Just What the Doctor Ordered

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One of the longest running theories regarding what ails the NTT IndyCar Series, is that it lacks a villain. There are a lot of drivers in the paddock that carry a clean-cut image that will be the envy of any potential sponsor, but most of today’s drivers shy away from any type of long-lasting controversy that might cost them a shot at a decent IndyCar ride.

For years, NASCAR had Dale Earnhardt or The Intimidator as he was called. His supporters loved him, but his detractors were just as passionate about hating him as his supporters were in praising him. There were very few ambivalent opinions about Earnhardt. His son, Dale, Jr. is just as popular with fans of the father, but those that couldn’t stand Dale, Sr. seem to like Dale, Jr. too. It may be because Junior did not ruffle near as many feathers on the track – then again, he didn’t win near as much as the elder Earnhardt either.

I don’t follow NASCAR near as much as I used too, but I would say that the Busch brothers – Kurt and Kyle – may be the closest thing to a villain as they have. The trouble is, whenever Earnhardt ticked people off, he did it with flair and it made his supporters love him more. When one of the Busch brothers acts like a villain, they are simply being jerks that no fan thinks is great.

I’ll give you one example for each brother. When Kurt was driving for Team Penske in NASCAR, he was caught on camera launching into a tirade against Dr. Jerry Punch, in one of the last races of the season. It was a bad look, even for Busch. He was fired by Penske after the end of the season. When I think of Kyle Busch, I think of how he destroyed the trophy for winning the Nationwide race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2009. It was a Gibson guitar painted by Sam Bass. Busch grabbed the guitar, held it over his head for a moment proceeded to slam it into the concrete in victory lane several times, until it had been transformed into kindling. Needless to say, it did not go over well with the Nashville locals.

There are several other incidents involving both Busch brothers, but this isn’t about them. It’s about IndyCar desperately needing a villain. When everyone smiles pleasantly and always say the right thing, it makes sponsors happy but it lulls many fans and media to sleep. Some will say IndyCar needs to present a happy front, especially in the divided times we live in, but I disagree. Sports have always needed rivalries in order to thrive. Motor racing is no different.

The Yankees need the Red Sox, the Cubs need the Cardinals. Ohio State needs Michigan, Auburn needs Alabama. In racing, Foyt needed Mario, while Earnhardt needed Gordon. In my opinion, IndyCar’s last true villain was Paul Tracy. But early on, his biggest rival (and worst enemy) was himself. He was fearless and fast, but tore up a lot of Roger Penske’s equipment. He used his infamous chrome horn, but he was more comical than evil. It wasn’t until an aging Tracy was confronted by the next big thing – Sébastien Bourdais – that Tracy found his kryptonite. It made things a lot more interesting.

IndyCar has been searching for a villain or rivalry ever since. The media tried to conjure up a rivalry between Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal when the two started racing against each other in 2008, but it never really took off. By the beginning of the 2015 season, they had three wins between them with Marco holding two of those. Inutility does not make for a fierce rivalry.

When Will Power referred to Dario Franchitti as “a bit of a wanker”, the media jumped on that as well. But Dario retired before that supposed rivalry really picked up any steam.

We thought IndyCar had found its villain a few years ago, when Santino Ferrucci came onto the scene. He was persona non grata after a Formula 2 incident in 2018 with his teammate, which led to him being suspended for four races. Another incident with his teammate led to him being ousted by his team. He was barely twenty years old at the time and was written off by fans as a brash young American.

When Dale Coyne ran Ferrucci in a handful of races in 2018, fans familiar with his Formula 2 indiscretions were incensed. Personally, I knew nothing about it. I don’t follow support series in the Road to Indy, so I sure don’t follow European support series. I never gave it much thought.

When I learned that Coyne had signed Ferrucci for his second car in 2019, I figured he was coming to IndyCar to rehab his damaged career. I didn’t expect much, but I also didn’t expect to really like him. I was wrong.

I never personally met Ferrucci, but sat in on many of his press conferences. What I observed was a polite young man, who seemed grateful for an opportunity. He also seemed to have little regard with who he might anger on the track.

I saw that as a good thing. He had shown a few flashes of brilliance in his driving, sprinkled in among some rookie mistakes. But while displaying both, he had a smile beaming from ear to ear.

It’s odd how certain drivers are perceived. Colton Herta can drive aggressively and show up a driver like Scott Dixon or Will Power, and it is referred to as a changing of the guard. Ferrucci can make the same move against the same drivers and everyone says he is being disrespectful, while needing to pay his dues. I don’t recall AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti or Parnelli Jones ever choosing to be meek and mild on the track, in deference to the more experienced drivers out of respect. They blew past anyone they thought might keep them from winning.

