Is This The End Of An Era?

My memories of being in the garage area at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1995 are vivid. It was the last day of qualifying. The old-timers were bristling because only fourteen American drivers had made the field. Altogether, there were thirty-three drivers from eleven different countries. The pro-American faction was distraught, while those that preferred a more international flair were ecstatic.

Five of those from other countries all hailed from Brazil. Curiously, one Brazilian that did not make the field was the one that began the Brazilian invasion in 1984 – Emerson Fittipaldi. He and his Marlboro Team Penske teammate Al Unser, Jr. both failed to qualify, after running away with the race the year before – but that’s another story for another day.

Even without Fittipaldi, who had previously won the Formula One World Championship twice and was a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, the grid contained five fellow Brazilians – including his nephew, rookie Christian Fittipaldi.

Ever since Emerson Fittipaldi showed up at the “500” in a pink car in 1984, there have been Brazilians in IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. That will be the case in 2017, as well.

But times are changing. For the past couple of years there have been but two Brazilian drivers that have either been fulltime in the Verizon IndyCar series or run in the Indianapolis 500 – Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. Kanaan will turn forty-two on New Year’s Eve, while Castroneves hits the same milestone next May. Translation – while they are still very competitive and capable of winning any given race, they are both getting a little long in the tooth.

The biggest problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone from Brazil in line to take their place. Some may not see it as a problem. Many feel that if they aren’t American, they need to go elsewhere. I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always enjoyed the international flavor of IndyCar. Limiting participation to one country is preventing a lot of talented drivers from coming to race here.

Just imagine if the Verizon IndyCar Series was an all-US series. Just in the last quarter-century, we would have been prevented from seeing the greatness we saw from Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell, Jacque Villeneuve, Juan Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Will Power and Dan Wheldon – to name just a few. Out of the twelve I just named, four are Brazilian.

I was attending races at Indianapolis at the height of the British Invasion of the sixties. Jim Clark won the first Indianapolis 500 I attended in 1965. Jackie Stewart came close to winning in 1966, before Graham Hill finally won it. Later on in the sixties, we saw foreign born F1 veterans from other countries try their hand at it, as well. Throughout it all, I heard the complaints about how the foreign born drivers were going to ruin the race – even as a kid. I didn’t get what the complaints were about then, and I don’t get it now.

I understand that in order to generate interest in the US, it would be ideal if the majority of drivers were US born. But to have a goal of shutting out most foreign drivers for the sake of lesser talent that happens to hail from the US is a bit narrow-minded. OK, now I’ll climb off of my soapbox.

Currently, there are nine US drivers confirmed for the 2017 season. One at Penske (Josef Newgarden), one at Ganassi (Charlie Kimball), three at Andretti (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi), two at ECR (Ed Carpenter, JR Hildebrand), one at Foyt (Conor Daly), one at Rahal (Graham Rahal). Dale Coyne and Sam Schmidt have no US-born drivers on their roster for next season. That is close to half the field – a huge improvement from a decade ago when there were only five or six fulltime American drivers.

So, while the number of American IndyCar drivers is rising; the number of Brazilians is quickly declining. As mentioned earlier, Kanaan and Castroneves are the only ones that are expected to be carrying Brazilian colors in the series and at the Indianapolis 500 in 2017. That’s the way it’s been for the past two or three years.

You don’t have to go back too far to see when the number of Brazilians was double what it is now. There were four Brazilian drivers in the 2012 Indianapolis 500. Go back a little further to 2010 and you’ll see there were eight Brazilian drivers in the starting lineup at Indianapolis. Where have they all gone, so fast?

I’m sure the instability of the Brazilian government over the past couple of years has not helped, but what does that have to do with those coming up through the ranks? Are Brazilian teenagers still karting like they did a generation ago? Is auto racing still the second-most popular sport in Brazil, only behind soccer?

They aren’t all flocking to Formula One, either. There were only two fulltime Brazilian drivers on the F1 grid this past season – Felipe Nasr and Felipe Massa. It’s hard to believe that the country that produced the great Ayrton Senna (quite possibly the greatest driver that ever lived) and Emerson Fittipaldi, would now be running dry of talent. It’s mind-boggling!

Is this just a cycle? Will every series have a plethora of Brazilian drivers in another five, ten or fifteen years; or is this a sign of things to come? While some may say “good riddance”, I fully believe the Brazilians have enhanced the Verizon IndyCar Series over the past thirty some-odd years. I also think that if and when the day comes that the grid is free of Brazilian drivers, it will be a sad end to a tremendous era. Let’s hope we don’t see it for a while.

George Phillips

13 Responses to “Is This The End Of An Era?”

  1. This trend will no doubt help the xenophobes feel more comfortable. Keep it “Murican” right? How would IndyCar racing gain broad notoriety if it were just American drivers? The talent pool is deepened by the presence of drivers from everywhere. The ‘Murican” thinking perpetuates the “island” mentality or (IRL way of thinking) that preceded 9/11. We have got to stop thinking like that because 1) it’s going to get us killed and 2) it bolsters the stature of the Indy 500 and the season in general. Obviously and American presence is vital as well. Brazil and its neighbors will continue to suffer (look at Venezuela) so I would imagine this decline will continue. This is not good for IndyCar.

    • Xenophobe. Isn’t that the leftist word for Patriot?

      • billytheskink Says:

        I thought a xenophobe was what the alien from Alien was called.

      • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

        Oh, we do love our labels don’t we?
        It’s not a political term at all. In fact, it’s a medical definition read thusly:
        xenophobe: one with an undue or irrational fear of what is foreign, and especially of people of foreign origin.

