Which Driver Will Become "That Guy"?

For the past several decades, there has always been that one driver that all other drivers hated to see approaching in their rearview mirror. In the fifties, it was Bill Vukovich. In the sixties and seventies, it was AJ Foyt and Bobby Unser respectively. I’m not real sure who that driver was in the eighties. Rick Mears won two Indy 500’s and three CART championships, and he is one of my all-time favorites – but I’m not sure that Rick was totally intimidating. He was known more as a quiet and calculating driver that patiently waited for the perfect time to make his move, rather than a hard charger. Bobby Rahal probably came closest to that driver as anyone in the eighties, yet he was hardly considered an imposing figure. The driver who was that imposing and intimidating driver in the nineties was undoubtedly Michael Andretti.

But who was THAT driver of the decade we just emerged from? The closest driver I can come up with, is no longer in the series – Sam Hornish, Jr. Sam demonstrated his ability to close a gap on the last lap of the 2006 Indianapolis 500; ironically against Michael Andretti’s son Marco.

So as we head into 2010, who is that one driver that has that innate ability to strike from practically anywhere on the grid? I’m not sure there is a clear answer to the question, nor am I sure why that is. It would be easy to say that everyone has been neutralized by the fact that all drivers have the same equipment. If that were the case however, how would you explain Hornish’s ability to reel in the field in the closing laps at Indy in 2006? Everyone had the same equipment then, as well.

Although Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon drive their cars differently, they both manage a race about the same way. They are both very methodical in their driving process and both tend to drive with their head more so than their right foot. Between the two of them, I’d give the nod to Dixon. The other championship contender for 2009, Ryan Briscoe, falls more into the Rick Mears category in his approach. However, his performance in the season finale at Homestead certainly opened my eyes. He drove more like Hornish on that day than any other driver I’ve seen lately. He was the only driver that day willing to pass on the outside on a regular basis.

Helio Castroneves has at times been "that guy", but has been too inconsistent to be considered a threat to win each week no matter where he starts. Tomas Scheckter has the ability to be "that guy", but he strikes more fear in the minds of his own team as they think about the repair job in the week ahead.

In the early nineties, Michael Andretti completely dominated the field on practically every track. He was a little hard on his equipment (he came by that naturally), but if he was able to bring it home – he was usually on the podium. He later proved his talent in a different manner by giving an unproven and untested Reynard chassis their only two wins in 1994; and then managed to drag an uncompetitive Swift chassis to victory lane a couple of times in the late nineties. I would suspect that if he were in a fairly competitive car, Michael could still give it a run for all it was worth.

And that’s the key…what driver can take an average car and still be a threat to win? Scott Dixon certainly sank into obscurity with an uncompetitive Toyota engine in 2004 and 2005. He won one race in that two-year period while Helio and Hornish combined for five wins in the same period also driving with Toyota power. Danica Patrick certainly doesn’t fit the mold. She is an above average driver if the car is right. If the car setup is off, you can forget it.

There was a time when I thought that Tony Kanaan was "that guy". He may still be, but his car setup may have been so far off this past year that no one on the planet could’ve done anything with it. This past year with Kanaan proved how vital the role of an engineer is, especially when all cars are the same. When longtime engineer Eric Cowdin left Kanaan at the end of 2008 and moved over to the car of Ryan Briscoe – the results spoke for themselves. Yes, you still need a great driver to get the most out of a setup; but the best drivers today can do nothing if the engineers missed the setup.

I think Marco Andretti would like to be considered "that guy" – but so far, he has been striking fear in the eyes of his competitors for the wrong reasons. Two younger drivers showed glimpses of being that guy in 2009, especially in the second half of the season – Mario Moraes and Rafa Matos. With more seasoning and the chance to earn more respect from their fellow drivers, they could become "that guy" for this new decade – but they’re not there yet.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson have also shown flashes of brilliance, yet they all have shown too many chinks in their armor to be considered a driver who was to be feared.

So who is it? Who is a current driver in the Izod IndyCar Series that causes drivers to utter “Oh, no” when that driver suddenly fills the rearview mirror? I’m not trying to build suspense until I reveal the magic answer at the end of this article. I’m struggling for an answer.

If I HAD to come up with an answer, I can’t even be definitive there because I think it’s a tie between Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves. But I hesitate on both of them. Whether or not the driver that will carry the label "that guy" for this new decade is even in the series yet is debatable, but one thing is certain. That driver needs to step up fast.

It is “that guy” that people will pay to watch. That driver is worth the price of a ticket. "That guy" is what will make viewers want to find Versus (unless they have DirecTV) and stay tuned to watch him/her do their thing.

I really like many of the drivers in today’s Izod IndyCar Series, but none of them really stand out for their driving ability. In the mainstream media, Helio is best known for his dancing escapades. Dario is known as Ashley’s husband. Marco is known for being Mario’s grandson. Danica is known for being Danica – and that doesn’t mean great driving. The last IndyCar driver that made people want to tune in, is now known for being involved in the most NASCAR crashes over a two year period – Sam Hornish, Jr.