For two seasons, Santino Ferrucci was fun to watch. He was like a breath of fresh air. He was pleasantly arrogant, if there is such a term. He was likeable, but was definitely cocky.

Ferrucci finished seventh in his rookie Indianapolis 500 in 2019, with an evasive move that put him into the grass at the north end that got the attention of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on the NBC broadcast. Suddenly, Santino Ferrucci was his favorite driver. Ferrucci backed up that performance with a fourth-place finish in the race in 2020.

Ferrucci had some good runs in his two years at Coyne, and he had some not-so-good runs. But even his worst runs never indicated he didn’t belong on the grid. Unfortunately, Ferrucci has chosen to chase NASCAR dreams for 2021, by racing part-time in the Xfinity Series. So, when the green flag flies at Barber next weekend, Ferrucci will not be on the grid.

But IndyCar fans that appreciate the swagger and cockiness that Santino Ferrucci brings to the paddock got some good news on Monday. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing confirmed that Santino Ferrucci will be joining the team in a third effort, sponsored by Hy-Vee. Here is the Hy-Vee livery that Graham Rahal will run at Road America and Gateway, in addition to Ferrucci at Indianapolis. (Photo: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing)

santino-ferrucci-rahal-letterm

What is Hy-Vee? They are a major chain of grocery stores in the Midwest. I’ll admit I had never heard of Hy-Vee until Graham Rahal ran the Hy-Vee livery at Iowa last season and Spencer Pigot ran it at Indianapolis. When Susan and I went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota last fall, we came across a Hy-Vee store and made a point to go inside and shop. We were very impressed with the cleanliness, the selection and price. Had Rahal not run the livery last year, we never would have gone in to check it out. That shows that sponsorship does indeed work.

This will be a good car. Yes it is the third car on the team, but remember that this is the team that won the Indianapolis 500 last year. Takuma Sato drank the milk, but Rahal finished third, just in front of Ferrucci and behind Scott Dixon. I look for the team to be stronger with Ferrucci in the third car.

Some of us really enjoyed watching Santino Ferrucci the last two seasons in IndyCar, while others couldn’t stand him being there. Whichever side of the fence you were on, you tended to be passionate one way or other about Ferrucci. Few were indifferent about him. He may be just what the doctor ordered. IndyCar needs more drivers that fans either love, or love to hate. That’s what keeps fans engaged. It’s indifference that eventually makes fans drift away. For the record, Ferrucci is one of the drivers I’ll be pulling for Memorial Day weekend.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Just What the Doctor Ordered”

  1. Patrick Says:

    In 2019 I asked Santino for his autograph in the garage area. He was about to get on a cart to go to the pits for practice, but he stopped and pleasantly signed for me. My encounter with him only lasted a few seconds but was very positive. I am happy he’s back and I hope he has a good race.

  2. I tend to despise arrogant people and so it went with Santino Ferrucci at first. But, he has grown on me with that perpetual smile. Watching NASCAR I do note where he starts and how it goes for him throughout the race. He does add some life to the sport. Good article, George.

  3. Oliver W Says:

    I will be rooting for him big time. Very disappointed he moved over as INDYCAR needed the character. You know what JN is going to say before he says it which is not entertaining.

  4. Chris Lukens Says:

    Great column George. I’ll make three comments.

    I’m a big Ferrucci fan so I may be mis-remembering but I don’t think Santino opted for Nascar as much as that was his only option after being cut loose so late in the season.

    Concerning up & comers not respecting veteran drivers. I can remember sitting in the stands at New Bremen hearing fans complain that some kid named AJ from Texas wasn’t giving due deference to Roger Ward or Don Branson.

    It’s not very often that an internet blog will send me to the dictionary. Kudos George, you did it. “Inutility” – what a great word and you used it perfectly.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Ferrucci is a good shoe for an Indy one-off, but I do miss him on the grid full-time.

  6. I was really disappointed to learn Ferrucci went to NASCAR. I’m glad he is coming back for Indy. I don’t understand how people could not like him. I too don’t know anything about the F2 incident. Would it change my mind?

  7. Yannick Says:

    Good to see Ferucci has got a ride for this year’s Indianapolis 500. This young allrounder should get a full season ride again because of his driving ability.
    Letting him go looks like a missed opportunity for the Coyne team.

  8. Tom from Lake Forest Says:

    Please please bring back the survey questions. This one would have been fun to see the results.

    • I would love to. It wasn’t my decision. The poll vendor that the host uses said I reached my maximum number of free polls (2500). They now want to charge me $180 a year ($15/month) to allow the polls to continue. I am not paying that. A reader even offered to pay for the first year, but I politely declined.

      If anyone can come up with a free poll that will work with WordPress, I’m willing to try it. I’ve tried a few, but they don’t work. – GP

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