IndyCar One-Hit Wonders

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At the most random times, my good friend Paul Dalbey and I will swap texts trying to stump each other with IndyCar trivia. We have a gentleman’s agreement that we will not make a mad dash to turn on the Wikipedia Machine to look up the answers. If we know it, we know it. If we don’t – we fess up.

Last Week while I was still at work and during a Zoom video conference I had to be on, he sent me the following text: “I’ve got $500 that says you can’t name who drove Tony Bettenhausen’s traditional car at Laguna Seca in 1991”.

I was stumped. I remember watching that race and have a pretty good memory of it. That was when Michael Andretti clinched his one and only IndyCar championship, when Bobby Rahal fell out on Lap 24. I remember Rahal’s then-wife, Debi, giving him a sympathetic kiss in near tears as he climbed out of the cockpit – while he assured her he was fine.

I also remember the outgoing champion, Al Unser, Jr. with a strange interview after the race telling us that Michael would find out about all the bad that went with winning a championship. It seemed like a very dark comment at the time. After Little Al encountered so many personal problems later on, I always wondered if this was a foreshadowing of things to come.

One thing I didn’t remember was Tony Bettenhausen stepping out of his familiar No. 16 AMAX-sponsored car that he owned himself as an owner-driver. The reason the question stumped me was that the following year, Tony B actually did step out of his car. He had failed to qualify for the 1992 Indianapolis 500 for only the second time since he failed to make the race in 1980. He was forty years old by then and was most likely entertaining retirement soon. The next race after the Indianapolis 500 at Belle Isle, he yielded his seat to an up and coming Swedish driver – Stefan Johansson. Much was made of the fact that Tony B was making this move. Johansson immediately raised eyebrows as he put Bettenhausen’s year-old Penske chassis on the podium in his IndyCar debut.

But for the life of me, I could not remember Bettenhausen giving up his seat for someone else prior to that – especially since so much was made over it at Belle Isle the following year. As much as it pained me, I had to text him back the dreaded “I have no idea”. His answer was a name I had no recollection of ever hearing – Cor Euser. It sounded more like some type of earth-drilling equipment than a race car driver. As it turns out, Cor is short for Cornelius and he was a Dutch driver with a background in European ladder series.

The way I saw it, this was a trick question. When Paul said this was in Tony B’s traditional car, I assumed he meant the No. 16. Instead, Euser drove a second AMAX car at Laguna Seca, No. 90 – starting twelfth and finishing tenth. This ended up being Euser’s only IndyCar start. If you ask me, I think Paul owes me $500, but I’m not planning my budget around ever seeing that in my bank account.

But it did get me to thinking about one-hit wonders over the Easter weekend. There are many obscure drivers that had an IndyCar ride for a year or two, like the infamous Dennis Vitolo or Laurent Redon; or those that had many sporadic starts over a few seasons but never a fulltime ride, like Johnny Unser.

No, I’m talking about those who came and went while barely making a ripple. To broaden the list, I’ll limit it to a maximum of five IndyCar starts over an entire career. Some names you’ll remember, but others you’ll look at like a dog looks at a typewriter and silently say “Who?” I will also go no further back than 1990. I figure thirty years is enough. But keep in mind – One Hit Wonders is really just a saying. There were very few hits or even flashes of brilliance among these drivers.

Cor Euser See above.

Mauro Baldi Surely you remember that household name. As best I can tell, the Italian driver had one IndyCar start – a nineteenth place finish at Mid-Ohio back in 1994, while driving for Dale Coyne. Under the CART scoring system, that result netted Baldi zero points. He actually made his name in Formula One, where in thirty-six starts between 1982 and 1985, he netted a total of five points. His best finish was a fifth in 1983 at Zandvoort in 1983, while driving for Alfa Romeo. I’m not sure I can come up with a more obscure driver than Baldi.

Brian Bonner While Brian Bonner had a solid career in IMSA GT, his IndyCar career was very forgettable. He made his debut in the 1992 Indianapolis 500, driving for Dale Coyne (this is sounding like a pattern). I don’t know this for certain, but I suspect that this car originally came from the Kenny Bernstein King Motorsports stable. It was powered by Buick and had the same green sidepods as the Bernstein cars. But instead of Quaker State, his sidepods said Applebee’s. The cowling and upper part of the car had been transformed to a day-glo orange.

