Who Is IndyCar’s Villain?

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Everyone within the IndyCar fan base is still buzzing about Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and rightfully so. It was a very entertaining race with an extremely popular first-time winner in James Hinchcliffe. Things are certainly looking up as far as the on-track product goes with the IZOD IndyCar Series. Now, if only someone will actually watch the races outside of the hardcore fans that tune in to every race anyway.

As entertaining and fulfilling as Sunday’s race was, there was one key ingredient missing that will be vital to the growth and ultimate success of the series – a villain.

In his prime, Paul Tracy was about as close as IndyCar racing has come to having a true villain in the past couple of decades. For the past few seasons before he retired however, he was never a significant factor in many races and his bark seemed rather harmless.

Many IndyCar fans (me included) view NASCAR as a dysfunctional sideshow that happens to also feature racing. The post-race drama works for them, but to me – all of their histrionics have the appeal of an episode of Honey Boo-Boo. I much prefer the clean racing and classy victory lane that we witnessed in the IndyCar race over the feud between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano or the post-race fisticuffs between Tony Stewart and Mr. Logano.

However, one thing NASCAR always has plenty of that IndyCar seems to always lack, is a bona fide villain. For years, NASCAR had the ultimate villain in Dale Earnhardt. He was known as The Intimidator or The Man In Black. The man had seven NASCAR Cup titles to demonstrate how good he was on the track. He had legions of loyal and dedicated fans, but there were just as many that despised him and booed him every chance they got. In the early nineties, there was no better (and more bitter) rivalry in all of sports than the one between Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

When I was growing up in the sixties, the rivalry that topped them all was between AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti. The two men really didn’t like each other, and I think that still carries over to this day. Consequently, fans of either one of them hated the other. I was a Foyt fan, which meant I pulled against Mario while growing up. As an adult, I’ve certainly grown to appreciate everything that Mario and the Andretti family have meant to this sport – but it’s hard to outgrow your youth. I’m still a big Foyt fan to this day.

The Foyt-Andretti rivalry meant a lot to this sport. It led to lifelong and loyal fans. I’ll admit that when Mario would slow on the backstretch, I cheered – even if Foyt was already out of contention. Why? Because you cheer against the opposition. That’s the nature of competition. Nowadays, we all applaud when anything good happens to anyone on the track, even if it adversely affects the driver we’re pulling for. It’s very politically correct, but inherently wrong in a competitive environment.

Don’t get me wrong – when I say cheer against the opposition, I mean maybe they have a bad break go their way like a botched pit stop or getting caught out by the yellow. In no way am I advocating wanting to see any driver crash. But to have a break go against a driver to help the driver I’m pulling for – I see nothing wrong with that.

The Foyt-Andretti rivalry was strong until the eighties, when Foyt quit winning and Mario was still going strong. Foyt’s last win came in 1981 at Pocono at the age of forty-six. Mario’s last win came in 1993 at Phoenix at the age of fifty-three, which seems unfathomable by today’s youth standards. Nothing in IndyCar has matched the intensity of the Foyt-Andretti rivalry, but there have been a lot of villains over the years.

Although he didn’t want to be, Kevin Cogan became an instant villain to many by taking out Andretti and Foyt at the start of the 1982 Indianapolis 500. Foyt would be able to repair his car before the re-start but Mario’s day was done. Emerson Fittipaldi was a villain to many who are still convinced to this day that he purposely took out Al Unser, Jr. on Lap 198 of the 1989 Indianapolis 500. For those that didn’t convict Fittipaldi in 1989, his other Indianapolis win was even more damaging to his reputation.

After winning the 1993 Indianapolis 500, Fittipaldi initially refused to drink milk in victory lane – instead opting for orange juice from groves that he owned. Amidst the chorus of boos and the milk bottle being thrust in his face repeatedly by the representative from the milk producers, Fittipaldi posed with orange juice. It wasn’t until his car owner Roger Penske said dryly “Drink the milk”, that Fittipaldi had a swig of the fabled milk. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a driver’s reputation change so dramatically. By the time 1994 rolled around, he was considered Public Enemy #1 at Indianapolis. When Fittipaldi crashed out while leading and dominating the 1994 race with sixteen laps to go – I’m not sure I’ve heard a bigger cheer spread through the Speedway.

Fittipaldi had become a true villain. He was someone that fans could rally around to hate. Unfortunately as fate would have it, he never raced at Indianapolis again and midway through the 1996 CART season – his career was over, following a crash at Michigan.

