The Emergence of the Perfect Villain

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Sports are all about rivalries. In fact, they are essential for the long-term survival of a sport. There are countless examples in all level of sports – all the way from professional sports to cross-town high school rivals. Yankees-Red Sox, Bears-Packers, Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Indiana-Kentucky are just a few examples of bitter rivals that have fueled their respective sports for over a century in some cases.

Racing is no different. When I was growing up in the sixties, there was no stronger rivalry than AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti. In those days, you picked a side and you could not be fans of both. Not only did you cheer when your guy won, but you also cheered when the other guy had a problem. You didn’t necessarily want the other guy to crash, but you were always happy to see a plume of smoke coming from the other guy’s car. There was just as much, if not more, bitterness between the fans of those drivers as there was between AJ and Mario themselves.

My family was a Foyt family. In our eyes, everything that Foyt did was great and anything Andretti did was bad. As I grew into adulthood my feelings for Foyt didn’t waver, but I discovered a newfound respect for Mario Andretti. Today I’m still a fan of Foyt and his legacy, but I have just as much admiration and appreciation for Mario Andretti as well as his son Michael and what they have both accomplished as I do for Foyt. It’s funny how time erodes the bitterness of a rivalry.

NASCAR has also had its own rivalries. Before the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, it was Earnhardt against everyone else. He was loved by his own legion of fans and despised by most fans of other drivers. That love/hate rivalry didn’t divide the sport – it made it stronger. In short – unless you were a Dale Earnhardt fan, he was always the villain that everyone loved to hate.

It’s been said for years that IndyCar needs a villain. This would not only create a buzz among the current fan base, it could spill over into the ever-coveted mainstream media giving the series some much-needed exposure.

There have been a few stabs at creating villains and rivalries in the IndyCar paddock. Some recent disagreements between drivers were flamed by the media to try and make some things more than they actually were, while others were quickly squashed by team owners or sponsors.

A few examples come to mind. When Graham Rahal joined the series in 2008, the media salivated at the thought of a second-generation Rahal-Andretti feud. Any hint of a disagreement or on-track altercation between the two young drivers was quickly turned into this false fabrication of a rivalry between the two. It never came to pass. A few years ago, Sage Karam infuriated Ed Carpenter on the track, but Karam was not a full-time driver and neither was Ed. It all cooled off quickly.

Then there was the incident last year at Gateway between Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden. Newgarden pushed his way into Turn One, taking the lead from an unsuspecting Pagenaud and went onto the win. Pagenaud was fuming in the post-race press conference giving every indication that he would seek revenge, while Newgarden basically laughed it off. By the next Tuesday, Pagenaud was singing a different tune. I can only imagine what Roger Penske had to say about the whole situation. Now that hoped-for rivalry has instead spawned into a chummy online game between the two drivers on who can out-autograph each others belongings.

The problem is that most of the drivers in the fulltime IndyCar paddock are genuinely nice guys. Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon are former teammates and longtime on-track competitors, but they are the best of friends. Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe drive for other teams and engine manufacturers, but they have been friends for years. Conor Daly doesn’t have a fulltime ride this year, yet he appears to be everyone’s buddy.

While camaraderie among the drivers is always a nice thing to show, it doesn’t really help to draw in fans. I’m not one that enjoys off-track controversy. It usually doesn’t paint the series in a good light. But a genuine on-track controversy is usually where rivalries come from. Heated rivalries create villains and IndyCar needs a villain. Not one that is a creation of IndyCar or the media, but one that arises organically. That’s what IndyCar needs.

After all these years of fabricating false rivalries and villains, we may actually have a natural villain on our hands – Alexander Rossi.

I think a few drivers over the years have purposely set out to be a villain. False bravado is usually pretty transparent and easy to spot. I always felt like EJ Viso wanted to be a villain, but he didn’t have the talent and rarely the car to back it up. Paul Tracy morphed from a mild-mannered preppy looking kid with horn-rimmed glasses in the early nineties, to a spiked-haired loud-mouth known for knocking drivers out of the way on the track and getting in fist-fights off of it – including with his team owner. It always made me wonder – which was the real Paul Tracy? Was it the bespectacled freckle-faced kid with Marlboro Team Penske, or was it the brawler that seemed to embrace the role of villain from later in his career? I still don’t know the answer.

It wasn’t until he joined the booth at NBCSN that I started to appreciate Tracy. He seems pretty genuine on the air so I’m suspecting his true identity lies somewhere in-between the prepster and the loud-mouth. That’s a nice way of saying I think both of the personas we saw from Tracy when he was driving were an act.