It did not have a good look, but neither did his performance. He qualified twenty-sixth and was one of many crashes that cold afternoon. He spun and hit the wall coming out of Turn Four. I will always remember the guy sitting in front of us, turning around to me saying “That guy has no business being in a race car”. That sounded a little harsh, but I figured he knew more about him than I did. That’s why I was surprised when he showed up at the next race at Belle Isle, in AJ Foyt’s car – the same car Foyt had driven to a ninth-place finish just two weeks earlier. Bonner finished a respectable tenth that day in Detroit.

Brian Bonner had two more CART starts. He ran Mid-Ohio for Dale Coyne in 1992, then after failing to qualify for the 1993 Indianapolis 500, Bonner made his last IndyCar start at Cleveland in 1993 driving for Ron Hemelgarn. Brian Bonner now heads up Bonner Race Marketing, a sponsor-seeking firm out of Charlotte, NC.

Franck Perera Before Sébastien Bourdais and Simon Pagenaud came onto the scene, it had been quite a while since a driver from France had much success in IndyCar (see Philippe Gache). Although Bourdais had already won four championships by the time countryman Franck Perera showed up – France’s history essentially involved Bourdais and 1913 Indianapolis 500 winner Jules Goux, 1914 winner René Thomas and 1920 winner Gaston Chevrolet. Between Chevrolet and Bourdais, it had been quite a dry-spell for the French in Indy-style racing.

Franck Perera did nothing in his brief career to change that in IndyCar. Other than finishing second in the 2007 Atlantics Championship, there was nothing in his resume to suggest he would be a success in IndyCar. He wasn’t.

Perera had four IndyCar starts, all in 2008. He had three starts with Conquest Racing, with a best finish of sixth at Long Beach before driving the final race of the season at Chicagoland for AJ Foyt, where he finished fifteenth. Perera went on to have a forgettable career in other series as well. The lone exception being a win in 2018 at the Rolex24.

Franck Fréon This was a very early example demonstrating that success in Indy Lights does not always translate to success in the top series of IndyCar. Franck Fréon drove three seasons in Indy Lights from 1991 through 1993, finishing fourth, second and second respectively.

Great things were expected of Fréon, when he made the jump to CART in 1994. Unfortunately, as it always does – lack of funding became an issue. Fréon made only five CART starts over two seasons (1994-95). He drove for such underfunded teams as Project Indy, Euromotorsport, Indy Regency Racing and Payton/Coyne Racing. His best result came in his first start – a twelfth-place finish at Long Beach in 1994, driving for Project Indy. He attempted to qualify for the 1995 Indianapolis 500 for Indy Regency Racing, but did not make it.

Franck Fréon did go on to have success in Endurance Racing, and won at Le Mans in 1996 and the Rolex24 in 2001. But in IndyCar, Fréon was a major disappointment that faded into obscurity.

PJ Chesson Add Chesson to that same list of those that had decent success in Indy Lights, but fell on their face in IndyCar. Chesson placed fourth in the final 2004 Indy Lights standings, winning three races in the process for Mo Nunn. With a supposed cash infusion from NBA star Carmelo Anthony into Hemelgarn Racing (I say supposed, because I don’t think any money ever actually changed hands), Chesson had a very mediocre start to the 2006 season. His best finish was in his debut at Homestead, where he finished twelfth. He had two more seventeenth-place finishes leading into the Month of May. After qualifying twentieth, Chesson collided with his Hemelgarn teammate, Jeff Bucknum in Turn Two of Lap Two. He was credited with thirty-third. Chesson never drove an Indy car again. He may be best remembered for getting the 2006 Indianapolis 500 logo tattooed onto his bicep. That’s probably the only memory that still lives from Chesson’s brief IndyCar career.

Wade Cunningham This New Zealander looked like a can’t-miss driver after winning the Indy Lights championship in his first season (2005). Two third-place finishes followed the next two seasons. All in all, Cunningham won eight races in his Indy Lights career, and ended up on the podium twenty-two other times. But it could have been a red-flag at the time that the Kiwi driver spent six years in Indy Lights – a developmental series.

He had two starts in the same Texas race in 2011 (the one they called the twin), where he finished twenty-ninth and twentieth for Sam Schmidt. He also finished a very decent seventh at Kentucky later in the season. In 2012, Cunningham ran the second AJ Foyt car at Indianapolis with an unimpressive thirty-first place finish. Foyt then put him in to replace Mike Conway at Fontana to complete the 2012 season. He finished fourteenth and has not driven an IndyCar race since.