Today’s IZOD IndyCar Series has too many likeable drivers and none that are polarizing. As crazy as it sounds, we need polarizing figures. Since his start with Carl Hogan in 1997, I was a big fan of Dario Franchitti. Through the next ten years, I saw his career progress to the point that he won the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and that year’s championship. At the time, he was one of my favorite drivers. When he came back from his 2008 attempt at NASCAR, he was wearing long, greasy hair and the colors of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. He won easily and often. He had more of a sense of arrogance about him and we seemed to see a lot more of his wife, who was certainly a polarizing figure. I was no longer a fan, but still didn’t quite understand the boos he received after winning last year’s Indianapolis 500. It certainly appeared he had reached villain status. But after a sub-par season last year, a pending divorce and a horrible start to this season – Franchitti is now almost a sympathetic figure. It’s hard to label someone a villain when you actually have pity for them.

Scott Dixon wins a lot, but he is too nice to call him a villain. I personally don’t care for Sebastian Saavedra or EJ Viso but a lot of people do, so they can’t be cast in the villain role. After Marco Andretti forced Simona de Silvestro into a mistake with two laps to go in Sunday’s race, many fans were ready to call him a villain – but in all honesty, he was racing the way he should have and was very humble and gracious about it in post-race interviews.

So who are the villains? Based on the overwhelming response to his first win on Sunday, it certainly isn’t James Hinchcliffe. He’s way too popular to be a villain. The same goes for his teammate and defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. He’s worked too hard and is too likeable to be a villain.

Are the Penske boys villains? Although I’m a big fan of The Captain’s organization, I know a lot of people feel they win too much and have too much money at their disposal. Personally, I feel that’s a result of their working harder. Besides, when a team has won only one championship since entering the series in 2002 – I don’t consider that winning too much. Will Power does well in non-oval qualifying, but suffers a lot of bad luck in races. He also has a unique personality that is refreshing in this world of sponsor-speak. So it’s hard to make him a villain. Helio Castroneves is very likeable and personable. Some think he blocks a little too much, but does that make him a villain?

Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson, Simona de Silvestro, Simon Pagenaud are all excellent drivers, but are all way too nice to be remotely considered villains. JR Hildebrand made a bad mistake on Sunday, but he is certainly no villain. He is too nice a guy to boo. So who is IndyCar’s villain?

I really don’t have the answer, but I think IndyCar desperately needs one. The powers-that-be can’t sit behind the curtain and decide that “Driver X” needs to become a villain. That’s way too contrived. It needs to be natural and spontaneous. As contrived as NASCAR has become, I don’t think they sat around in the mid-eighties and decided to make a villain out of Dale Earnhardt. It just happened. Will it happen in the near future to stir more interest in the IZOD IndyCar Series? I certainly hope so. They need it.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Who Is IndyCar’s Villain?”

  1. the american mutt Says:

    Marty Reid?

  2. We are starting to get some personality with Hinch and RHR to add to the series, so I am not sure that INDYCAR needs a villian. These guys look like they will be a blast. However, Will Power seems to be on the edge at times and could likely explode. ;)

  3. Personally, I adopted Dario Franchitti as a villain, but since he and Ms. Judd went their spearate ways, I guess I need to find another. Also, I too lived through trhe Foyt-Andretti rivalry, but both were consumate professionals on the track. They may have had their tussles on dirt, but I can’t recall either one doing anything untoward in the Champ cars.

  4. I’m with skip. I was a Dario fan before he left for NASCAR, but the combination of his success and whining since his return to Ganassi has put him into the role. Can’t say I get real upset when he wins, the way I used to as a kid when one of the Allison Bros. won in NASCAR, or one of the Unsers in Indy, but you work with what you’ve got.

    As for the post race fisticuffs, I’m glad Indycar seems to be above such WWF type spectacle. If I wanted that I’d watch NASCAR or Cage Fighting.

  5. For me, Graham Rahal has all the makings of a proper villain. It’s hard to write that, because I used to like him, but too much mouthiness on Twitter in which he starts a crap storm then gets all butthurt when it backfires while producing too few results on track to back it up have changed my opinion of him. Unfortunately, I don’t believe daddy will tolerate that crap the way others did, so I guess we’ll have to keep looking.

  6. Jim Gray Says:

    Just like w/ NASCAR in todays world I think villain is a personal thing. For every driver you like to see have a pit issue or mechanical problem, there are 5 others who are upset their driver got hosed. I am okay w/ that. It just shows that many different personalities bring many different types of fans to the sport. Personally I have always been an underdog fan, small (but well run) teams get my vote each week, and of course Pippa Mann is a favorite even though she isn’t in a car right now. Simona’s driving well and hopefully is reopening doors that seem to have pinched back on female drivers.

  7. We actually had this discussion this past weekend. We realized that as much as we very much like some Nascar drivers and despise others, there is really no one now in Indy are that we particularly like or do not like. Thought it was probably not a good thing. I just do not think Indy car drivers connect with the average fan. Perhaps its part of the problem of too many foreign drivers.

