Some Drivers We May Never See Again

With the sudden influx of young talent that found its way into the IZOD IndyCar Series last week, the number of drivers on the outside looking in has increased dramatically. As drivers Charlie Kimball and J.R. Hildebrand secured their first full-time rides in the series, and James Hinchcliffe seemingly on the verge of landing a spot at Newman/Haas; a seat in the series has become more prized than ever. Fortunately, veteran Tony Kanaan has landed on his feet at de Ferran Dragon and rumors are putting former Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon in a fourth car at Andretti Autosport – but there seems to be a youth movement afoot in the series.

Such a movement is even more evident with a still very young Graham Rahal returning full-time, along with second-year driver Simona de Silvestro – who, according to Robin Miller, will have sufficient funding in 2011 from a new North American sponsor.

While this is all wonderful news for the future of the series, it makes for not such a Merry Christmas for a handful of drivers who may have seen their hopes of driving an IndyCar again, dashed for good. Here’s a list of former IndyCar drivers – some that barely got started and some hoping to recapture past glory – that we may never see climbing into an IndyCar cockpit ever again.

In no particular order…

Hideki Mutoh: While Mutoh was probably the best Japanese driver I’ve seen, with the exception of possibly Tora Takagi – that’s not saying a whole lot. When ‘king Hiro Matsushita is revered as a legend among his countrymen, that doesn’t speak well for his competition.

Hideki Mutoh actually seemed to be a stabilizing force among the soap opera that was Andretti-Green Racing in 2008 and 2009. It could be that he barely spoke English when he first joined the team. It might also be that he spoke English a lot better than he let on and just used it as a ploy to distance himself from the Danica/Marco playpen.

Whatever the case, he was not invited back in 2010. He toiled with an underfunded and misguided single-car effort at Newman/Hass and finished a disappointing eighteenth in points. Like almost all of his countrymen, Mutoh seems to have worn out his welcome in the series after three years. His name isn’t mentioned in even a whisper as a possibility for any open seats in 2011.

Jaime Camara: This is one of many sad endings for drivers coming out of what is now known as the Firestone Indy Lights Series. Although his career in what was then the Indy Pro Series was solid, he scored no wins and never finished higher than fifth in points. Still, the young Brazilian was considered a protégé of Tony Kanaan and great things were expected of him.

His one and only full-time ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series came in 2008, when he drove a second car from Conquest Racing. Granted, the Conquest budget is one of the lowest in the paddock – but Camara did his resume no favors by being involved in so many single car accidents. He did not return in 2009 and has quickly dropped out of sight.

Rafa Matos: I will catch heat for this pick, but I see nothing on the horizon for him this year and he is supposedly seeking a ride in a racing series based in his home country of Brazil. Like Camara, Matos showed great potential in Atlantics and Firestone Indy Lights. Whether his team was the problem is up for debate. Luczo-Dragon Racing did pretty well with Ryan Briscoe in their one appearance in 2007 – a fifth at Indianapolis. When Tomas Scheckter wasn’t breaking half-shafts, he showed a good deal of speed for them in a handful of races in 2008. When Matos joined the team for 2009, most knew the learning curve would be steep for the rookie. When Gil de Ferran bought into the team prior to the 2010 season, many thought it would provide the spark that the talented Brazilian needed. It just didn’t happen.

Matos showed no ability to drive the bigger cars at a competitive level. He also provided nothing on the marketing front. A surly driver in need of a shave and decent results is not a sponsors dream. Depending on how well Tony Kanaan does with this team in 2011, we may be saying that Matos either squandered his one chance or that he was an innocent victim of a bad team.

Richard Antinucci: Who knows if being the nephew of Eddie Cheever was a help or a hindrance? Whatever the case, it also didn’t help that he was driving for the woefully inept Team 3G for a few races in 2009. This could be a case study in the question if it is better for a young driver’s career to take any ride just to get some seat time. They say “experience is everything”, but I wonder if Antinucci did himself a huge disservice by accepting the 3G ride. We haven’t heard from him since.

Mario Romancini: (See Richard Antinucci)

Sebastian Saavedra: I was already proven wrong on this one in the last race of the season. Saavedra drove in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 for Bryan Herta Autosport as a fresh-faced rookie. He had the distinction of crashing his qualified car and being bumped, only to find himself back in the race while sitting in the infield care center after Paul Tracy and Jay Howard both withdrew their times and failed to bump themselves back in. He showed well in the race before crashing on lap 159 and finishing twenty-third.

This past September, Saavedra committed what I thought was career suicide, when he quit Bryan Herta Autosport in the middle of an Indy Lights race weekend. In the process, he trashed his former team and made himself look like trash in the process. I thought no owner would ever look his way again based on his actions that weekend. Eric Bachelart proved me wrong when he signed him to drive the second car for Conquest Racing in the last race of the season. I’ve heard no mention of his name for next season.

