Who’s Number One?

There has been a long-standing tradition in open-wheel racing that has gone by the wayside in recent years, and I’m not sure why. For decades, it was considered an honor for a driver to carry No.1 on their car to signify that they had won the championship the previous year. Suddenly, no one does it anymore.

In fact, the last driver to carry No.1 for the season was Scott Dixon in 2004, on the heels of his 2003 championship season. Perhaps his dismal performance in 2004 while carrying the No.1 has influenced other champions to stay away from it. Tony Kanaan stayed with No.11 after winning his 2004 championship.

Dan Wheldon actually wanted to carry No.1 on his car after winning the 2005 championship. The only problem was that he changed teams, leaving Andretti-Green to go to Ganassi. As car owner, Michael Andretti exercised his right to not let the No.1 leave the team. He instead, opted to carry No. 1 on his own car in the 2006 Indianapolis 500, when he came out of retirement to run against his son Marco. That’s the last time that the No.1 has made an appearance in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Since 2006, it has become chic to eschew what once was a symbol of pride. Drivers used to dream of the honor of carrying No.1 on their cars. Sam Hornish passed on the opportunity after his 2006 championship. Dario Franchitti has chosen to keep his usual number after two of his three of his championships, rather than change (after winning his first, he pursued NASCAR the following year). Scott Dixon also elected to stay away from the number after winning his second championship in 2008.

When did it become un-cool to drive car No.1? It’s not like the number hasn’t had success. It has won the Indianapolis 500 seven times. It’s the third winningest number in history at the Brickyard behind No. 3 (eleven times) and No.2 (eight times). Granted, it’s been a while since car No.1 won at Indianapolis. You have to go all the way to Al Unser’s victory in 1971 to find No.1 atop the pylon.

Still, up until the last few years, it was considered an honor to have No.1 on the side of your car. In 1991, Arie Luyendyk considered it such an honor, that he caused two other divers to change their numbers at Indianapolis. Luyendyk had won at Indianapolis the previous year and was carrying No.9 on his car throughout the 1991 CART campaign. Since the Indianapolis 500 was sanctioned by USAC rather than CART, Luyendyk had the option to carry No.1 at Indy to signify that he was the defending race winner.

Al Unser, Jr. had won the CART championship and was carrying the No.1 on his Valvoline car for the entire 1991 season. When Luyendyk opted for No.1 at Indy, Little Al was obliged to change to car No. 2. The problem was, that was Michael Andretti’s number in CART, so Michael chose the next available number for Indianapolis, which was No. 10. It was all very confusing, but that’s how much Luyendyk coveted carry No. 1 on his car.

Come to think of it, after Luyendyk finished third that year at Indianapolis in car No.1, the number has had a rather tough go at it at the famed oval. Michael Andretti was carrying No.1 when he dominated the 1992 Indianapolis 500, only to break down while leading on Lap 189. In 1993, car No.1 never even made the race. Bobby Rahal failed to qualify his Rahal-Hogan (formerly Truesports) chassis, even though he was the defending CART champion. In 1994, Nigel Mansell’s car wore No. 1. It also ended up wearing Dennis Vitolo’s car on the pit entrance lane. 1995 saw No.1 fail to make the race again. Al Unser, Jr. was the defending CART champion and the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, but he and his Marlboro Team Penske teammate, Emerson Fittipaldi, came up short in qualifying.

After that came the CART-IRL split and things got sort of forgettable for a few years. There was no car No.1 in 1996. That iconic legend, Paul Durant, drove car No.1 for AJ Foyt in 1997. Tony Stewart finished dead-last driving car No.1 for John Menard in 1998. With no car No.1 in 1999, the year 2000 saw Greg Ray duplicate Stewart’s efforts by finishing dead-last again for John Menard in car No.1. For the next three years, there was no car No.1 on the grid. As mentioned earlier, Scott Dixon ran the No.1 in 2004. With the exception of Michael Andretti running No.1 in 2006, no one has touched it since.

How and why did this happen? This was a one-time badge of honor. Now it’s treated like a curse. In fact, the number always associated with a curse, car No.13, has run since car No.1 did. In 2009, EJ Viso drove car No. 13 to an unremarkable twenty-fourth place finish, falling out on Lap 139 with steering problems.

