Who Is IndyCar’s Villain?
Everyone within the IndyCar fan base is still buzzing about Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and rightfully so. It was a very entertaining race with an extremely popular first-time winner in James Hinchcliffe. Things are certainly looking up as far as the on-track product goes with the IZOD IndyCar Series. Now, if only someone will actually watch the races outside of the hardcore fans that tune in to every race anyway.
As entertaining and fulfilling as Sunday’s race was, there was one key ingredient missing that will be vital to the growth and ultimate success of the series – a villain.
In his prime, Paul Tracy was about as close as IndyCar racing has come to having a true villain in the past couple of decades. For the past few seasons before he retired however, he was never a significant factor in many races and his bark seemed rather harmless.
Many IndyCar fans (me included) view NASCAR as a dysfunctional sideshow that happens to also feature racing. The post-race drama works for them, but to me – all of their histrionics have the appeal of an episode of Honey Boo-Boo. I much prefer the clean racing and classy victory lane that we witnessed in the IndyCar race over the feud between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano or the post-race fisticuffs between Tony Stewart and Mr. Logano.
However, one thing NASCAR always has plenty of that IndyCar seems to always lack, is a bona fide villain. For years, NASCAR had the ultimate villain in Dale Earnhardt. He was known as The Intimidator or The Man In Black. The man had seven NASCAR Cup titles to demonstrate how good he was on the track. He had legions of loyal and dedicated fans, but there were just as many that despised him and booed him every chance they got. In the early nineties, there was no better (and more bitter) rivalry in all of sports than the one between Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.
When I was growing up in the sixties, the rivalry that topped them all was between AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti. The two men really didn’t like each other, and I think that still carries over to this day. Consequently, fans of either one of them hated the other. I was a Foyt fan, which meant I pulled against Mario while growing up. As an adult, I’ve certainly grown to appreciate everything that Mario and the Andretti family have meant to this sport – but it’s hard to outgrow your youth. I’m still a big Foyt fan to this day.
The Foyt-Andretti rivalry meant a lot to this sport. It led to lifelong and loyal fans. I’ll admit that when Mario would slow on the backstretch, I cheered – even if Foyt was already out of contention. Why? Because you cheer against the opposition. That’s the nature of competition. Nowadays, we all applaud when anything good happens to anyone on the track, even if it adversely affects the driver we’re pulling for. It’s very politically correct, but inherently wrong in a competitive environment.
Don’t get me wrong – when I say cheer against the opposition, I mean maybe they have a bad break go their way like a botched pit stop or getting caught out by the yellow. In no way am I advocating wanting to see any driver crash. But to have a break go against a driver to help the driver I’m pulling for – I see nothing wrong with that.
The Foyt-Andretti rivalry was strong until the eighties, when Foyt quit winning and Mario was still going strong. Foyt’s last win came in 1981 at Pocono at the age of forty-six. Mario’s last win came in 1993 at Phoenix at the age of fifty-three, which seems unfathomable by today’s youth standards. Nothing in IndyCar has matched the intensity of the Foyt-Andretti rivalry, but there have been a lot of villains over the years.
Although he didn’t want to be, Kevin Cogan became an instant villain to many by taking out Andretti and Foyt at the start of the 1982 Indianapolis 500. Foyt would be able to repair his car before the re-start but Mario’s day was done. Emerson Fittipaldi was a villain to many who are still convinced to this day that he purposely took out Al Unser, Jr. on Lap 198 of the 1989 Indianapolis 500. For those that didn’t convict Fittipaldi in 1989, his other Indianapolis win was even more damaging to his reputation.
After winning the 1993 Indianapolis 500, Fittipaldi initially refused to drink milk in victory lane – instead opting for orange juice from groves that he owned. Amidst the chorus of boos and the milk bottle being thrust in his face repeatedly by the representative from the milk producers, Fittipaldi posed with orange juice. It wasn’t until his car owner Roger Penske said dryly “Drink the milk”, that Fittipaldi had a swig of the fabled milk. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a driver’s reputation change so dramatically. By the time 1994 rolled around, he was considered Public Enemy #1 at Indianapolis. When Fittipaldi crashed out while leading and dominating the 1994 race with sixteen laps to go – I’m not sure I’ve heard a bigger cheer spread through the Speedway.
Fittipaldi had become a true villain. He was someone that fans could rally around to hate. Unfortunately as fate would have it, he never raced at Indianapolis again and midway through the 1996 CART season – his career was over, following a crash at Michigan.
Today’s IZOD IndyCar Series has too many likeable drivers and none that are polarizing. As crazy as it sounds, we need polarizing figures. Since his start with Carl Hogan in 1997, I was a big fan of Dario Franchitti. Through the next ten years, I saw his career progress to the point that he won the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and that year’s championship. At the time, he was one of my favorite drivers. When he came back from his 2008 attempt at NASCAR, he was wearing long, greasy hair and the colors of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. He won easily and often. He had more of a sense of arrogance about him and we seemed to see a lot more of his wife, who was certainly a polarizing figure. I was no longer a fan, but still didn’t quite understand the boos he received after winning last year’s Indianapolis 500. It certainly appeared he had reached villain status. But after a sub-par season last year, a pending divorce and a horrible start to this season – Franchitti is now almost a sympathetic figure. It’s hard to label someone a villain when you actually have pity for them.
Scott Dixon wins a lot, but he is too nice to call him a villain. I personally don’t care for Sebastian Saavedra or EJ Viso but a lot of people do, so they can’t be cast in the villain role. After Marco Andretti forced Simona de Silvestro into a mistake with two laps to go in Sunday’s race, many fans were ready to call him a villain – but in all honesty, he was racing the way he should have and was very humble and gracious about it in post-race interviews.
So who are the villains? Based on the overwhelming response to his first win on Sunday, it certainly isn’t James Hinchcliffe. He’s way too popular to be a villain. The same goes for his teammate and defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. He’s worked too hard and is too likeable to be a villain.
Are the Penske boys villains? Although I’m a big fan of The Captain’s organization, I know a lot of people feel they win too much and have too much money at their disposal. Personally, I feel that’s a result of their working harder. Besides, when a team has won only one championship since entering the series in 2002 – I don’t consider that winning too much. Will Power does well in non-oval qualifying, but suffers a lot of bad luck in races. He also has a unique personality that is refreshing in this world of sponsor-speak. So it’s hard to make him a villain. Helio Castroneves is very likeable and personable. Some think he blocks a little too much, but does that make him a villain?
Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson, Simona de Silvestro, Simon Pagenaud are all excellent drivers, but are all way too nice to be remotely considered villains. JR Hildebrand made a bad mistake on Sunday, but he is certainly no villain. He is too nice a guy to boo. So who is IndyCar’s villain?
I really don’t have the answer, but I think IndyCar desperately needs one. The powers-that-be can’t sit behind the curtain and decide that “Driver X” needs to become a villain. That’s way too contrived. It needs to be natural and spontaneous. As contrived as NASCAR has become, I don’t think they sat around in the mid-eighties and decided to make a villain out of Dale Earnhardt. It just happened. Will it happen in the near future to stir more interest in the IZOD IndyCar Series? I certainly hope so. They need it.