Ryan Briscoe – He’s No Robot
Earlier this week, I was going through some web sites trying to get a feel for the general opinion on the race at Texas. A surprising theme that caught my eye was how relieved people were that Ryan Briscoe didn’t win Saturday night. We all have drivers we pull for and, yes…pull against – that’s the joy in sports. But some of the comments I saw regarding Briscoe were either downright wrong, or I’ve missed something along the way. Instead of the terms that I would apply to him like nice guy, humble, championship contender — I saw words like robot, loser and idiot.
I’m always open to listen to both sides (well…not really), but I don’t see where this hatred of Briscoe comes from. I saw one exchange where a Briscoe defender asked why they were blasting him. The response indicated Briscoe wins too much. Let’s see…he has one win this year and had two last year; which DOES disqualify him from “loser” status, but hardly makes the point of him winning all the time. He finished fifth in points last year and is the current point leader for 2009, which DOES qualify him for championship contender.
America is usually a nation that loves comeback stories. Quite honestly, I think Ryan Briscoe’s story is nothing short of remarkable. His background consisted of the usual Karting championships and ladder series victories, beginning in his native country of Australia. He also served as a test-driver for Toyota in Formula One. In 2005, the Toyota connection led him to Target Chip Ganassi who had been running Toyota engines in CART and then the IRL since 2000.
There had been turmoil at Ganassi over the previous year. Scott Dixon followed up his 2003 IRL championship, with a dismal performance in 2004. The Toyota engine was completely outclassed by Honda for 2004, leaving the Toyota teams of Penske and Ganassi scratching their heads. Ganassi expanded to a three-car effort for 2005; signing Briscoe for the #33 Target Panoz, teaming him with Dixon and Darren Manning.
As it became obvious that Toyota had made few improvements to the power plant over the winter, the drivers were forced to try and make up for the lack of horsepower through their driving talents. That was a tall order for a 24 year-old rookie like Briscoe. His lack of experience came through race after race, as the rookie pushed too hard to try and get something out of the under-performing car.
Near the end of the season at Chicago, Briscoe had actually put his car on the pole. However, all three Ganassi cars failed post-qualifying inspection and had to start at the back. Again, trying to make up track position, Briscoe tangled with Alex Barron on lap 19. They touched wheels; Briscoe’s car went airborne and got snared in between the top of the SAFER barrier and the catch-fencing. The car broke apart; the driver’s tub going one way, and the engine the other. The fuel cell had ripped apart spraying methanol across the wreckage erupting in a giant fireball. He was seriously injured; sustaining a concussion, two broken collarbones and contusions to all four limbs. The fact that he survived at all is testament to the safety improvements in today’s cars.
In true Ganassi fashion — after months of recuperation, Briscoe was released from the team as they decided to scale back down to a two-car team. Still not fully recovered, Briscoe’s career hung in limbo for 2006. All he could find was some spot duty for Dreyer & Reinbold in the IRL and RuSport in Champ Car.
One of his 2006 Dreyer & Reinbold drives, was here in Nashville. He would wander about the paddock freely, completely unrecognized — with not one person seeking his autograph. I happened upon him in a chance meeting in the garage-area restroom before the race, where he and I were the only ones in there. While maintaining eye contact the whole time while we did our business, I asked him how he was feeling after his crashed. He was very polite, explained how he still hurt but said he was OK. Then as we (thankfully) washed our hands, he took time to talk to me about where I was from, what I thought about the track in Nashville, etc. He seemed humbled that anyone in Nashville, TN would recognize a rather obscure bloke from Australia.
His teetering career was thrown a lifeline in 2007. He was tabbed to drive for Roger Penske’s ALMS (American Le Mans Series) effort. Also for 2007, Roger’s youngest son, Jay Penske and Stephen Luczo had started a new IndyCar team named Luczo-Dragon Racing. The “Dragon” comes from one of Jay Penske’s many media companies, Dragon Books. Their fledgling team, which raced only at Indy for 2007, leased their equipment from Penske Racing, that first year. Ryan Briscoe was also their driver at Indy. He had a very solid month in a car very reminiscent of the Rick Mears Pennzoil cars of the 1980’s and finished an impressive fifth before the rains came.
When Sam Hornish decided to leave IndyCars for NASCAR, Ryan Briscoe seemed to be the logical choice to fill the seat in the #6 Team Penske car. His season got off to a rough start as he suffered three DNF’s (Did Not Finish) in his first five starts, many of them his own doing – including his aggressive exit on pit lane which supposedly took out Danica Patrick. This, of course, led to Danica’s well-publicized stomp toward Briscoe’s pit.
The outcry from the Danica worshipers was predictable and loud. They paid no attention to the fact that Danica had been struggling with a slow car all day and was never a threat to win the race. Nevertheless, the verbal attacks on Briscoe were brutal and relentless. The deathwatch had begun as to how long it would be before The Captain and Ryan Briscoe parted ways.
As winners normally do, Briscoe ignored the angst of Danica-mania and pressed on. The very next week, he won the race at Milwaukee and later won on the road course at Mid-Ohio. His season turned around after the pit lane foul at Indy and he finished fifth in points. He also won the non-points IndyCar race in Australia in October.
Remarkably, just months after everyone thought he was buried, he entered the 2009 campaign as one of the favorites for the championship. He has not disappointed. He won the opening tilt in St. Petersburg and has a fourth and two second place finishes so far to put him at the top of the points chase. Without some bad luck – especially at Indy where a bad set of tires dropped him from the lead, he could have even more success.
The native of Sidney always smiles, is always professional – yet contrary to what some fans think, is NOT robotic. He is the prototypical Penske driver. He made some driving mistakes in his past but has learned from them and minimized them – as ALL the great ones have done. Briscoe is humble, fan and sponsor friendly and presents a polished, if not colorful image for the league. If the term colorful means it’s OK to destroy a long, sought-after trophy in victory lane – then I’m willing to let the other racing series keep that. It’s one thing I’ll actually be glad to let them take credit for inventing. For my money, I’d rather pin the hopes of my series on personalities like Ryan Briscoe.