Learn The Driver’s Names

With all the talk of Dreyer & Reinbold and Bryan Herta Autosport in the midst of a mid-season manufacturer swap, and Chevrolet teams protesting Honda’s change of turbochargers – most of the blogosphere is full of opinions and rants on these subjects. These are timely subjects, but I have an itch from last week that I need to scratch first.

Three different times last week, I saw references that the main problem for the IZOD IndyCar Series is that they have a bunch of drivers that no one has ever heard of. I saw this once on Twitter, once in the comment section of another IndyCar blog as well as a comment on this site.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – If you haven’t ever heard of the drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series, it’s because you never took the time to follow the series. I may not be able to name more than ten NBA players. Is it the NBA’s fault? No. It’s my fault because I’m not interested in the NBA.

To blame any problems of the league on the anonymity of the drivers is the lazy way out. Most people would use the phrase “cop-out”, but I despise that saying so I’ll say lazy. To me, it’s code-speak for complaining about foreign drivers without looking like you’re an anti-foreignite. It’s the age-old way of thinking ”…if I can’t pronounce their name, we don’t need ‘em”.

This has been one of my many hot buttons for years. I’m all about preserving the legacy and history of the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar, but thinking our brand of racing is the exclusive domain of American drivers is not the way to do it. In fact, foreign drivers have been part of the Indianapolis 500 since the beginning. Frenchman Jules Goux won the third running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1913. It wasn’t until 1919 that another American won, when Howdy Wilcox crossed the finish line first. Foreign manufacturers have also had a major presence at the Indianapolis 500 since the beginning.

The first time I attended the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, Scottish driver Jim Clark won in dominating fashion. The following year, world-renowned drivers Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart joined the field. Hill won the race as a rookie and Jackie Stewart was Rookie of the Year. In subsequent years, other international drivers attempted to run the Indianapolis 500. By the mid-seventies, they were mostly gone, but their presence from the early sixties to the mid-seventies was immense.

Brazilian driver Emerson Fittipaldi came to the Speedway as a two-time World Champion in 1984. He started twenty-third and finished thirty-second – a modest performance, to say the least. There were seven foreign drivers in that race. Ten years later in 1994, that number had doubled to fourteen. Fast-forward another ten years to 2004 and there were fifteen foreign drivers. One year later, the count of foreign drivers exploded to eighteen of the thirty-three starters.

Some of the foreign drivers over the years have become some of the sport’s greatest ambassadors. Jim Clark was reluctant to come race at the Indianapolis 500 at first, yet he quickly developed a love and appreciation for the historic oval. Emerson Fittipaldi may have lost a lot of popularity when he opted to drink orange juice over milk in 1993, but until that moment – he was one of the sports favorite drivers. I always considered Brazilian Raul Boesel to be one of the most underrated drivers and he was outstanding with the fans. One of my favorite photos on my Flickr account found on this site, is when Boesel took time to pose with my four year-old son on opening day in 1994.

Canadian Scott Goodyear came within a few feet of going from worst-to-first in 1992 and would have won in 1995 had he not passed the pace car. Some still think that fellow Canadian Paul Tracy won the 2002 Indianapolis 500. Brazil’s Helio Castroneves is currently a three-time winner and still counting. Scotland’s Dario Franchitti already owns two Baby-Borg’s and wants more. Of course, one of the most celebrated and greatest ambassador the series has seen in recent years, was British driver Dan Wheldon. Foreign drivers are here to stay. To think that the US is going to somehow reclaim the starting grid anytime soon is not realistic.

I’m usually proud of my southern heritage and to be a native Tennessean. That was not the case on the evening of July 19, 2003. The crowd at Nashville Superspeedway had been cheering all night for American Sam Hornish, who was still at Panther and running the underpowered Chevy engine. Hornish ran well for a while, but finished eleventh. As Gil de Ferran pulled into victory lane, the whole crowd booed loudly. The comments I heard from the crowd was that no one had ever heard of him and he had a funny name. Keep in mind, this driver no one had heard of was less than two months removed from winning the Indianapolis 500. Gil de Ferran was one of the classiest drivers you would ever meet, yet the boos poured down on him in Nashville for no other reason than the fact he was foreign and had beaten an American.

A foreign driver has won the Indianapolis 500 eleven of the past thirteen races. An American has won the series championship only once in the past nine years. Don’t hate the foreign drivers for winning. If you want an American driver to win, perhaps it’s time for the Americans in the series to step up their game. Ryan Hunter-Reay has been respectable with five wins in seven full seasons of open-wheel competition. Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have three wins between them in twelve seasons combined, which isn’t really setting the world on fire. Ed Carpenter finally won a race last season and could be a threat on ovals this season. Probably the most promising American to come along in recent years is Nashville native Josef Newgarden.

Another easy target is the ladder system in American open-wheel. For years, the open-wheel path was confusing and murky. I credit Randy Bernard for creating a clear “Road to Indy” with US F200, Star Mazda and Indy Lights. Some wonder why owners no longer mine the USAC ranks for drivers. It’s because there is very little that carries over from a front-engine midget or sprint car to a rear-engine IndyCar. USAC has become a much more suitable training-ground for NASCAR simply due to the configuration of their cars and tracks.