        I’m far more concerned about having less than 33 cars for the 500, a sub-1.0 TV rating, fewer than 14 races, and less than 20 full-time cars by 2018 than I am of the nationality of any driver, but that would indicate my pessimism for the US and World economy in the near-term (24 months).

  2. Steven Kilsdonk Says:

    Lots of the Brazilians had support from smoke sticks at one point or another. In that 1995 500 you had chevrons on Ribiero, Boesel, and both Fittipaldis, Hollywood with Gugelmin, and de Ferran later drove for RP. That’s all of them accounted for.

  3. These days it’s all about the size of your fathers wallet or your sponsorship package. You have to bring a lot more than talent to the table to get a ride. High quality racers everywhere are being left in the dust if anyone with more money comes along. It’s been that way for a long time and won’t get any better for the foreseeable future.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    As has been said, the decline in the number of Brazilians in the sport is largely rooted in economics. The sport does not see foreign money thrown around like it once did, tobacco or otherwise, and domestic sponsors do seem as enamored with/willing to put up with foreign drivers as they once were. The Road To Indy ladder structure has been responsible for producing much of Indycar’s recent influx of young talent, and it too has seen foreign money and driver participation rates stagnate or wane in recent years.

    So too, it seems, that the rise in the number of drivers from certain foreign countries is tied to the success of a transcendent star from that country. Fittipaldi and Senna inspired a wave of Brazilian single-seat racers that seems to have crested with the Kanaan-Castoneves generation. Similarly, the influx of Colombian talent inspired by Juan Montoya’s success has continued into the present day.
    One of the best examples of this is Mexico, where Adrian Fernandez’s popularity brought forth a collection of Mexican drivers and sponsors that largely dried up once Fernandez retired. Perhaps the Mexican contingent in Formula 1 will have a spillover effect and bring Mexican drivers and money back to Indycar…

    In all of this, I’m reminded of Raphael Matos. He seemed primed to be the next Brazilian star, winning both the Atlantic and Lights titles. Though crash-prone, in hindsight I would say that he acquitted himself relatively well over two seasons driving for (now-established cancer) Jay Penske. His disappearance surprises me to this day.

  5. While Milka Duno was not Brazilian, I miss her never-the-less. She brought a bit of panache to the sport. While the subject of much ridicule, there are not many folks-male or female-who have four Master’s degrees, was a model, could drive a race car at over 220 mph at Indy, and added to the scenery at every track.

    As others have said here, perhaps economics is the root cause for fewer drivers from Brazil and other South American countries coming to IndyCar. Drug violence is part of that economic equation. With each passing year it seems like a driver’s best chance of getting a ride, independent of talent, is to bring a suitcase full of money. Witness the Herta kid coming to the MRTI with the Steinbrenners help. Yes, those Steinbrenners.

  6. Where a driver is from really isn’t important to me.

    Talent > Nationality

  7. Chris Lukens Says:

    Why is it that if you point out that we cannot have a race in Mexico because there are no Mexican drivers and Canadian races suffer when there are few Canadian drivers, that is a recognition of reality. But if you point that Americans are calling for more American drivers you are suddenly a knuckle dragging , red state living, alt-right, xenophobe .
    I have no problem with non-American TALENTED racers. George mentioned Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Fittipaldi, Mansell, Montoya, Castroneves, Kanaan, and Dixon, nobody can question their talent and they added to the luster of the 500. But, if wanting more Kyle Larsen’s or Rico Abreu’s and less Guido Dacco’s or Stefano Coletti’s makes me a xenophobe, then I will wear that title.

  8. Racing Acid Says:

    “Where are the Brazilians?” A country’s success period within a certain sport is often cyclical; Britain and Italy were dominant nations in F1 during its early years in 1950s and 1960s, but afterwards Italy saw a depth of quality in its drivers, with a few (Alboreto, Fisichella & Patrese) winning occasionally but not contenderss and Britain relying heavily on a star driver (Hunt, Mansell & now Hamilton). Bizarrely, developments within Indy and F1 have been roughly linear; tobacco sponsorship propping both series well until the mid-2000s, car developments such as ground effects and turbos and the dynamics of politics and business. Naturally, a patriotic element has always been a large part of international motorsport; teams in F1 would paint their schemes in national colours accordingly before sponsors appeared in the late 1960s. As a non-American, I agree a higher influx of American drivers would assist Indycar’s popularity outside its riband event. It’s not easy to promote foreign-born drivers who struggle to hide their original aspirations of F1, only to switch to Indy due to lack of opportunities or success in Europe. I agree there are some political ideologues who spend too much time in ensuring no-one says political incorrect or offensive things. You only have to look at how NASCAR surged in popularity in the 1990s: strong promotions, American drivers being prioritised, fan-friendly deals, good/close racing and brand identification. Not only have Indycar failed to follow this model, but F1 has failed to do so.

    When F1 has visited Brazil in recent years, there are often strong chorus of “Senna” in the grandstands. To be blunt, Brazilians rely upon a superstar to encourage others to follow them into a sport. It’s why Barrichello and Massa made it to F1, whilst de Ferran and Riberio went to Indycar to pursue glory.

    It’s also an end of an era in F1. With corporate-funded scholarships drying up, rich kids like Lance Stroll can buy seats at a whim. There will never be another driver brought up through their karting days to junior formulae by a F1 team, so that means another Lewis Hamilton is unlikely to appear.

  9. Racing Acid Says:

    Raphael Matos’ motorsports career was suspended last year after failing a drugs test

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