Nothing we see from Rossi’s persona suggests that he is putting on an act. When he first showed up on the scene just before the 2016 season, I was not a fan – and that’s putting it lightly. He came across as arrogant and aloof. At the last minute, he had unseated Gabby Chaves from his ride Bryan Herta, after a promising rookie campaign – making it tough for Chaves to find anything else at that late date. Worst of all, he gave every indication he didn’t even want to be in IndyCar, after taking the seat of a driver who clearly did. So, I flat-out did not like Alexander Rossi. Seeing him win the 2016 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, only made me dislike him even more.

Somewhere between then and now, I became a fan of Rossi’s. Through my own observations and the comments of others that know him, I began to realize that what I interpreted as arrogance was actually shyness. I think Rossi is an introvert who is a fun guy to his close circle of friends, but clams up around those he doesn’t know or trust. There was another driver at one time that fit that very description to a tee. His name was Bill Vukovich.

While Rossi may seem shy and timid out of the car, on the track is another story. He is fearless and very aggressive – a trait that makes other drivers very uneasy, and some may now be finding it a little intimidating. He has shown fans and drivers alike that once he commits to a corner, he doesn’t back out of it – as witnessed by this short video at this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Many were outraged when Rossi and rookie Robert Wickens got together in the closing laps at St. Petersburg. Wickens was left with a crumpled car, while Rossi went on to a podium finish. I felt that it was just two guys going for the win, while others thought that Rossi was at fault and should have backed out.

The same fans that were outraged at St. Petersburg, cheered when Rossi made one of his few mistakes all season – when he went into the runoff area at Belle Isle when being pressured by Ryan Hunter-Reay. Fans were quick to jump all over him, when they interpreted his post-race comments as blaming his issues on his crew. He miffed a few people with his aggressive driving a Texas, and then angered many others (including Robert Wickens and Takuma Sato) last weekend with his aggressive driving style at Road America.

I don’t think for a minute that Alexander Rossi has suddenly decided that he’s going to set out to become the bad boy of IndyCar. Then again, I don’t think he is out to win a popularity contest either. I think Alexander Rossi knows he s not the affable kind that can smile and charm his way out of a jam. Somewhere along the way, I think Rossi learned that no one is going t cut him any slack on the rack. He is going to have to earn anything he gets on the track and you don’t do that by sitting patiently and letting the breaks come your way.

Takuma Sato has a motto of “No attack, no chance” and is just as aggressive as Rossi on the track. But when Sato gets out of the car, he has a giant smile on his face and everyone loves him for it. When Rossi gets out of the car after running someone off the road, he has a look on his face like he’s headed to the proctologist, and fans don’t warm to a face like that.

Would Alexander Rossi like to be beloved by more fans? Probably. Does it crush him that fans are beginning to make him public enemy No.1? Probably not. I don’t think popularity among fans and drivers is his goal. What I do think Rossi wants is to be respected as a driver. I think it bothers him that some look at his Indianapolis 500 victory as a fluke, since it was a fuel-mileage race – much like Danica Patrick’s at Motegi. I think fans put a mental asterisk next to a win when it’s the only win in a driver’s career and it’s a fuel-mileage race.

Sixteen months passed from Rossi’s first win at Indianapolis to his second win at Watkins Glen. Skeptics started to believe in Rossi at that point because it was no fluke. He dominated that race in September of 2017 and followed that up with a similarly dominating drive at Long Beach this past April.

The consistency Rossi has shown since about the midway point of the 2017 season has proven that he is a legitimate championship contender – just not a popular one. And I think that suits him just fine.

I have no problem if fans begin booing Alexander Rossi at race tracks during driver introductions. Booing shows as much passion as cheering. I was passionate in my dislike of Paul Tracy as a driver. IndyCar needs more passionate fans. The opposite of passion isn’t hate – it’s indifference. IndyCar doesn’t need indifference.

Racing is different than most sports because there are so many drivers to choose from. Like many of you, I like most of the drivers in the field, but I pull for some more than others. It’s hard to pick just one because there are so many. In most sports, you choose sides and you have a 50-50 chance of going away happy or sad.

With so many drivers to root for, fans need one they can root against. That adds spice to the series. If a driver like Alexander Rossi incurs the wrath of fans with his aggressive driving, while driving his way to championships – is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.

Every sport needs a villain, but that villain has to be good. The Raiders of the NFL used to be perfect villains. They were mean and nasty, always playing on the edge and regularly winning Super Bowls. When they stopped winning, they just became idiots in the eyes of the fans. Alexander Rossi is a superb driver that upsets people with his driving style and unapologetic attitude. He is becoming the perfect villain without even trying. That makes it natural. Not only is he the perfect villain, but he is perfect for IndyCar.