While many will argue that the IICS needs someone like Paul Tracy to bring some personality to the series, I think what is needed most is a driver who can stand out for his or her driving ability, no matter what level of team they drive for. After all, driving is what racers should really be known for.

George Phillips

23 Responses to “Which Driver Will Become "That Guy"?”

  1. Drayton sawyer Says:

    You used “that guy” way too many times in this piece, and left out too many racers from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Mario, Gordy, Sneva, (Mosley and Hurtubise on dirt), Emo, Little Al, Moore, Montoya and Brack all hunted guys down on the ovals and were to be feared coming in hot, through the draft (remember when they used to draft). There used to be a much deeper talent pool in those eras and a wider variety of cars that made different chassis’ better on certain tracks, which made more ” that guy” opportunities. Chances are as long as they have the current Dallara, the red and red/white cars will be chasing each other and I’m afraid if the new chassis is the evolutionary Dallara the only canidates for “that guy” wil be Penske/Ganassi racers.

    • oilpressure Says:

      Thanks for the critique, but the term “that guy” was the theme of the article, hence the title. – GP

  2. I went with Kanaan, but in doing so, I chose to neglect his 2009 season, when that team (and most of Andretti-Green) was off most of the year. Up until last season, he seemed like the guy who wasn’t afraid to take the calculated (or otherwise) risk to gain a position.

    Though with the aging cars, I’m not sure the current setup really allows for the swashbuckling style we saw from drivers until the last few years.

    • Vic Lovisa Says:

      I agree on Kanaan. Just do. Every year during my Memorial Weekend party, my casual and non-racing fan friends will ask me who I think the best racer is. Despite no Indy 500 wins and his horrible ’09 season, for whatever reason I always point to the guy in the green #11.

      • Brian McKay Says:

        I have been a TK fan for years. Even if he, not Dario had won that rain-shortened Indy “500” he’d still be underappreciated by many. While I appreciate his loyalty to Andretti, Green and Savoree, I wish that Tony had signed with Ganassi. He would’ve been much more $ucce$$ful, wouldn’t have been set aflame twice in a season, and would’ve contended for the championship.

  3. Trick Dickle Says:

    I think TBA has a chance to “be that guy”. He or she is listed on many of the current entries.

  4. I’m not necessarily one of the hardcore PT fans, but I think his driving could be what IICS needs . Sure, he has that personality where you love him or hate him, but his driving ability stands out to me. He drives aggressively and isn’t afraid to use the “chrome horn.” I don’t advocate using that, but he’s known for it. It seems to me like that would strike fear in the hearts of people. No, I don’t think he’s a dominating driver, but he could be “that guy.”

    Great blog, it’s good to look at this from a historical point of view (and good for young people like me so I learn some of it!).

  5. As big of a Hornish fan as I am, he could probably be rivaled for ‘that guy’ by Paul Tracy. Hornish for “Here comes ‘that guy’, he’s probably going to beat me on the outside.” PT for “Here comes ‘that guy’, he’s probably going to beat me…or take me out trying.”

    As far as current drivers, Dixon is about the only one I can think of. I do believe that RHR and Mario Moraes have the potential to be ‘that guy’. RHR made some serious hard charging moves at the end of races while at Rahal/Letterman.

  6. I’d sure like to see Paul Tracy in a real good car in this league. I’ve not always been a fan of his, but he brings more excitement to a race and more edge to an interview than any of the full-timers.

  7. While I believe the best driver is a tossup between Scott Dixon and Justin Wilson (Wilson would hardly suck on ovals if he was in a Penske or Ganassi car…those races all come down to car basically), I don’t believe there is anyone intimidating in the series. Paul Tracy was the last in either Champ Car or IndyCar, but he’s not really relevant anymore. Frankly, I never really saw Hornish as a guy to be feared either. To win Indy, he had to chase down Michael, coming back from three years of retirement, and Marco, who is pretty mediocre, driving a stronger car. Not as impressive as some people make it.

    The Penske and Ganassi drivers have the best cars so they can play it safe and don’t need to take risks. The only guys I’d say take risks like crazy right now besides Tracy are Scheckter and Viso, but they’re probably not successful enough to be painted into a role like that. That’s the thing. The drivers in top equipment don’t need to be aggressive, and the drivers in weaker equipment if they are aggressive won’t inspire fear because they’ll never compete for wins.

    I think that era is over. In a series like Cup where everything is well-funded, it’s increasingly generic too with drivers who aren’t really feared. Who’s feared today in NASCAR? I can think of four. Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Brad Keselowski. IRL being less well-funded and having a much smaller grid probably wouldn’t have more than two at a time.

    Now if you’re just talking major talents, than the five Ganassi and Penske guys, Kanaan, and Wilson are obvious. But none of those strike fear, and probably anyone who did wouldn’t keep a Penske or Ganassi ride that long.

    • How could I have forgotten Montoya?

      By “feared” I’m taking this to mean more hotheaded aggressive rather than simply being the best driver. Many of the best drivers today are not hotheaded.

