Learn The Driver’s Names
With all the talk of Dreyer & Reinbold and Bryan Herta Autosport in the midst of a mid-season manufacturer swap, and Chevrolet teams protesting Honda’s change of turbochargers – most of the blogosphere is full of opinions and rants on these subjects. These are timely subjects, but I have an itch from last week that I need to scratch first.
Three different times last week, I saw references that the main problem for the IZOD IndyCar Series is that they have a bunch of drivers that no one has ever heard of. I saw this once on Twitter, once in the comment section of another IndyCar blog as well as a comment on this site.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – If you haven’t ever heard of the drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series, it’s because you never took the time to follow the series. I may not be able to name more than ten NBA players. Is it the NBA’s fault? No. It’s my fault because I’m not interested in the NBA.
To blame any problems of the league on the anonymity of the drivers is the lazy way out. Most people would use the phrase “cop-out”, but I despise that saying so I’ll say lazy. To me, it’s code-speak for complaining about foreign drivers without looking like you’re an anti-foreignite. It’s the age-old way of thinking ”…if I can’t pronounce their name, we don’t need ‘em”.
This has been one of my many hot buttons for years. I’m all about preserving the legacy and history of the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar, but thinking our brand of racing is the exclusive domain of American drivers is not the way to do it. In fact, foreign drivers have been part of the Indianapolis 500 since the beginning. Frenchman Jules Goux won the third running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1913. It wasn’t until 1919 that another American won, when Howdy Wilcox crossed the finish line first. Foreign manufacturers have also had a major presence at the Indianapolis 500 since the beginning.
The first time I attended the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, Scottish driver Jim Clark won in dominating fashion. The following year, world-renowned drivers Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart joined the field. Hill won the race as a rookie and Jackie Stewart was Rookie of the Year. In subsequent years, other international drivers attempted to run the Indianapolis 500. By the mid-seventies, they were mostly gone, but their presence from the early sixties to the mid-seventies was immense.
Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi came to the Speedway as a two-time World Champion in 1984. He started twenty-third and finished thirty-second – a modest performance, to say the least. There were seven foreign drivers in that race. Ten years later in 1994, that number had doubled to fourteen. Fast-forward another ten years to 2004 and there were fifteen foreign drivers. One year later, the count of foreign drivers exploded to eighteen of the thirty-three starters.
Some of the foreign drivers over the years have become some of the sport’s greatest ambassadors. Jim Clark was reluctant to come race at the Indianapolis 500 at first, yet he quickly developed a love and appreciation for the historic oval. Emerson Fittipaldi may have lost a lot of popularity when he opted to drink orange juice over milk in 1993, but until that moment – he was one of the sports favorite drivers. I always considered Brazilian Raul Boesel to be one of the most underrated drivers and he was outstanding with the fans. One of my favorite photos on my Flickr account found on this site, is when Boesel took time to pose with my four year-old son on opening day in 1994.
Canadian Scott Goodyear came within a few feet of going from worst-to-first in 1992 and would have won in 1995 had he not passed the pace car. Some still think that fellow Canadian Paul Tracy won the 2002 Indianapolis 500. Brazil’s Helio Castroneves is currently a three-time winner and still counting. Scotland’s Dario Franchitti already owns two Baby-Borg’s and wants more. Of course, one of the most celebrated and greatest ambassador the series has seen in recent years, was British driver Dan Wheldon. Foreign drivers are here to stay. To think that the US is going to somehow reclaim the starting grid anytime soon is not realistic.
I’m usually proud of my southern heritage and to be a native Tennessean. That was not the case on the evening of July 19, 2003. The crowd at Nashville Superspeedway had been cheering all night for American Sam Hornish, who was still at Panther and running the underpowered Chevy engine. Hornish ran well for a while, but finished eleventh. As Gil de Ferran pulled into victory lane, the whole crowd booed loudly. The comments I heard from the crowd was that no one had ever heard of him and he had a funny name. Keep in mind, this driver no one had heard of was less than two months removed from winning the Indianapolis 500. Gil de Ferran was one of the classiest drivers you would ever meet, yet the boos poured down on him in Nashville for no other reason than the fact he was foreign and had beaten an American.
A foreign driver has won the Indianapolis 500 eleven of the past thirteen races. An American has won the series championship only once in the past nine years. Don’t hate the foreign drivers for winning. If you want an American driver to win, perhaps it’s time for the Americans in the series to step up their game. Ryan Hunter-Reay has been respectable with five wins in seven full seasons of open-wheel competition. Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have three wins between them in twelve seasons combined, which isn’t really setting the world on fire. Ed Carpenter finally won a race last season and could be a threat on ovals this season. Probably the most promising American to come along in recent years is Nashville native Josef Newgarden.
Another easy target is the ladder system in American open-wheel. For years, the open-wheel path was confusing and murky. I credit Randy Bernard for creating a clear “Road to Indy” with US F200, Star Mazda and Indy Lights. Some wonder why owners no longer mine the USAC ranks for drivers. It’s because there is very little that carries over from a front-engine midget or sprint car to a rear-engine IndyCar. USAC has become a much more suitable training-ground for NASCAR simply due to the configuration of their cars and tracks.
So when you hear the names of Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Rubens Barrichello, Vitor Meira, Simona de Silvestro, Pippa Mann and Ana Beatriz – don’t hold animosity towards them. Appreciate them for elevating the sport. And if none of those names sound familiar to you – then I suggest you either start paying a little more attention, or else find a new sport to follow. But if you choose the latter, here’s a hint – stay away from America’s pastime of baseball. You won’t be able to pronounce many names there, either.