Bring Back The Number “One”

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This is not a new soapbox for me. I wrote about this subject a couple of years ago – that is the recent trend of teams or drivers that win the IZOD IndyCar championship opting out of the honor of carrying the number “1” on their car in the subsequent season. For those that consider such things to be important; next season, there is an opportunity for an American to carry the No.1 on their car for the entire season since 2000, when Greg Ray carried the badge of honor for winning the 1999 IRL championship.

For the record, no one in the IZOD IndyCar Series has raced with No.1 on their car since Michael Andretti carried it in the 2006 Indianapolis 500. It was available because his team, Andretti-Green Racing, had won the championship the prior year with Dan Wheldon – but Wheldon moved on to Target Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of the 2005 season. Before that, No.1 was campaigned throughout the 2004 season by New Zealander Scott Dixon for winning the title in 2003.

Why has it suddenly become cool not to run the No.1? My use of the word “honor” was not an accident. This will come dangerously close to showing my age, but prior to the new millennium – it was considered an honor to have the No.1 on the front of your car. It announced to everyone that you had won the championship the previous year. It was one of those few times that bragging was considered totally acceptable.

It may sound as if I’m a CART/Champ Car loyalist. I am not, but I realize that for two posts in a row, I’m writing about something that CART did right. For most of CART’s existence, the top-twelve drivers during the previous year were ranked and identified by the number they carried for the subsequent year. That’s why in 1991, Rick Mears won the Indianapolis 500 carrying the No.3. The following year, Al Unser, Jr. won carrying the same number. The lower your number was, meant that you had a better year the previous season.

I know the argument that the number is that team’s brand; but the drivers move around so much as well as sponsorship liveries, that it’s tough to really align a brand to a team. Other than Helio Castroneves carrying No.3 since 2000 (except for the 2001 Indianapolis 500) and Tony Kanaan using No.11 (except for the 2011 season) what driver really is closely identified by their number?

Before CART used car numbers to denote the previous year’s ranking, USAC did it for years. Then somewhere along the way, someone decided that NASCAR’s way was better by keeping the number with the team. Why, they even assign the No.1 to be given out. It’s currently property of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, since it was run by Dale Earnhardt Inc, before they merged with Ganassi. Prior to DEI carrying No.1, it was run by the non-powerhouse team of Precision Products Racing featuring forgettable drivers such as Rick Mast and Morgan Shepherd.

The No.1 became synonymous with Ferrari when Michael Schumacher was having his way in Formula One. As far as I know, there has never been a season in F1 when the defending champion didn’t carry the number – but I could be dead wrong as I’m only a casual observer of Formula One these days.

One twist to CART using the number for its champion was at the Indianapolis 500. Since the Indianapolis 500 was sanctioned by USAC and not CART, the defending 500 champion had first refusal for the right to carry the No.1 on their car throughout the month of May. More times than not, the 500 champ didn’t exercise the option to take the number away from the CART champion. One exception was 1991, when Al Unser, Jr. was the defending CART champion. Little Al was campaigning the ’91 season with the No.1 on his car. However, when the teams arrived at Indianapolis it was Arie Luyendyk that was carrying the then-coveted No.1 since he was the defending 500 champion. Little Al was given No.2, which was Michael Andretti’s normal number in 1991, since he had finished second in the 1990 CART championship. Michael was forced to use No.10 at Indianapolis – a number that was not being used during the 1991 CART regular season. Confused?

A lot of people will disagree with me on the champion changing his or her number to the No.1 for the season. Some people claim it is unlucky. It can’t be that unlucky – cars carrying No.1 have won the Indianapolis 500 seven times, just behind car No.3 (eleven) and car No.2 (eight). It would have won twice more had Dario Franchitti been carrying it as the defending champion in 2010 and 2012. Others will claim it hurts the driver’s brand to change numbers from one season to another. How can acknowledging you won the championship last year and telling the world that you are Number One hurt your brand?

I will throw out this qualifier where Ryan Hunter-Reay is concerned – RHR currently runs No.28 on his car to signify the twenty-eight million Americans who are living with cancer in conjunction with Racing For Cancer – the organization he co-founded in honor of his mother who passed away in 2009. That number may be of such significance to Hunter-Reay, that he may choose to stick with his current No. 28 – and that would be understandable.

