When A Rivalry Isn’t A Rivalry
When Graham Rahal drove in his first race in the IndyCar Series at St. Petersburg in 2008, he came away with a win. It was not a fluke win either. In the latter stages, he not only held off veteran Helio Castroneves; he was actually pulling away from him – in a pouring rainstorm, no less.
Many, myself included, were convinced that we were witnessing the arrival of the next great American open-wheel driver. Here was a young, good-looking articulate driver with a well-known name that could drive the wheels off of a car. We all told ourselves that this kid had star-power written all over him.
Much of the same was said two years earlier, when Marco Andretti came onto the scene. He came within a few car-lengths of becoming the youngest winner of the Indianapolis 500. He was leading a charging Sam Hornish coming out of the fourth turn on the final lap. Although, he gave up the lead at the line – Marco was praised for displaying a maturity in not blocking Horninsh and causing them both to crash. Like Rahal, Marco Andretti was suddenly anointed the task of pulling the series out of its doldrums by being a young and brash American with a household last name.
Rahal’s driving suit had not completely dried out from his victory celebration in the rain, before fans, the media and series officials alike created an artificial rivalry between the two young drivers, who came from famous racing families. The problem was, there really wasn’t a rivalry.
Graham’s father, Bobby Rahal, had a rivalry with Marco’s father, Michael Andretti. Michael beat Bobby for the 1991 CART title, before Bobby returned the favor in 1992. In Rahal’s other two championship seasons of 1986 and 1987, Michael finished as the runner-up. That’s four seasons over a seven-year stretch that one of those two won the championship, while the other finished second. That’s a rivalry.
Michael Andretti endured the curse of living in the shadows of a famous father. The same went for Al Unser, Jr. Little Al won the championship in 1990 and 1994, while winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1992 and 1994. They both had very successful careers in their own right, and escaped the very large shadows cast by their respective fathers to carve out their own reputation. They both had some spirited on-track battles against each other, but also seemed to have deep respect for one another, probably because they both understood what self-inflicted pressures the other was dealing with. That’s a rivalry.
Michael’s father and Marco’s grandfather, Mario Andretti, is arguably the most famous household name in racing. Not only was he a multiple Indy car champion (USAC), he won the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and the Formula One championship. His nemesis at the time was another who could lay claim to the most famous household name in racing – AJ Foyt. Foyt won seven Indy car titles, four Indianapolis 500’s, the Daytona 500 and the twenty-four hours of Le Mans. Probably the most heated debate to this day is; who was the greatest of all time – AJ or Mario? The greatest thing about watching the two of them go at it in their prime was that they genuinely disliked each other. I always found it interesting that Mario’s nephew, John Andretti, was AJ Foyt’s Godson, because AJ and Mario still don’t seem to care for one another. That’s a rivalry.
Other than some avoidable contact at Long Beach a couple of years ago that both may have been to blame for, there has not been as much as a skirmish between Graham and Marco. There has also not been a lot of success between them either. Andretti is entering his ninth season in IndyCar, while Rahal is entering his seventh. Between the two of them, there are only three wins. Graham’s lone victory was in his debut at St. Petersburg in 2008. Marco won in his rookie season in 2006 at Sonoma. His second and last win to date came five years later at Iowa in 2011. That’s not a rivalry.
Several components can help make up a rivalry; mutual dislike, mutual respect and going after the same goal can all go into the making of a rivalry. However, most rivalries that I’m aware of share one common theme – success. Opponents can thoroughly despise each other, but without shared success – there is no rivalry.
One of the biggest football rivalries in the SEC in recent years was Tennessee-Florida. When they would meet early in the season, both were usually in the Top-Five in the nation. Lately, Tennessee has fallen on hard times and the game has lost its luster. Now that Florida is coming off of its own rocky season, you now have two teams just struggling to find their way. There is no glamour in winning a game no one cares about.
In the late eighties and early nineties, it was intriguing to watch Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti battle it out race after race. The same thing applied to seeing Micahel Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. Why? Because they were successful, year in and year out. Although they were evenly matched, watching Didier Theys and Ted Prappas going at it did not hold the audience captive. Mediocrity does not make for a compelling rivalry.
Since Graham Rahal burst onto the scene with his 2008 victory, everyone has been trying to nurture a rivalry between Rahal and Andretti that simply isn’t there. The current Rahal and Andretti don’t really seem to be best friends, but they don’t seem to have any real dislike towards one another. They seem more amused by the whole rivalry thing, which tells you there is no rivalry.
I’m all for having rivalries along with good guys and villains. That type of thing is good for the sport. But the sport needs one that develops naturally over the course of time. Manufacturing a rivalry that’s not really there just because it incorporates a couple of names from the past comes across as contrived and almost desperate.
If there are a few incidents between them that occur this season that affect the championship and it leads to an intense dislike between the two camps – so be it. You’ll have your rivalry. If not, let’s move on. There are more important matters facing this series than trying to create something that just isn’t there.