Which Driver Will Become "That Guy"?
For the past several decades, there has always been that one driver that all other drivers hated to see approaching in their rearview mirror. In the fifties, it was Bill Vukovich. In the sixties and seventies, it was AJ Foyt and Bobby Unser respectively. I’m not real sure who that driver was in the eighties. Rick Mears won two Indy 500’s and three CART championships, and he is one of my all-time favorites – but I’m not sure that Rick was totally intimidating. He was known more as a quiet and calculating driver that patiently waited for the perfect time to make his move, rather than a hard charger. Bobby Rahal probably came closest to that driver as anyone in the eighties, yet he was hardly considered an imposing figure. The driver who was that imposing and intimidating driver in the nineties was undoubtedly Michael Andretti.
But who was THAT driver of the decade we just emerged from? The closest driver I can come up with, is no longer in the series – Sam Hornish, Jr. Sam demonstrated his ability to close a gap on the last lap of the 2006 Indianapolis 500; ironically against Michael Andretti’s son Marco.
So as we head into 2010, who is that one driver that has that innate ability to strike from practically anywhere on the grid? I’m not sure there is a clear answer to the question, nor am I sure why that is. It would be easy to say that everyone has been neutralized by the fact that all drivers have the same equipment. If that were the case however, how would you explain Hornish’s ability to reel in the field in the closing laps at Indy in 2006? Everyone had the same equipment then, as well.
Although Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon drive their cars differently, they both manage a race about the same way. They are both very methodical in their driving process and both tend to drive with their head more so than their right foot. Between the two of them, I’d give the nod to Dixon. The other championship contender for 2009, Ryan Briscoe, falls more into the Rick Mears category in his approach. However, his performance in the season finale at Homestead certainly opened my eyes. He drove more like Hornish on that day than any other driver I’ve seen lately. He was the only driver that day willing to pass on the outside on a regular basis.
Helio Castroneves has at times been "that guy", but has been too inconsistent to be considered a threat to win each week no matter where he starts. Tomas Scheckter has the ability to be "that guy", but he strikes more fear in the minds of his own team as they think about the repair job in the week ahead.
In the early nineties, Michael Andretti completely dominated the field on practically every track. He was a little hard on his equipment (he came by that naturally), but if he was able to bring it home – he was usually on the podium. He later proved his talent in a different manner by giving an unproven and untested Reynard chassis their only two wins in 1994; and then managed to drag an uncompetitive Swift chassis to victory lane a couple of times in the late nineties. I would suspect that if he were in a fairly competitive car, Michael could still give it a run for all it was worth.
And that’s the key…what driver can take an average car and still be a threat to win? Scott Dixon certainly sank into obscurity with an uncompetitive Toyota engine in 2004 and 2005. He won one race in that two-year period while Helio and Hornish combined for five wins in the same period also driving with Toyota power. Danica Patrick certainly doesn’t fit the mold. She is an above average driver if the car is right. If the car setup is off, you can forget it.
There was a time when I thought that Tony Kanaan was "that guy". He may still be, but his car setup may have been so far off this past year that no one on the planet could’ve done anything with it. This past year with Kanaan proved how vital the role of an engineer is, especially when all cars are the same. When longtime engineer Eric Cowdin left Kanaan at the end of 2008 and moved over to the car of Ryan Briscoe – the results spoke for themselves. Yes, you still need a great driver to get the most out of a setup; but the best drivers today can do nothing if the engineers missed the setup.
I think Marco Andretti would like to be considered "that guy" – but so far, he has been striking fear in the eyes of his competitors for the wrong reasons. Two younger drivers showed glimpses of being that guy in 2009, especially in the second half of the season – Mario Moraes and Rafa Matos. With more seasoning and the chance to earn more respect from their fellow drivers, they could become "that guy" for this new decade – but they’re not there yet.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson have also shown flashes of brilliance, yet they all have shown too many chinks in their armor to be considered a driver who was to be feared.
So who is it? Who is a current driver in the Izod IndyCar Series that causes drivers to utter “Oh, no” when that driver suddenly fills the rearview mirror? I’m not trying to build suspense until I reveal the magic answer at the end of this article. I’m struggling for an answer.
If I HAD to come up with an answer, I can’t even be definitive there because I think it’s a tie between Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves. But I hesitate on both of them. Whether or not the driver that will carry the label "that guy" for this new decade is even in the series yet is debatable, but one thing is certain. That driver needs to step up fast.
It is “that guy” that people will pay to watch. That driver is worth the price of a ticket. "That guy" is what will make viewers want to find Versus (unless they have DirecTV) and stay tuned to watch him/her do their thing.
I really like many of the drivers in today’s Izod IndyCar Series, but none of them really stand out for their driving ability. In the mainstream media, Helio is best known for his dancing escapades. Dario is known as Ashley’s husband. Marco is known for being Mario’s grandson. Danica is known for being Danica – and that doesn’t mean great driving. The last IndyCar driver that made people want to tune in, is now known for being involved in the most NASCAR crashes over a two year period – Sam Hornish, Jr.
While many will argue that the IICS needs someone like Paul Tracy to bring some personality to the series, I think what is needed most is a driver who can stand out for his or her driving ability, no matter what level of team they drive for. After all, driving is what racers should really be known for.