How is it that drivers would prefer to run car No.13 before car No.1?Everything goes in cycles. Twenty years ago, tattoos were reserved for carnival workers. Nowadays, you’re the scourge of Hollywood if you are a celebrity that carries no ink on your body. That fad will pass one day and so will avoiding carrying the number 1. Teams and drivers earn the right each year to do it. Why do they not exercise it?

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Who’s Number One?”

  1. Another well written column George! I can talk about these things all day long and with May just days away I am getting pretty excited about Indianapolis. I was disappointed when Hornish didn’t use #1 and I have always thought of it as an honor. Foyt, by the way, enjoyed using it when he earned it. With that said, an argument could be that the regular number is tied to the driver for marketing and merchandising reasons particularly in NASCAR, but I don’t buy it. I would think that a sponsor would enjoy having their driver win the honor AND it is just added merchandise to sell to the followers of the driver who would like to commemorate the championship. Ganassi does commemorate both the championship and the Indy win on his merchandise.

  2. It’s a neat tradition. And I have heard, but don’t really buy the merchandising excuse as being that big a deal unless you’re selling last years t-shirts. As long as we’re talking about the championship–could they please change that unicycle trophy?

  3. Puff piece? No. Just a winter piece. F1 uses the number system in which they give #1 to the World Champion and then use owners points all the way to the last number (25 now) but skip 13. The numbers change each year because if this (Though I bet Sebastian Vettel will still manage to be #1.

    On the other hand IndyCar and NASCAR allow you to use numbers as an identity. It works well in NASCAR as we all think of certain drivers when we here 3, 24, 43, or 48. We also think of certain teams when we hear 21. IndyCar has too much driver movement from year to year for this to be as effective. At the same time we all know Penske’s 3 and Ganassi’s 9 and 10. So maybe indycar’s number identity is growing as is the sport.

    Moto #46: Rossi. And I dont even follow Moto GP.

  4. I don’t care about numerals on engine covers or rear wing end plates. Shouldn’t be important. But I understand that George is an amateur historian and student (and teacher?) of the sport.
    I’ll echo the call to scrap that ‘extraterrestrial alien-on-a-unicycle’ trophy that’s sickening to look at and NOT befitting North America’s top open-wheel racing series.
    I hope that Mr. Bernard reads Oilpressure by now.

  5. The champion should race the #1 unless their own driver number ‘brand’ is so big it would be a backward step. As Steve said, Valentino Rossi with 46. There’s probably nobody else in MotoGP who could get away with it though no doubt some may try.
    Frankly there is no such driver in IndyCar at present, in my humble opinion – there may well be in terms of talent, but not in terms of being linked to a specific number.
    Also no race should be able to run a different numbering system to the rest of the year, even if that race is the Indy 500. If you (the series) are going to make a big deal about race numbers you can’t then change them for your biggest race.

    While we’re making these changes let’s drop the leading zeroes from race numbers.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I’d love to see the champion use the #1 again. Both Chip (with Zanardi) and Roger (with de Ferran) won repeat championships with the #1 in CART.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing the elimination of leading zeroes, either.

    I’d at least hope to never see the ridiculousness that was Alex Lloyd’s #40202 car from the 2009 Homestead race…

  7. I like defending champions that use the number 1. It’s an honor to achieve it, drivers should be proud of carrying it.

    I don’t think that merchandising has anything to do with champions not using the number 1. On the contrary, keeping numbers means that merchandising doesn’t get outdated. F1 change numbers nearly every year, so they sell new merchandising to the fans every season.

    Driver numbers work better in championships where drivers can race fore decades, like stock car racing and touring car racing. I wouldn’t do that in open-wheel racing. However, I do like IndyCar teams keep their numbers season after season.

  8. I never thought much of the tradition.
    What would it be for NASCAR to have somebody like Richard Petty not be #43?
    It’s worth giving them the option to carry the number,
    but I would more prefer that the drivers earn permanent numbers of their choice.
    Should Tony Kanaan, as a championship winner, not be allowed to carry the #11 to KV if he chooses to?

    In the “land of brand”, a new way would probably be better for the sport.

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