Martin Plowman It seems that a lot of successful Indy Lights drivers have split time between Sam Schmidt and AJ Foyt in IndyCar. Add Martin Plowman to the mix. After finishing third in 2010 in Indy Lights while driving for Michael Andretti, Plowman went to Sam Schmidt Motorsports in 2011. He contested three races late in the season; Mid-Ohio, Sonoma and Baltimore, with a best finish of eleventh. He went two seasons without climbing into an Indy car, but AJ Foyt hired him for the Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 in 2014, where he had unimpressive runs of eighteenth and twenty-third.

He did have a Le Mans victory in LMP2 in 2013 and is still competing in lower series in Europe, but he is considered a One Hit Wonder in IndyCar. For financial reasons or other, that unfortunately is code-speak for bust.

This is just a smattering of the drivers that made it to IndyCar, only to fall flat on their face for one reason or another. I could have added drivers that had only one start – that being in the Indianapolis 500, but that would have forced me to put drivers like Nelson Picquet and Jean Alesi on the list. I didn’t think that was fair. I would have added Nicolas Minassian to this list, but he had six starts for Chip Ganassi in 2001, before the Chipster fired him.

There are more…lots more I could have added. Who would you have added to this list that had a maximum of five IndyCar starts?

George Phillips

3 Responses to “IndyCar One-Hit Wonders”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Brian Bonner I remember particularly well, not from the 500 itself but because I had a set of Hi-Tech brand trading cards from the 1992 race. Bonner’s car was an ex-Bernstein Lola-Buick, I’m pretty sure. Bonner qualified the car still painted like one of Bernstein’s Quaker State entries but come race day it sported day-glo orange cowling and a white fuselage. The Applebee’s text on the sidepods had also gone from an easy-to-read white on green to a day-glo on green that was quite hard on the eyes. Hi-Tech had two trading cards for Bonner, one with his career 500 stats and the other with a short paragraph about how he did in the 1992 race. The stat card contained two pictures of his car, both as it appeared in qualifying. The other card featured a headshot of Bonner on the front and a small photo of his car as it appeared in the race on the back under the paragraph.

    There are many many drivers, of course, who could be added to this list. A name that flashed into my mind yesterday for reasons beyond my comprehension was Potsy Goacher. I remembered nothing about him other than that he was a race car driver, so I looked him up.

    Paul “Potsy” Goacher was an Anderson, IN short tracker and won several times in USAC’s midget championship (even as late as 1960, when he was 43). Goacher’s claim to fame, such as it is, is that he never qualified for a championship race, but failed to do so 10 times… a record for the most DNQs by an IndyCar driver who never started a race. He did put his car into the 500 field in 1953 on the final Saturday, only to be bumped late Sunday, and never got closer to qualifying for any championship race again. Despite never qualifying for or starting an Indycar race, Goacher did drive in two races in relief and even scored championship points! He took over for Andy Linden early in the 1953 Milwaukee 200, drove 123 laps, and finished the race in 8th to score 62 points. In his other appearance, he took over for George Amick on lap 41 of the 1955 Langhorne 100 race… only to see rain fall on lap 42 and postpone the finish. When the race was restarted a week later, neither he nor the car he and Amick had driven (owned by Emmett Malloy) appeared. Goacher was credited with racing a single lap.

  2. One guy who had no business in an Indycar was Patrick Bedard

  3. The great karting driver Giorgio Pantano made 6 Indycar starts after his anonymous year in F1. I misremembered that as having been just 2. During half of the 6, he drove for Chip Ganassi and twice even in the #10 car with which he scored his best result of 4th at Watkins Glen.

    My countryman Lucas Luhr, former DTM driver and sportscar regular, had a lone start in Sarah Fisher Racing’s 2nd car in partnership with Greg Pickett’s sportscar team which he ran for that year. I think it was at Sonoma, and the result was anonymous.

    A1GP regular Phil Giebler couldn’t do much at Indianapolis in the only non-Dallara trying to qualify that year. And neither could on-and-off Red Bull protege Scott Speed years later when he tried to qualify a Dragon Racing entry with Fuzzy’s on the sidepod. He fared much better this season in the first 2 rounds of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge in the #98 car of Andretti/Herta/Curb/Agajanian/etc. when he was a front runner, though not finishing as such.

    The late Gonzalo Rodriguez, former Penske driver and F3000 race winner, should be mentioned on here as well.

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