George Phillips

Please Note: Wednesday is Independence Day. My past experience with putting up a post on the Fourth of July is that no one reads them. If no one reads them, why write them? Therefore, there will be no post here on Wednesday July 4. I will return here on Friday July 6. I hope everyone has a safe and happy Fourth of July! – GP

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13 Responses to “The Emergence of the Perfect Villain”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    He has been my favorite driver since day 1. I met him before his Indy 500 win and found him to be intelligent, shy and a very good guy. I thought he showed the “good guy” side on the Amazing Race too. Does he have an edge? Yes he does but is he a villain? I think that’s too harsh. I think he loves Indycar and is very glad to be here.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    Color me indifferent.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Last night I was not able to sleep so I got up and watched some 1950s era USAC stock car racing at the Milwaukee Mile on YouTube. AJ Foyt was racing the likes of Paul Goldsmith, Don White, Norm Nelson, Marshall Teague, and other good stock car drivers of that era. There was lots of bumping, banging, and paint scraping as A.J. aggressively worked his way through the field. At the time A.J. was not looked upon as being a “villain” by either his fellow drivers of the fans.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      It could be argued that his so-called villainy of deliberately causing harm to other drivers and their cars is mostly masking a lack of skill.

      • S0CSeven Says:

        My sentiments exactly.

        Slaming, banging, the old ‘tradin paint’ was hardcore racing among professionals who respected, feared and enjoyed the competition amongst their peers. Dale Sr. was a super talent butt-hole who didn’t have to drive the other guys into the wall but did it anyway just because he could and the sanctioning body loved it. Absolutely no respect here for Dale Sr. or for Rossi.

        I….. (yeah, me I……..) .. could win the Indy 500 by running the other 32 into the wall and I don’t have that kind of talent.

        But Rossi doesn’t have it either. If you come anywhere near him he ‘ll run you off the track. Is that talent? I mean REALLY? Is that how you get a podium?

        Rossi ain’t no black hat. He abslutely doesn’t deserve the title. but maybe some year ………

  3. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I’ve been a fan of his since the GP2 days, with him and Conor being the only Americans in the series at the time it was kind of a default choice but watching him over a couple seasons I became a genuine fan. I was not at all surprised at the tepid response he got from fans when he came over here because he was raised with the European model where being emotional, funny, or interesting isn’t the norm.

    However, I’m ok with him being the “villain” because IndyCar needs that and needs rivalries, and the rivalry shaping up between he and Wickens is looking like a good one (even though they’ve been good friends for years). I’m not one that needs a villain, I generally don’t like rooting for people to fail and tend to like most of the drivers in any series, but it seems some people need someone to hate and if that gets them watching more than it’s all good in my book. I think he will fill that role well while continuing to show what a badass he can be in the car. He takes no quarter and asks for none in return, a few decades ago that was what race fans wanted to see from drivers, and I still do.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    The key element to pretty much every great sporting villain is a rooting interest that said villain threatens. Andretti was a threat to take wins away from Foyt, and thus Foyt’s fans reacted in kind. The folks who considered the Raiders to be villains rooted hard for other teams in the NFL (especially the AFC). So too with other rivalries:

    Earnhardt -> a villain to fans of Martin/Labonte/Rudd/Elliott/Jarrett
    Tracy -> Andretti/Vasser/DeFerran/Zanardi
    Bourdais -> Tracy/Wilson/Allmendinger
    Busch -> Harvick/Keselowski/Logano/Johnson

    Rossi’s demeanor and on-track dust-ups, while “helpful”, are not going to make him a villain unless he is beating someone a lot of fans really like.

    • BrandonWright77 Says:

      Good point, and I’m not sure there’s a current IndyCar driver that currently fills that role, there really isn’t one who stands out as the fan favorite.

  5. ed emmitt Says:

    Well, the votes are coming in and it’s showing plenty of love for our boy Rossi. The media is making him out as a bad boy. My love for A. J. came with his racing style,the current media would have a real field day with him. I don’t think Rossi gives too hoots to what the media thinks.
    Rossi is what racing is all about. Rock on Alexander Rossi

  6. LurkingKiwi Says:

    Obviously I’m biased toward Scott Dixon, but at Watkins Glen last year I believe Rossi was one of very few cars running a full dry setup; the Penskes went too far in the wet direction and everybody else had a bob each way. Rossi beating Dixon by 1s is as much down to a nothing-to-lose gamble on the weather by Herta as anything else. OK, he did get the pole earlier and his driving performances (when not hitting people) this year have given him a bit more credibility.

  7. It is pronounced “Ohio State-Michigan.” Love the site, 2 kids under 2 is crazy. Keep writing my friend.

  8. Go Rossi! That is all.

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