So when you hear the names of Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Rubens Barrichello, Vitor Meira, Simona de Silvestro, Pippa Mann and Ana Beatriz – don’t hold animosity towards them. Appreciate them for elevating the sport. And if none of those names sound familiar to you – then I suggest you either start paying a little more attention, or else find a new sport to follow. But if you choose the latter, here’s a hint – stay away from America’s pastime of baseball. You won’t be able to pronounce many names there, either.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “Learn The Driver’s Names”

  1. unnamedsdog Says:

    “Probably the most promising American to come along in recent years is Nashville native Josef Newgarden.”

    Let’s not forget JR, too.

  2. I have never cared where a driver is from or their nationality. When Jim Clark came along I didn’t know that I was supposed to not root for foreign drivers and enjoyed his years at Indianapolis immensely. I have brought my son into the sport the same way. We are both rooting for TK to win his first “500.”

  3. Carburetor Says:

    Great post George. I’ve never understood the animosity toward foreign drivers. I have great boyhood memories of Stewart’s, Hill’s, and Clark’s races at Indianapolis. I think Helio and Tony K are great for the series. And since the only sport I love more than open-wheel racing is baseball, you are spot-on with your analogy there. Keep up the interesting perspective!

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Last 5 American Indy 500 Winners
    2006 – Sam Hornish Jr.
    2004 – Buddy Rice
    1998 – Eddie Cheever Jr.
    1996 – Buddy Lazier
    1994 – Al Unser Jr.

    If I was an IndyCar team, I’d be looking for a pair of young American up-and-comers named Buddy and _____ Jr. Two 500 wins, guaranteed.

  5. Brian in NY Says:

    Excellent post George. Being a fan of all forms of all forms of motorsports (INDY, F1, NASCAR, ALMS, etc), I have found that the fans of each series approach how they watch differently. American fans watch NASCAR more based on the drivers then the actual racing or teams. F1 fans follow the different teams like McClaren and Ferrari. While INDY fans are a mix of both fans of drivers and fans of certain teams. Teams like Penske or Andretti have fans that follow them, other fans need a specific driver to engage them.

    As for myself, I enjoy watching openwheel racing. I learn the different drivers and I can appreciate the skill and qualities of each driver. I root for specific drivers and teams, but it is more important that it was an entertaining race. When I watch NASCAR, I root for one specific driver. My level of enjoyment is based on his results for that race. If he has a bad race, so do I. The product itself is fairly boring and without having a specific driver to root for the product is not good enough to maintain my interest.

    American’s have always been a celebrity based society. F1 enjoys over 300 million viewers for each race which dwarfs NASCAR. The reason is that worldwide people are fans of the product and the teams. When a driver retires in F1 they don’t lose a large segment of their fans because a new driver is ready to step into that seat. In NASCAR, drivers like Mark Martin or Junior will continue to have rides because of their marketing potential. It doesn’t matter if Junior never win’s again, he is popular and that is what counts in NASCAR. My question is, what is NASCAR going to do in the future? Are they going to keep running the same drivers into their fifties because they are afraid to lose the money from sponsorship.

    INDYCAR’s issue is that it is a one trick pony. We put more importance on winning one race then winning the drivers title. In honesty, the 500 is usually not that exciting of a race, but fans will wait all year for it and talk endlessly about it. I understand the historical significant, but if INDYCAR wants to rise above one race they must promote the series as a whole. Jimmy Johnston is known for winning drivers titles not for winning the Daytona 500. Schumaker won seven titles, but can you tell me how many times he won Monaco?

    As for the lack of American drivers, I think most of the fans of INDYCAR don’t care, but the media make a big deal out of it. Sure it’s good to have national pride, but remember almost every team is an American team. Pick a team and root for that team. Italians are passionate about Ferrari and last I checked it has been a long time since an Italian has driven for the prancing horse. Don’t let the lack of Americans be an excuse for not watching some very entertaining racing.

  6. Oh, come on, George. You and I both know that nobody around these parts watches the Predators, and the reason for that is all the stupid, goofy, unpronounceable names of the guys from countries that nobody can find on a map. They should chuck those guys off the roster and replace them with a bunch of guys names like “Smith” and “Jones” and “Johnson”. THEN, we’d see what a real hockey team looked like.

  7. Indycar has foreign drivers with names like Wilson, Conway and Dixon, Scott, Justin, Mike. The american drivers have names like Andretti, Rahal, Josef, Marco. Who sounds more “foreign”?

    As long as there’s good racing, I don’t care what nationality they are. However, I think an American winning the Indy 500 would gain more media attention (particularly if its Andretti or Rahal)

  8. Joe Blow Says:

    “In fact, foreign drivers have been part of the Indianapolis 500 since the beginning.”

    Yes, look at all of those foreign-born drivers in the Indy 500 from 1950-1980. The field was just jammed packed with non-Americans.

