When A Rivalry Isn’t A Rivalry

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When Graham Rahal drove in his first race in the IndyCar Series at St. Petersburg in 2008, he came away with a win. It was not a fluke win either. In the latter stages, he not only held off veteran Helio Castroneves; he was actually pulling away from him – in a pouring rainstorm, no less.

Many, myself included, were convinced that we were witnessing the arrival of the next great American open-wheel driver. Here was a young, good-looking articulate driver with a well-known name that could drive the wheels off of a car. We all told ourselves that this kid had star-power written all over him.

Much of the same was said two years earlier, when Marco Andretti came onto the scene. He came within a few car-lengths of becoming the youngest winner of the Indianapolis 500. He was leading a charging Sam Hornish coming out of the fourth turn on the final lap. Although, he gave up the lead at the line – Marco was praised for displaying a maturity in not blocking Horninsh and causing them both to crash. Like Rahal, Marco Andretti was suddenly anointed the task of pulling the series out of its doldrums by being a young and brash American with a household last name.

Rahal’s driving suit had not completely dried out from his victory celebration in the rain, before fans, the media and series officials alike created an artificial rivalry between the two young drivers, who came from famous racing families. The problem was, there really wasn’t a rivalry.

Graham’s father, Bobby Rahal, had a rivalry with Marco’s father, Michael Andretti. Michael beat Bobby for the 1991 CART title, before Bobby returned the favor in 1992. In Rahal’s other two championship seasons of 1986 and 1987, Michael finished as the runner-up. That’s four seasons over a seven-year stretch that one of those two won the championship, while the other finished second. That’s a rivalry.

Michael Andretti endured the curse of living in the shadows of a famous father. The same went for Al Unser, Jr. Little Al won the championship in 1990 and 1994, while winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1992 and 1994. They both had very successful careers in their own right, and escaped the very large shadows cast by their respective fathers to carve out their own reputation. They both had some spirited on-track battles against each other, but also seemed to have deep respect for one another, probably because they both understood what self-inflicted pressures the other was dealing with. That’s a rivalry.

Michael’s father and Marco’s grandfather, Mario Andretti, is arguably the most famous household name in racing. Not only was he a multiple Indy car champion (USAC), he won the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and the Formula One championship. His nemesis at the time was another who could lay claim to the most famous household name in racing – AJ Foyt. Foyt won seven Indy car titles, four Indianapolis 500’s, the Daytona 500 and the twenty-four hours of Le Mans. Probably the most heated debate to this day is; who was the greatest of all time – AJ or Mario? The greatest thing about watching the two of them go at it in their prime was that they genuinely disliked each other. I always found it interesting that Mario’s nephew, John Andretti, was AJ Foyt’s Godson, because AJ and Mario still don’t seem to care for one another. That’s a rivalry.

Other than some avoidable contact at Long Beach a couple of years ago that both may have been to blame for, there has not been as much as a skirmish between Graham and Marco. There has also not been a lot of success between them either. Andretti is entering his ninth season in IndyCar, while Rahal is entering his seventh. Between the two of them, there are only three wins. Graham’s lone victory was in his debut at St. Petersburg in 2008. Marco won in his rookie season in 2006 at Sonoma. His second and last win to date came five years later at Iowa in 2011. That’s not a rivalry.

Several components can help make up a rivalry; mutual dislike, mutual respect and going after the same goal can all go into the making of a rivalry. However, most rivalries that I’m aware of share one common theme – success. Opponents can thoroughly despise each other, but without shared success – there is no rivalry.

One of the biggest football rivalries in the SEC in recent years was Tennessee-Florida. When they would meet early in the season, both were usually in the Top-Five in the nation. Lately, Tennessee has fallen on hard times and the game has lost its luster. Now that Florida is coming off of its own rocky season, you now have two teams just struggling to find their way. There is no glamour in winning a game no one cares about.

In the late eighties and early nineties, it was intriguing to watch Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti battle it out race after race. The same thing applied to seeing Micahel Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. Why? Because they were successful, year in and year out. Although they were evenly matched, watching Didier Theys and Ted Prappas going at it did not hold the audience captive. Mediocrity does not make for a compelling rivalry.

Since Graham Rahal burst onto the scene with his 2008 victory, everyone has been trying to nurture a rivalry between Rahal and Andretti that simply isn’t there. The current Rahal and Andretti don’t really seem to be best friends, but they don’t seem to have any real dislike towards one another. They seem more amused by the whole rivalry thing, which tells you there is no rivalry.

I’m all for having rivalries along with good guys and villains. That type of thing is good for the sport. But the sport needs one that develops naturally over the course of time. Manufacturing a rivalry that’s not really there just because it incorporates a couple of names from the past comes across as contrived and almost desperate.

If there are a few incidents between them that occur this season that affect the championship and it leads to an intense dislike between the two camps – so be it. You’ll have your rivalry. If not, let’s move on. There are more important matters facing this series than trying to create something that just isn’t there.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “When A Rivalry Isn’t A Rivalry”

  1. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    Dramatic tension is always a good thing when it comes to sports. It fosters an emotional attachment and more intense interest of the viewer. It also is not something that is manufactured, it is born out of genuine circumstance and events.

    About the only dramatic tension that immediately comes to mind in recent Indycar history is whether or not Kanaan would break his string of misfortune and win Indy (he finally did) and whether Penske or Ganassi (or sometimes Andretti) would win the championship each year. Both great storylines and both born of genuine circumstance, not manufactured.