    I have always despised Danika but she has left for “greener” pastures. Disliked Derwood Francheati for years but since he dumped his wacko leftist wife I have a little more respect for him.

    But you are right in that any Penski driver is a villian. Castroneves is disliked by some but he is kind of hard to stay mad at. However, its definitely another reason everyone hates Joey Logano this week in Nascar. .

    Indy did used to have those issues.

    And yes, something is wrong. Mario’s slowing down. HAHAHAHAHA!!!

    • billytheskink Says:

      Then AJ Foyt’s new car started smoking,
      so he decided to pit.
      10 minutes later, he spoke on the airwaves,
      calling his dead car a big tub of ****,
      ’cause it quit…

      As his team pushed his car into Gasoline Alley,
      AJ was throwing his usual fit.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    Leave the villain business to NASCAR or Washington DC.
    I don’t think we need to court the Honey Boo Boo crowd.

  9. Nascar’s “boy’s, have at it” policy is giving the fan base, casual viewers and Sportscenter anchors what they want–wrecks and fights–and is also creating massive publicity for the series. But I wonder at what cost ultimately.

    Competition on the track will naturally bring about rivalries and give Indycar fans someone to cheer for–and against–without resorting to the cheapness and manipulations of pro wrestling or reality show melodrama.

  10. There are two types of villains in Indycar, although I agree we need a true villain.

    Firstly you have the Ganassi, Dixon, Dario group. They aren’t very exciting or personable drivers, the team owner is an asshole, and they win a lot. Does anyone really like seeing them up front? At least Power and Helio stir some emotion out of people.

    The other villains in Indycar are some of the ride buyers, RE: Saadavra, Viso, and Jakes. Not a lot of talent, and in Saadavra’s example he’s stole a ride and has a history of leaving Herta in the middle of the night.

  11. Tony George is IndyCar’s villain.

    Being a Ganassi fan, I view Penske guys as villains.

    Get Bourdais in a red car and he easily becomes IndyCar’s villain.

  12. I agree with you George that it would probably be better for viewership if there were an IndyCar villain, but I love it the way it is now. Although I pull for some drivers more than others, I can watch an IndyCar race and be happy with the results no matter who wins. That is one of the things I love about this sport as opposed to others that I follow. When my Atlanta Falcons and Georgia Bulldogs lose I’m pissed and miserable for at least a week and those playoff and championship game losses stay with you for a lifetime. I’m really excited about going to Barber in a couple of weeks knowing that as long as the race is a safe one I will come home at least reasonably happy.

  13. Matt Borger (Dayton, OH) Says:

    To me there is a difference between drivers I don’t like and drivers who I consider villains. There are drivers I don’t like (maybe “don’t root for” is a better way to put it) – RHR and Dario for example, but neither one is a villain in my mind. And Paul Tracy, who was definitely a villain in his prime, was (is) one of my all-time favorites. I agree that there are no villains right now, but there are plenty of drivers that could qualify as not likable, depending on your tastes.

  14. billytheskink Says:

    I’m not sure Indycar needs a universal villian, a heel, so much as it needs competing heroes with larger followings. That’s really what Andretti and Foyt were, Andretti wasn’t a villian to Foyt fans because he was unlikable so much as he was a villian because he was usually the biggest threat to a Foyt victory.

    Obviously, a clear-cut villian can help fans find a hero, but it is not a requirement. If we start seeing more fans who cheer for specific drivers, they’ll find their villians soon enough.

  15. I don’t know that IndyCar needs a villian driver, but one will naturally come over time. I think Power, Visio, Savedra all have the chance to become one for different reasons. Personally my biggest villians at the moment are all owners. Number 1 is Jay Penske. I was never a Roger Penske fan (though I do respect him), but Jay’s antics last year and his handling of the Legge situation puts him orders of magnitude above the rest. I have nothing against either driver, but I wasn’t a fan of either driver anyway so easy to root against them now.

    Ganassi is probably a close second cause he’s just an ass. I too used to be a Dario fan, then became a Dario hater (partially due to his wife.) Now that she’s gone, I’m back to he’s ok — just hard to be happy when he wins cause Chip is happy.

    I also don’t particularly care for Becky Gorden due to long standing dislike of her brother and she can be a little whiny for my taste, but dang it, its just hard not to like RHR.

  16. Yannick Says:

    After making a sympathy analysis, the Dragon, Jay Penske and his driver Sebastian Saavedra and their combined antics as the only remaining candidates for villains on the grid. Off of the grid, it would certainly be Brian Barnhart, but after going green in the rain at Loudon a few years back, he luckily was out.

    Actually, I think it’s nice there are next to no villains in the sport. I prefer to focus on the teams and drivers I root for, not those I could care less about. And that list is long.

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