It’s well known that I enjoy reliving the past – not only regarding the Indianapolis 500, but in other matters. Anytime you can give a nod to history and tradition, I consider it a good thing. Having the defending champion carry the No.1 on their car is such a nod. For decades, the defending champ ran the No.1 for the next season. Suddenly that stopped about ten years ago. Hopefully, Michael Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay have no objection to setting aside the No.28 for the 2013 season and will choose to honor history and tradition. In this case, if they choose not to – it’s understandable.

George Phillips

Please note:  I probably need my head examined based on what we’ve seen so far this season, but Susan and I will be attending tomorrow night’s Titans game against the Steelers. With that and a busier than normal schedule this week, I will not be able to put a post together for Friday. Therefore, there will be no post on Friday Oct 12 but I will return here on Monday Oct 15. I hope everyone has a nice weekend. – GP

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13 Responses to “Bring Back The Number “One””

  1. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    According to Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee on Trackside, today is your birthday. Happy Birthday, George!

  2. the champ should have 1 on the car.

  3. I like the sentiment of the use of 1, but I also do think the branding is important beyond one season. How about some sort of Champion’s designation that doesn’t involve the number. Some sort of overt visual cue on the car.

    Example – English Premier League champs have a gold colored version of the league logo on their unis. Perhaps something similar but more overt on the car. (Gold colored wheels, chromed league logo, or chromed numbers?) Something overt but not garish.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    My father’s choice motorsport is motocross/supercross, so growing up I was heavily exposed to dirtbike racing and the importance of the AMA’s #1 plate. Earning the #1 was the real trophy for winning the AMA and/or Supercross series, at least as far as the fans were concerned. I was appalled when Ricky Carmichael spurned it to stick with his #4 and while I gradually stopped rooting for him for many reasons, not taking the #1 was one of them.

    The AMA also used to shuffle the numbers every year based on the previous season’s point standings. I never cared for this with dirtbikes or Indycars, because there is something to be said for building a brand around or simply liking a certain number.

    The #1, however, is something drivers should be proud to earn. I don’t think they should be forced to run it, but they should appreciate its importance to the point where not running it becomes a very uncommon thing.

  5. What sponser wouldn’t want to glory of having their car sport the #1? You have a whole season to enjoy promoting it AND if you win it two years in a row then your brand is #1. #1 should be a welcoming addition to being a champion. Of course, that is my opinion, but YMMV.

  6. I don’t care. I also giggled at the people who went batcrap when Dario used #50 at the request of Target

  7. Brian from NY Says:

    I agree with you 100% George. I also would point out how the system that NASCAR uses compared to F1 hurts them in the long term. Sounds crazy, but it is part of the reason NASCAR has become stale to many fans the last couple of years.

    If you look at F1, the fans are motivated by team and nationality. The Germans like the German drivers, the Brazilians like the Brazilian drivers, etc, etc. The same goes with the teams. If your a Ferrari fan you root for whoever is driving for them at the time. You don’t stop rooting for them if another driver takes the seat. The same goes with McLaren or Red Bull or Williams. The individual driver is less important then his nationality or the team he drives for. The positive to this and IMO the reason F1 has always maintained the largest fan base in the world is that when a driver leaves a specific team their is no discernible drop in the fan base. So, when Schumi retired the first time, the fans didn’t stop rooting for Ferrari, they moved their affection to Kimi, and after Kimi to Alonso. The important factor is results. The positive to this is that drivers only keep their seats if they are getting results. This is why you see new drivers almost every year on the grid, and by doing that it keeps the sport fresh.

    Now lets look at NASCAR where the individual driver is the most important element to the fan base. Over the last ten years, the field in NASCAR with a few exceptions has become very stale. With most of the top drivers pushing closer to 40 or 50 like Martin, the fans are starting to get turned off by the lack of new blood on the grid. The teams are held hostage to the sponcers who have built their ad campaigns around individual drivers instead of teams. So, if a driver like Dale Jr doesn’t get the job done (like Massa at Ferrari) would he lose his job? Not a chance. Dale was horrible for three years with Hendricks, but because he is popular the thought of replacing him never crossed their minds. In those same three years a driver like David Reutimann won two races for a midpack team and he loses his ride because the sponcer wanted a different driver for their campaign. Heck, Danica is going to get a full time ride next year, not because of ability, but she sells product. How many more years will the same fifteen guys dominate NASCAR before the fans become turned off?

