynard in 1995. Scott Goodyear had finished twelfth in points but since he had no full-time ride for 1995, the number was available. That number went to Ganassi’s newly expanded second car with Jimmy Vasser. This made the two Ganassi cars Nos. 4 and 12. It stayed that way until Ganassi moved to the IRL in 2003. He had been running Jeff Ward in a separate IRL entry that carried No.9 that was leftover from Montoya’s Indy winning drive for Ganassi. When Ganassi moved full time to the IRL, No.10 was conveniently available.

Another current team with an interesting numerical lineage is Andretti-Green Racing. The team had its roots as Forsythe-Green, which began racing in CART for the 1994 season. The driver was Jacques Villeneuve, son of legendary Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve. The elder Villeneuve had been fatally injured in 1982 while qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix. For the 1995 season, the team had become Team Green as Gerry Forsyth had broken off and formed his own team. Son Jacques Villeneuve had chosen to honor his father by carrying the No.27 on his car – the same number that his late father had carried for Ferrari in 1981 and 1982. He drove that car to victory in the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the 1995 CART Championship.

Villeneuve left for Formula One the following year, but Team Green continued with No.27 with Raul Boesel as the driver. In 1997, Barry Green snagged sponsorship from Kool and renamed the team Tema Kool Green. Forgettable driver Parker Johnstone drove the No.27 for 1997. Then in 1998, Green signed Dario Franchitti to drive the No.27 car. He also expanded to a two car effort with Paul Tracy driving the new No. 26. When Michael Andretti and Barry’s brother Kim bought the team and moved to the IRL in 2003, Dario went with them – staying in the No.27. Franchitti stayed in the No.27 car until the end of the 2007 season.

The other two cars are not as difficult to trace back. When AGR moved to the IRL in 2003, the plan was for Michael Andretti to drive in the first four races including the 2003 Indy 500. 7-Eleven had come on board as sponsor for Michael and Tony Kanaan, with Michael in the No.7 and Kanaan in the No.11. The No 7 sat dormant after Indy but was brought out when AGR expanded to a four-car effort in 2004.

So what does all this mean? Absolutely nothing. But it is all part of the interesting minutia that makes up the trivia and history of this sport. One thing about the numbers, though – at least IndyCar drivers refer to their competitors as drivers and not car numbers. I’ve always found it annoying when drivers in other series talk about how “…the 24 got into me and then I hit the 48”. Don’t their drivers have names? Anyway…if anyone knows any further useless trivia regarding numbers in IndyCars, feel free to post them.

George Phillips

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3 Responses to “A Study In Numerology”

  1. I do think numbers matter in sports. If you follow NASCAR-and I do somewhat grudgingly-you know that Dale Earnhardt Sr. will always be #3, Jeff Gordon symbolizies the #24, Richard Petty #43, and so on. And of course, Michael Jordan will always be synonomus with the #23. Would having consistent numbers help IndyCar? I honestly don’t know, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to try to have them.

  2. I am amazed at how much George knows and how much he’s willing to research. I was ‘proud’ of myself for knowing the Forsythe-Green, Team Green and Andretti Green Racing history. But the rest – whoo! It’s ‘before my time’ and/or arcanum that most of us don’t care about, ’cause we care more about our favorite drivers than 12″-high numerals on engine cowls and rear wing end plates that we can’t see from the stands or armchairs when cars are at speed. As mentioned, teams (as in NAPCAR, I think) register their cars with the numbers; they’re not assigned to the drivers at birth or at the beginning of their careers.
    I had always wondered why NAPCAR fans applied huge “20″ and “24″ and “48″ decals on their truck windows rather than applying decals reading “Tony Stewart” or other … I know that the fans visually follow giant numerals or sponsor logos around and around the oval tracks. But I’d thought that they’d show affinity for “Tony” or “Smoke” or “Junior” …
    I chuckled at the dismay of the tatooed Dale fanatics when Junior left ‘his’ number behind.

  3. You forgot to mention Buddy Lazier in the Hemelgarn 91

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