Buddy Rice: This comes as no surprise. Buddy Rice hasn’t driven an IndyCar since the 2008 season. The winner of the 2004 Indianapolis 500 is never even given a thought by team owners these days. Yes, Buddy can drive. But there’s more to driving an IndyCar these days than holding your right foot down and turning left. You’ve got to have a likeable personality and have the ability to schmooze the sponsors. Buddy has neither.

Sam Hornish: Some may strongly disagree with me on this one. Many believe that Sam will be driving for Roger Penske in the 2011 Indianapolis 500. I don’t. I believe that to be a lot of wishful thinking that their American hero will come back.

I have mixed emotions on it. I’ve made it no secret that I have never been a Hornish fan. But the guy has a strong fan base here in the IZOD IndyCar Series. That attraction didn’t follow him over to NASCAR. I’m not sure that Sam would be popular over there even if he was winning.

One part of me thinks it would be good for the series and the Indianapolis 500 for Hornish to return to IndyCars. Then there’s another side that says Sam had this series in the palm of his hand and he threw it away. He was worshiped by many here and kicked the series that made him to the side. When he was here, he claimed to idolize Rick Mears. Had he stayed, he could have threatened the record four Indy 500 wins of Mears, Unser and Foyt, before his career was over. Instead, he essentially said he was bored with winning here and wanted to try NASCAR.

If he ever wanted to come back, I’m sure Roger Penske would give him a winning car. But I don’t think he wants to. Unlike the others on this list and the many more that I didn’t mention – I think Hornish will choose to stay out of an IndyCar.

As mentioned, there are many more to add to this list. Probably at least one of these drivers will prove me wrong – possibly as early as this May. But with all of the young talent that is finally getting a well-deserved break in the series, it will be tougher than ever for some of these other drivers to get a second chance.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “Some Drivers We May Never See Again”

  1. I keep hearing Saavedra’s name thrown about for that 2nd seat at Conquest again this year, but I’d be mildly surprised if it actually happened on a FT basis. Saavedra had a lot of goodwill going among fans after his unique entry into the 500 this year, but I think that was hurt badly when he and his dad left BHA high and dry towards the end of the season.

    I’d actually like to see Hideki back. I doubt it’ll happen; I think you’re right in that Japanese drivers seem to have a pretty brief tenure in this series.

    Richard Antinucci’s a strange case. I feel like he might do ok if he were given a second look. No one should be completely judged for how they did with Team 3G.

  2. I’m bummed that Hideki won’t be back next season. Things that I’ve been hearing put him racing GT cars back in Japan. Last season pretty much tanked his value in IndyCar.

    Matos is a bit of a puzzle. He’s won the championship in ever series he’s competed, often in his rookie year, until he got to IndyCar. His time with DDR has been less than stellar, but I wouldn’t write him off just yet. If the team can get the funding, he may be in a 2nd car alongside Kaanan. That partnership would do Matos a world of good.

    I’ve been hearing the same things about Saavedra as Zachary. I don’t pretend to know all that went down between him and BHA, but it really doubt that it was his sole decision. The vibe I get is that it was his Dad’s and his manager’s decision. Regardless, he’s quick and I think will be a good driver for Conquest if they can find the extra money.

  3. Saadevra’s been mentioned at Conquest for next season… but I really hope it doesn’t happen. Of course, outside of Tags and possibly Baugette, going to Conquest has pretty much ended most people’s careers, so maybe Saadevra should go there…

    Otherwise, everyone mentioned is probably gone, though I think Honda may save Mutoh. I don’t really think that outside of Hornish and Rice any will be missed or remember, either. Matos is a little sad… but he’s really done almost nothing in his last 2 seasons…

  4. If you go by the standards you look at today, George, it is entirely possible that A.J. Foyt would never have gotten a ride. His irrascible personality (at times,) his small bankroll (when he got started,) and his desire to do it HIS way (at ALL times,) would not have made him a likely candidate for an INDYCAR seat.

    Now I know you’re about as big a fan of AJ as I am, but that IS the somewhat harsh reality, and it’s proven out by his grandson’s difficulty getting a ride of any substance at all. (That is not to say that Anthony is anywhere CLOSE to the driver his grandfather was, but remember he DID dominate the Indy Lights series before trying to step up to the big cars. )

    Point is, these days it’s all about the green, (and I don’t mean green flag or Andretti-Green.) Why else would you have Milka Duno driving a regular car and the two Buddy’s (Rice and Lazier) can’t even get a good one-off for the 500 as former winners?

    Just goes to show you the different emphases we see in the series now as compared to the olden days.