    By legislating the vehicles into the blandtastic oblivion of homologation, which I’ve always contended is a monumental error in judgment, they can never have the opportunity to become that extra variable, to also become one of the ‘stars’ or ‘heels’.

    I will contend until that day comes, neither can the drivers.

    • Those are some good points. If the “blandtastic oblivion of homologation” is the root cause of the current disinterest fans have of IndyCar, it seems insane that the powers that be, the big wigs, didn’t try to open up the rules or do something more. I’m not talking about 2015, or 2016, I mean right now. I don’t like to compare Indy cars to F1 but, I might add since F1 hit the track this year, the season has already been interesting and they have not even had turned a wheel in a race yet. Its all technology struggles at the moment. Teams are extremely challenged to come up with something reliable and fast in this new, vast frontier of hybrid power and the sweeping new rule changes that accompany it. It appears as if there may be a changing of the guard already. The technology challenges, to me is what makes F1 so interesting. It ads another element than just driver personality and talent. IndyCar has that whole technical element missing forcing fans to focus on solely the drivers and the series has no money to promote the drivers so it is almost up to the fans themselves to generate their own interest alone. We all know all the cars are going to finish in IndyCar. Those v-6’s are dialed down so much there is no question if they will blow up or not now that Lotus is gone. That unknown, pushing the technical element is non existent. Its too bad.

      I have followed GR and MA since they were rookies and not only is there no gas between them as rivals, their careers this far have been disappointing. Especially true with Marco. I was actually shocked to read that Marco has been in the series 8 years. It does not seem that long but also how rarely he is in the headlines. That is astonishing to me. Considering how fiercely competitive his Dad was and the resources Marco has. Graham has disappointed me as well. I really liked him especially in the ChampCar days and just coming into IndyCar. Since then he has turned into kind of a jerk.

      So I will agree, there is no rivalry.

  2. Any Graham/Marco rivalry is about as natural as a plastic flower: People may think the idea will work, but the execution leaves everything to be desired.

    Really, though, beyond Robin Miller, I don’t know who was pushing a supposed Graham/Marco rivalry. But it doesn’t matter; the fact that even just Miller was pushing for one bordered on bad. Even though he’s far more an opinion pundit than journalist and is expected to delve into more than just straight news, topics to be covered or opined on should flow naturally from what’s being covered. No journalist or pundit should try to force the creation of a topic.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    American open-wheel’s last substantial rivalry was probably Tracy-Bourdais, which wound up being driven by a mutual dislike more than competition and shared success by the end of it. Still, Tracy’s wrestling mask in Montreal is a rivalry moment that Indycar has not come close to matching since. I do think Allmendinger-Bourdais would have been a good rivalry had NASCAR and the death throes of Champcar not intervened.

    Power-Dixon got interesting last year, perhaps it will heat up again. As long as Indycar races in Toronto (much less twice), there will be opportunities to build rivalries on anger, if nothing else.

    • I was at the Denver Grand Prix when Paul Tracy made that highly risky, improbable pass on Bordais in the last dive bomb turn before the start finish finish that took both of them out. They both jumped out of their cars and everyone in the crowd seemed to want them to fight. Bordais shoved Tracy and it was over before it really began but the crowd went nuts. That was a really memorable race.

  4. Their incident at Long Beach in 2012 and the events off the track after that may have put a little fuel on the potential rivalry, but to be honest, it’s not a rivalry right now. Rivalries are made when two successful individuals/teams are always competing for the number 1 spot (Lakers/Celtics, Magic/Bird, LeBron James/Kevin Durant, Senna/Prost, Manning/Brady, etc). Until they both start winning, and on a regular basis, it won’t be one.

  5. Dixon-Helio; Power-Dario. It will be interesting to see what Montoya brings to the table.

  6. How about DP and Milka Duno?

  7. Ryan Johnson Says:

    Power vs Ganassi has been intense since 2010. Another good rivalry is Helio against himself in the latter part of so many seasons of his career. Since I’m posting right now I’d like to take a moment and remind all of us of this very off topic fact… Two years ago it started to dawn on me just how special Dixon was in the car… When we really analyze his career and the stats that go with it and the fact he’s done so much of it with fields that are as competitive as they can be he really is one of the best to ever grace this sport… Hopefully he has another five seasons or so before he hangs it up but we should certainly continue to enjoy watching him… Btw Dixon vs Power will probably be the next/biggest/best rivalry the series will have.

  8. Ryan Johnson Says:

    One other thing… Fast forward five years and we’re bout to start the 2019 season… We’ll probably be minus HCN, TK, Dixon (retired) and Will Power is nearing the end of his career. My question is this: Who is going to be the driver that reigns supreme and becomes the title contender annually? I could see there be some many good drivers, but not legendary racers, that we have the most unpredictable outcomes each and every race and championship. There could be your rivalries… While very hypothetical it’s certainly realistic to me

    • dzgroundedeffects Says:

      Agreed. There is a current generation that might all see retirement at nearly the same time, leaving another lengendary vacuum not seen perhaps since the ‘greatest generation’ of drivers that retired between May of 1992 through May of 1994 (see my blogpost for details of those retirements:
      http://groundedeffects.blogspot.com/2011/10/missing-character.html).

      Apparently little will change with the cars (according to ‘plan’ set forth by Miles and Walker through 2016), so any chance for racing drama that comes from the mechanical side will not exist for another 3 full seasons. I don’t count aerokits as any substantial addition to real racing drama, so perhaps the current legends will be mostly gone before the next opportunity for genuine change with the cars will occur, which seems a shame. What a waste of a great talent field that exists today.

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