      • When reading the blog, I immediately thought of Zanardi, Montoya, Moore and Fittipaldi in the 1990s and wondered why they weren’t mentioned. Then I thought that Paul Tracy could be ‘that guy’ in the 2010s

  8. Mike Silver Says:

    Helio is only to be feared when he is ahead of someone and blocking him.

  9. Savage Henry Says:

    Sorry to be redundant, but I have to throw in another plug for The Thrilla. Yes, he’s old and overweight, but he can still drive the wheels off of it. He would have won in Toronto if Helio hadn’t taken him out, and I can’t believe that his was one of the better cars on the grid. He needs to be in this series.

    This is going to sound silly since he has never won a race, but I’d like to think Vitor has a chance to become “that guy”. I’ve seen him make some “holy s**t did he just do that?” moves in his day. I hope he gets a competitive ride someday. I guess that puts him in the Scheckter category (although Tomas has some wins).

    • I’m glad that other people appreciate Meira and Kanaan. I think of Scheckter in the same crashmaster category as E.J. Viso and Townsend Bell (another guy who had his chances in two series). I wouldn’t like to see E.J. or Tomas approaching me to nerf me into a wall.

      • Agree on Tomas and Viso, but not on Townsend. It’s true that Townsend caught a terminal case of “crash-itis” when he was basically a rookie for Patrick in 2002 (when he got fired halfway through the season), but since then, he’s been a lot more steady. He drove pretty well within himself for most of the season for Panther in ’04 after they fired Mark Taylor, and since then, he’s been a part-time only guy. He drove pretty darn well as Milka’s alter ego in ’08 (3 top-10s in 7 starts for a pretty unspectacular DRR) and a nice 4th this year at Indy in his only start. With those youthful indiscretions and wildness behind him, I think Townsend deserves another full-time gig (which he hasn’t had access to since his ill-fated season in ’02).

  10. I didn’t vote for anyone because truthfully, I don’t think anyone in the series strikes the kind of fear into the hearts of other drivers to be “that guy”. That’s not to say there aren’t talented drivers-there are many of them-but there is no one currently who in my eyes has shown the ability to intimidate other drivers or haul a recalcitrant lump into victory lane like the late F1 3-time World Champion Ayrton Senna did with a McLaren Ford that wouldn’t punch it’s weight.

  11. I HAD to vote for Scheckter, because he took the D&R cars, which are no stars on the ovals, up to the front almost immediately (see: the Iowa race)…and has been charging up to the front his whole career with reckless abandon. If it was wreck-less abandon, he’d of won a lot more races by now and wouldn’t be stuck at D&R. He’s a lead foot, and any race with him in is instantly more exciting.

    I’ll give honorable mentions to Moraes, who seems to be improving every race since he started as a teenager, and to Tracy, who became “that Guy” in CART for years and has certainly still has enough talent nowadays (see: Toronto) to keep charging up through the course.

  12. Paul Tracy, hands down. That’s one of my least favorite things about Indycar, there seems to be a major lack of Hard Chargers. PT, Viso, Marco, and Sheckter do, but Viso and Marco wreck too much.

  13. Dario was obvioulsy “that guy” this year, but as his wife always says and rightfully so, “Dario is a gentleman.”
    Before him was Sam Hornish.

    Paul Tracy, my Canadian Cousin, would have been “that guy” but he is too feared by the 2nd generational legacy drivers, he might blow the kids on the track away!

    Helio is a new Dad, and like TK he wants to be around for his child,expect more careful driving from those two old guys! (Good for them.)

    RHR was my favorite but GR definetely wins top spot for 2010.
    He will be “that guy” because he has talent and he is free from the elements to compete.
    (BTW George, I thought you were very disresoectful to Ashley, who really deserves alot of credit because her husband was “that guy” and she is a class act!)

    • After all, driving is what racers should really be known for….More and more the Indy Series is becoming a reality TV show.

      Paul Tracy should get another chance to scare the “beJeesus” out of the younger competitors and give Helio another chance to work for his American $$$.

  14. So, I don’t think you can include Dixon in this conversation at all. If there ever was a driver who takes no risk, he is the guy. I would define “that guy” as the one who you just don’t know whether he will make the move or not. I’ve seen Dixon race at just about every type of venue and can honestly say I’ve never seen him make a brave pass. On the other hand, I saw Sam Hornish pass just about the entire field on the outside at Richmond in 2003. He was the ONLY driver who was making passes at that track. He ended up crashing out or losing an engine, but he was willing to take risks to win. Tracy and Scheckter are those guys. The ones that make you sweat when they are coming up because you don’t know whether they will force the issue or not. They just need at least a middling ride and they could in the mix. Franchitti? Great driver. “That guy”, not so much. Kanaan? I’d say he takes some risks and makes some moves much more so than Franchitti or Dixon. Helio? Maybe so. Recently at least, as George points out, he has been inconsistent. I think the inconsistency adds the excitement and to the ability to be “that guy” but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Helio make a daring comeback through the field. Great post George. I hope we see someone that fits the bill this coming year.

  15. Nice blog. I voted for Ryan Briscoe but Will Power is quickly emerging as a threat. Ryan and Will have the “killer instinct.” I think in short time, Graham Rahal will be that guy as well.

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