    When teams assign numbers to a driver, it makes it easy for the fans to follow a specific driver on the track. It also allows them to market that association of the number to the driver. Gordon is 24, Jimmie is 48, Senior was 3, etc, etc. This is good for the driver, but what happens when the driver retires? Do they lose all those fans that they have built around that specific driver? If Junior retires next year, would NASCAR lose a large chunk of fans? Of course they would and that’s why you will see the same drivers for another ten years until they need help getting in the car. When Micheal retires at the end of the year in F1 will fans stop watching. No, because the team and the drivers nationality trump any individual fan base.

    IndyCar is more like F1 with the diversity of nationality and that’s a good thing. The fans who follow American drivers have guys they can root for, the Brazils have their guys, etc, etc. This helps expand the fan base into other countries such as Brazil and England (who had better ratings then in the USA). By using the F1 number system it will also help promote teams that fans can get behind. Teams like Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, etc. Those teams aren’t going anywhere, but the driver might be.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I’d be a little more keen on agreeing with this if NASCAR did not have a such a good history of finding new stars to replace aging and retired ones.

  8. I am all or bothing on this topic. Keep your number every year unless the guy, gal, or team just wants a change, or every year give the drivers new numers based in there the car finished the year before (like F1). It is kind o lame just for 1 car to change its number.

    F1 has had years when they did not change numbers at all. There have also been years where the champion retires and his replacement runs #0 and the teammate #2.

  9. I’m with you on this one, George. Tradition over marketing. Anything where the sponsor drives the show is naturally irritating to me. I think if it became a tradition again as it was (it was really Hemelgarn and Panther that broke the tradition, and I’m not sure why) it would be more marketable than keeping the same number every year. Ganassi’s been winning most of the titles lately and Target is very familiar with the use of #1. Of course that was an era when Target was a more active sponsor than they are today with regular commercials with Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi…

    The only thing I disagree with is calling Morgan Shepherd forgettable. He was a solid second-tier driver in the Kyle Petty/Sterling Marlin/Ken Schrader/Bobby Hamilton vein and overachieved in lots of cars, even improving on what Dale Jarrett did in the #21 (by quite a bit, actually), and finishing 5th in the points in 1990 in the #15 when Geoff Bodine was like ten positions worse in ’92-’93. Rick Mast, even though I liked him, I’ll agree. Steve Park was by far and away the best of the NASCAR #1 drivers in recent years, or would have been had he not been hurt at exactly the wrong time as he was beginning to break out.

  10. I support the idea of using #1 for champion. I see it as an insult to the series not to use it.

    In F1 it is one of the top honours, so much so the defending champion has to run #1 by regulation. But the other numbers are largely irrelevant in F1, where you identify cars by livery and helmet design.
    It used to be that everyone kept the same number, except the new champion would exchange #1 (and his teammate #2) with the former champion (and his teammate). Hence why Ferrari and McLaren continually swapped the #1/#2 with the famous #27/#28 for so many years. That ended in the 90s and now the champion and his teammate take #1 and #2, the rest of the order decided by Constructors’ Championship positions, so nobody can build a long-term brand around a number (think Nigel Mansell Red 5). Pros and cons to that. I think I’d prefer it if they set the rest of the numbers like IndyCar or MotoGP.
    Of course the one thing F1 teams do wrong is run with tiny car numbers because if they were any bigger they’d take up valuable sponsorship space. I like that IndyCar has giant numbers usually on the rear wing endplates. Sponsors must know those are valuable.

    In MotoGP it is like IndyCar. Everyone runs their own personal number and the champion can elect or refuse to run the #1 next year. Rossi never took up the option, and his famous yellow 46 may not have passed into legend had he done so since he’d have run #1 year after year (back in his successful days), but he is very much an exception.

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