Some Drivers We May Never See Again
With the sudden influx of young talent that found its way into the IZOD IndyCar Series last week, the number of drivers on the outside looking in has increased dramatically. As drivers Charlie Kimball and J.R. Hildebrand secured their first full-time rides in the series, and James Hinchcliffe seemingly on the verge of landing a spot at Newman/Haas; a seat in the series has become more prized than ever. Fortunately, veteran Tony Kanaan has landed on his feet at de Ferran Dragon and rumors are putting former Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon in a fourth car at Andretti Autosport – but there seems to be a youth movement afoot in the series.
Such a movement is even more evident with a still very young Graham Rahal returning full-time, along with second-year driver Simona de Silvestro – who, according to Robin Miller, will have sufficient funding in 2011 from a new North American sponsor.
While this is all wonderful news for the future of the series, it makes for not such a Merry Christmas for a handful of drivers who may have seen their hopes of driving an IndyCar again, dashed for good. Here’s a list of former IndyCar drivers – some that barely got started and some hoping to recapture past glory – that we may never see climbing into an IndyCar cockpit ever again.
In no particular order…
Hideki Mutoh: While Mutoh was probably the best Japanese driver I’ve seen, with the exception of possibly Tora Takagi – that’s not saying a whole lot. When ‘king Hiro Matsushita is revered as a legend among his countrymen, that doesn’t speak well for his competition.
Hideki Mutoh actually seemed to be a stabilizing force among the soap opera that was Andretti-Green Racing in 2008 and 2009. It could be that he barely spoke English when he first joined the team. It might also be that he spoke English a lot better than he let on and just used it as a ploy to distance himself from the Danica/Marco playpen.
Whatever the case, he was not invited back in 2010. He toiled with an underfunded and misguided single-car effort at Newman/Hass and finished a disappointing eighteenth in points. Like almost all of his countrymen, Mutoh seems to have worn out his welcome in the series after three years. His name isn’t mentioned in even a whisper as a possibility for any open seats in 2011.
Jaime Camara: This is one of many sad endings for drivers coming out of what is now known as the Firestone Indy Lights Series. Although his career in what was then the Indy Pro Series was solid, he scored no wins and never finished higher than fifth in points. Still, the young Brazilian was considered a protégé of Tony Kanaan and great things were expected of him.
His one and only full-time ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series came in 2008, when he drove a second car from Conquest Racing. Granted, the Conquest budget is one of the lowest in the paddock – but Camara did his resume no favors by being involved in so many single car accidents. He did not return in 2009 and has quickly dropped out of sight.
Rafa Matos: I will catch heat for this pick, but I see nothing on the horizon for him this year and he is supposedly seeking a ride in a racing series based in his home country of Brazil. Like Camara, Matos showed great potential in Atlantics and Firestone Indy Lights. Whether his team was the problem is up for debate. Luczo-Dragon Racing did pretty well with Ryan Briscoe in their one appearance in 2007 – a fifth at Indianapolis. When Tomas Scheckter wasn’t breaking half-shafts, he showed a good deal of speed for them in a handful of races in 2008. When Matos joined the team for 2009, most knew the learning curve would be steep for the rookie. When Gil de Ferran bought into the team prior to the 2010 season, many thought it would provide the spark that the talented Brazilian needed. It just didn’t happen.
Matos showed no ability to drive the bigger cars at a competitive level. He also provided nothing on the marketing front. A surly driver in need of a shave and decent results is not a sponsors dream. Depending on how well Tony Kanaan does with this team in 2011, we may be saying that Matos either squandered his one chance or that he was an innocent victim of a bad team.
Richard Antinucci: Who knows if being the nephew of Eddie Cheever was a help or a hindrance? Whatever the case, it also didn’t help that he was driving for the woefully inept Team 3G for a few races in 2009. This could be a case study in the question if it is better for a young driver’s career to take any ride just to get some seat time. They say “experience is everything”, but I wonder if Antinucci did himself a huge disservice by accepting the 3G ride. We haven’t heard from him since.
Mario Romancini: (See Richard Antinucci)
Sebastian Saavedra: I was already proven wrong on this one in the last race of the season. Saavedra drove in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 for Bryan Herta Autosport as a fresh-faced rookie. He had the distinction of crashing his qualified car and being bumped, only to find himself back in the race while sitting in the infield care center after Paul Tracy and Jay Howard both withdrew their times and failed to bump themselves back in. He showed well in the race before crashing on lap 159 and finishing twenty-third.
This past September, Saavedra committed what I thought was career suicide, when he quit Bryan Herta Autosport in the middle of an Indy Lights race weekend. In the process, he trashed his former team and made himself look like trash in the process. I thought no owner would ever look his way again based on his actions that weekend. Eric Bachelart proved me wrong when he signed him to drive the second car for Conquest Racing in the last race of the season. I’ve heard no mention of his name for next season.
Buddy Rice: This comes as no surprise. Buddy Rice hasn’t driven an IndyCar since the 2008 season. The winner of the 2004 Indianapolis 500 is never even given a thought by team owners these days. Yes, Buddy can drive. But there’s more to driving an IndyCar these days than holding your right foot down and turning left. You’ve got to have a likeable personality and have the ability to schmooze the sponsors. Buddy has neither.
Sam Hornish: Some may strongly disagree with me on this one. Many believe that Sam will be driving for Roger Penske in the 2011 Indianapolis 500. I don’t. I believe that to be a lot of wishful thinking that their American hero will come back.
I have mixed emotions on it. I’ve made it no secret that I have never been a Hornish fan. But the guy has a strong fan base here in the IZOD IndyCar Series. That attraction didn’t follow him over to NASCAR. I’m not sure that Sam would be popular over there even if he was winning.
One part of me thinks it would be good for the series and the Indianapolis 500 for Hornish to return to IndyCars. Then there’s another side that says Sam had this series in the palm of his hand and he threw it away. He was worshiped by many here and kicked the series that made him to the side. When he was here, he claimed to idolize Rick Mears. Had he stayed, he could have threatened the record four Indy 500 wins of Mears, Unser and Foyt, before his career was over. Instead, he essentially said he was bored with winning here and wanted to try NASCAR.
If he ever wanted to come back, I’m sure Roger Penske would give him a winning car. But I don’t think he wants to. Unlike the others on this list and the many more that I didn’t mention – I think Hornish will choose to stay out of an IndyCar.
As mentioned, there are many more to add to this list. Probably at least one of these drivers will prove me wrong – possibly as early as this May. But with all of the young talent that is finally getting a well-deserved break in the series, it will be tougher than ever for some of these other drivers to get a second chance.