    Some of you don’t know your Indy 500 history very well. Its only duing the F1-junior series era of the Indy 500 (1990-today) that Indy has become less and less an American driver’s domain. Culminating with new record low’s for American participation in 2009, 2010, 2011 and again this year.

    Some of you might not think it matters much, but your wrong. The lack of interest of this sport tells the story. And a big reason for it? Not American enough.

    • 2004 – 18 Americans
      2005 – 15 Americans
      2006 – 19 Americans
      2007 – 20 Americans
      2008 – 13 Americans
      2009 – 11 Americans
      2010 – 9 Americans
      2011 – 10 Americans
      2012 – currently 8 Americans on the entry, but Townsend Bell is yet to be confirmed and a couple more guys are remote possibilities

      OK, what’s this tell us? Yes, obviously, the 500 has been less “American” since remergification. However, are you going to tell me that the 2004 through 2007 fields were better, and had more potential to grab fans because they sported the likes of Jon Herb, Jacques Lazier, Roger Yasukawa, Jeff Simmons, Larry Foyt, P.J. Jones and Robbie McGehee? Because to my mind, having people like Bourdais, de Silvestro, Power, Hinchcliffe, Barrichello and Pagenaud sounds like just as marketable a grid, if not moreso, than the ones we had just a few scant years ago. Very true, the grids back in the ’50s through the early ’80s were nearly the sole domain of American drivers, but for 90% of the American public, those races might as well have taken place a million years ago. The average SportsCenter watcher doesn’t know anything about that era, and doesn’t care.

      I’m convinced that with hockey (with all those goofy Eastern Europeans and Sweedes and the like) regaining momentum in the American sporting landscape, and with the rise of the international players in the NBA, and with international sports like English Premier League soccer starting to catch on, most American sports fans don’t give a crap where somebody comes from. They just want to see a winner. Show me somebody who can consistently appear in the highlights on SportsCenter (which assumes that IndyCar actually appears there, which is a whole separate rant), and I’ll show you somebody who gains a following, regardless of where they were born.

    • Well, for the time period you referenced (1950-1980); fifteen foreign drivers made their debut at Indianapolis, some with long-lasting careers while others only had one start. They are (with their rookie year):

      Alberto Ascari 1952
      Jack Brabham 1961
      Jim Clark 1963
      Billy Foster 1965
      Graham Hill 1966
      Jackie Stewart 1966
      Denis Hulme 1967
      Jochen Rindt 1967
      David Hobbs 1971
      Graham McRae 1973
      Eldon Rasmussen 1975
      Vern Schuppan 1976
      Cliff Hugul 1977
      Clay Regazzoni 1977
      Dennis Firestone 1980

      The late sixties averaged three to four foreign drivers each year. That doesn’t come close to today’s numbers, but you’re a bit off when you claim we don’t know our history. Maybe it’s just that we realized things have changed since the 1950’s and we also realize that those days aren’t coming back. Step away from the ledge and hop on board the train headed forward. There’s still plenty of room.

  9. I choose to root for a driver based on their talent, skill, and/or personality; not the flag of the country they’re from.

  10. I’m just glad the black is back. That other theme shocked me so much I couldn’t even comment. It was like seeing your uncle in drag. Your American uncle of course…

  11. Root for a driver because of their nationality? Sorry, but that’s just plain ignorant. If that’s truly the way you feel, go to NASCAR, because you are truly a “Bubba.”

  12. elmondohummus Says:

    THANK YOU! George said what I’ve been saying for freakin’ YEARS about the whole American drivers charge, right down to the comparison with baseball. Between that sport and the NBA, I see plenty of acceptance of foreign players. Why Indycar is supposed to be different, I don’t know for sure; I guess it has something to do with the comparison to NASCAR and the misguided belief that Indycar has to emulate them in order to be successful.

    Complaining about the presence of foreign drivers in Indycar is ignorant.

    On top of that, what’s more American than a foreigner coming to the states and having success based on merit?

    Indycar isn’t American enough? Bull. The fact that foreigners and native born drivers compete under equal rules with no consideration for their birthplace is to me the EPITOME of what’s American. And enforcing homogeneity as well as penalizing for success (a-la phantom yellows to reduce hard earned leads), is, to me, eminently unamerican. Which oddly enough are the hallmarks of the supposedly Mom & Apple Pie All-American race league.

    Indycar and the Indianapolis 500 are the EPITOME of being American. And the all-inclusiveness of the series is a FEATURE of that.

    • Herman Flowers Says:

      Interesting post,I believe my reply last week is one of them you are calling out.I stand by my post as being very factual.I dont have a problem with drivers from another land and I guickly lean who the drivers are competing in the IRL.The problem is they were never well known before they came to the IRL.In the days past most drivers made a name for themselfs and were known to USA racing fans before they came to Indy. Todays field of drivers are not much at all conected to 90% of the type of racing that takes place in the USA.The simple fact of who is and who is not driving the cars is not the only problem Indy Car is dealing with today or should I refraze that in say problems they should be dealiing with.

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