  5. Brian McKay Says:

    I didn’t ‘vote’ in the poll, as I couldn’t … I didn’t imagine any of those guys being sought to pedal (and crash) a car next season, and Hornish Junior has said that he wants to focus on NASCAR…
    Thanks for blogging, George. I like your point that racers need to be able to schmooze their sponsors (and their sponsors’ guests and customers). I believe that that is why Briscoe, Castroneves, Power, Dixon, and Franchitti get sponsored — and continue winning (prize money) — and get rehired, and so on … while the petulant, frustrated, pouting, unshaven, crashing youngsters don’t get funded beyond two seasons of costly, embarrassing DNFs.

  6. Carrera and Romancini both point to revelation that Bertrand was this year in that conquest ride.
    But with your list having Matos, Carrera and Romancini on it does point to a problem in the future. A lack of young Brazillians. The league has to have a strong driver contingent from the CORE three markets: US, Brazil and Canada. Big steps have been taken to secure young Talent from the US and Canada but one or two of the young Brazillians needs to stick, Tony, Helio and Vitor are in the back third of their careers. Ana certainly is a candidate. But of Romancini, Matos and Moraes if Moraes is the one with a ride next year…YUK. of the three, I feel that Romancini is the one who had the incomplete audition. It might behoove him to get back into Lights and run for that scholarship…

    • I would argue that there should be one more core market for IndyCar: Mexico. Unfortunately, except for Juan Pablo Garcia in Indy Lights this year, there is a lack of Mexican representation in IndyCar. At least on the CART side, Mexico had Fernandez, Dominguez, and Jourdain to root for (and at home, too!). True, there were flops like Lavin (he was okay in 2005, though), Gonzalez, and Carlos Guerrero, but Mexico completed the North American contingent. Because of IndyCar’s apathy concerning Mexico, David Martinez may be a lost case despite running 5th in Mexico City in 2007 before a gearbox failed.

      Champ Car and A1GP are defunct, and the Busch Series left Mexico City, so I don’t even know if there are ANY major events down there. With a Mexican driver or two, IndyCar could be a success south of the border. They loved CART!

  7. Mario Romancini is ALSO Eddie Cheever’s nephew? Good grief, I’ve got a lot of distant relatives in this series.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I was a Buddy Rice fan from his days at Lynx and DSTP in Atlantics, was very disappointed when Bobby Rahal signed him to a contract only to let him sit in 2001, and while I wasn’t much of an IRL fan at the time I was happy to see Buddy do well in 2004.
    Would love to see him in a car come May, if not full-time.

    But i don’t have as much sympathy for him as I feel I should.
    The point that he doesn’t seem to have the ability to “schmooze the sponsors” is probably fair, but the number of times that Robin Miller has written that Rice won’t “beg for a ride” makes me wonder if he even makes an effort to find funding for a ride.

    I think it’s as bad as anyone does that a fairly recent Indy 500 winner hasn’t been in a car since 2008, but these are days when even the most talented and accomplished drivers often have to beat down doors to find sponsors. If Buddy doesn’t want to make an effort, then I can live without him in a car.

  9. Says:

    Sheesh George, how did Tony Stewart ever get to where he is in racing what with being “surly and unshaven”? Likeability in a driver is highly overrated in my opinion, even for attracting sponsors.

    Also, I think your remark that Sam Hornish “kicked the series that made him to the side” is a bit over the top. I do not recall Sam ever saying a bad thing about the IndyCar series. What is wrong with a driver wanting to try a new challenge?

  10. The Lapper Says:

    The series is a whole new game today and, frankly, we will see a lot of drivers run for the last time, even after this year.

  11. Saavedra was working with the reborn Walker Racing. I also hope that Rafa Matos is back for the full 2011 season.

    George, now the best Japanese formula car driver is Sauber F1’s Kamui Kobayashi. He’s very fast and aggressive, but never suicidal. And he knows about setup as well. He will last longer in F1 than any Japanese before.

  12. I’m beating the dead horse just a bit here, but of the guys that George listed, I wouldn’t miss very many other than Rafa Matos. His 13th and 14th in points really aren’t all that bad, given his situation (one-car team which needed sponsorship to sign a driver at all for 2011, so it’s not like they’ve really been running at Roger Penske’s level of support), and 12 top-10 finishes in 34 starts tells me that he’s got plenty of potential. He finished only 9 points behind (the much beloved underdog-type, I might add) Ed Carpenter for 12th in 2009, and only 20 points behind Vitor Meira for 12th this year, so it’s not like he’s miles behind the other mid-field guys (and girls). If we were to ever see him in an AA car, for instance, I think we’d see something along the lines of 10-12 top-10s in a season, a handful of top-5s and maybe even a couple of races where he contended for a win (sound familiar to anybody who followed RHR this year?).

    Anyway, that’s enough of that sort of speculation from me. As you were, folks. Kringle arrives soon.

  13. DOUG BERNARD Says:

    Matos showed no ability to drive the bigger cars at a competitive level ?
    Where was he running last year at Indy, until a mistake in the pits. This is a team sport. He should be back next year, he has worked hard to reach this level on his own, by winning, he just needs a teammate, then you will see a better results.

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