The Need to Reverse a Disturbing Trend

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I’ve never been one to fret too much over the occasional dearth of American drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series. I always felt like we needed the best drivers, no matter where they came from. So long as the US had decent representation, it never really bothered me.

I may be starting to change my tune.

Keep in mind, I come from a time when the entire field was made up of American drivers. I grew up attending the Indianapolis 500 in the sixties and seventies. After the British Invasion of the sixties, the last race I attended in my childhood was 1972, when all thirty-three starters were American.

I’ll never forget the panic that ensued with fans in 1993 when almost a third of the field were foreign drivers. Two years later, less than half of the field was made up of American drivers. By this time, Tony George had started his own series to stem the tide of foreign drivers coming here and taking rides away from American drivers. While the goal was admirable – it didn’t work out as planned.

On paper it looked good. By 2000, twenty-seven drivers in the Indianapolis 500 starting field were Americans. But by 2005, only 45% of the field were American drivers. By 2010, only nine drivers in that year’s Indianapolis 500 had American flags on the side of their respective cockpits. The trend was not going in the right direction.

Fast-forward to this past May, and things are not much better. Eleven American drivers took the green flag for this year’s Indianapolis 500. The 2022 prospects are in doubt for a few of those American drivers. Santino Ferrucci had to scrounge to land a ride with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in last year’s Indianapolis 500. It grew into a multi-race opportunity for Ferrucci to prove himself worthy. Instead, the ride went to Christian Lundgaard – a Formula 2 driver that only drove in one race last year. I suppose that was enough to woo the decision makers.

American driver Ryan Hunter-Reay may or may not get the shared ride in the No. 20 that Ed Carpenter drives on the ovals. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure I see a landing spot for the former series champion and 500 winner. If Hunter-Reay does land that ride, it’ll be at the expense of fellow American Conor Daly, who I also wonder where he might end up for 2022.

To further complicate things at Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR); they are bringing in Jack Aitken to test the No. 20 at Sebring today. Aitken is a British-Korean driver born in the UK. He drove in Formula 2 from 2018 through the 2021 season, which will conclude on Dec 12. He won one race in 2018, and three more in 2019. The past two seasons he has gone winless.

Aitken is currently twenty-six. I’ll admit, I had never heard of him until about a week ago. In the past week, it seems his media machine has suddenly shifted into full gear.

Every now and then, it seems that the IndyCar media falls in love with an obscure driver that no one has ever heard of. I think Aiken may fall into this category. For reasons you think you are missing, the obscure driver is dubbed the next Juan Montoya by the mainstream IndyCar press. More times than not, they end up being the next Nic Minassian instead. I don’t know this, but I suspect Aiken brings a substantial amount of budget with him. How else could you explain passing up on a Ryan Hunter-Reay or a Conor Daly for such an unknown commodity?

It’s not just the IndyCar media that froths over these obscure drivers, team owners are just as guilty of being seduced by the allure of Formula 2 and other European ladder series. When was the last time you saw Chip Ganassi hire an up and coming American driver, or even a Road to Indy alumnus for that matter? It’s been a while. Charlie Kimball was both a promising American and an Indy Lights graduate when he was hired by Ganassi in 2012.

I always felt like Ganassi fancied himself as having quite the eye for talent. Signing Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya back to back will convince you of that. He has a history of bypassing available young American talent, in favor of the obscure driver from a European ladder series that no one has ever heard of. For very Zanardi and Montoya, there is also a Minassian, Bruno Junqueira and Darren Manning (although Manning came over to IndyCar after a short stint in CART). I don’t think Ganassi is near the evaluator of talent that he thinks he is, but it seems car owners and media alike start frothing at the mouth when it comes to the possibility of hiring an young unknown European driver over a better known American.

I’m not one to cheer for a driver strictly because he or she is an American. I was very vocal in 2014, cheering for Brazilian Helio Castroneves to win over American Ryan Hunter-Reay in that year’s Indianapolis 500. In 2012, I was pulling for Australia’s Will Power to win the championship over Hunter-Reay. Neither happened. I have nothing against Hunter-Reay or American drivers, but I was pulling against him in both of those instances.

But we seem to be heading down a path where American drivers are not sought after. Chip Ganassi employs five drivers, and one is American. Roger Penske will have one American driver in his three-car stable for 2022. Michael Andretti will have two full-time Americans next season out of four cars. Dale Coyne will supposedly have one American in his two cars. Rahal will have one American of his three drivers. Arrow McLaren SP will have no Americans, neither will Meyer Shank. That’s six Americans and fifteen non-Americans on the top fulltime teams.

Added to the allure of the European development driver is the Formula One refugee. I’m a big fan of Romain Grosjean, but what he has done by being immediately competitive is open the eyes of several struggling or former F1 drivers. I don’t want IndyCar to be a place of refuge for drivers wanting to escape the politics of Formula One. That will further squeeze out the American driver.

The NTT IndyCar Series is an American based series with an international flavor that runs on a variety of tracks. But an American based series needs to have a good representation of American drivers – at last close to 50%. I’m not sure we’ll be near that figure in 2022 and beyond. The series had better get in front of this disturbing trend before it gets too hard to turn around – assuming that’s what they want to do.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “The Need to Reverse a Disturbing Trend”

  1. George…sorry I couldn’t agree with you less. INDYCAR needs the best drivers no matter where they come from. This is partially the same thinking that brought on the split. In my opinion this is a non issue. I have to be honest it sure seems like you don’t like Hunter Reay from all the times you were against him. How about sitting back and enjoy the fact that drivers that haven’t been given a fair chance in F1 want to be here and try this series?

    • As a matter of fact, this post was brought on by Carpenter testing Aitken. I cited two times when I was pulling against Hunter-Reay, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like him. I thought Hunter-Reay was at least penciled in for sharing the No. 20 with Ed. I thought it was a good landing spot for him, especially after they lost the USAF sponsorship. I think Hunter-Reay would give them better results.

      Go back and read what I’ve written over the years. I almost always defend the foreign drivers. Perhaps I wasn’t clear in this post. I’m not against teams hiring foreign drivers. I’m against hiring obscure drivers, over proven veterans. – GP

  2. I agree with you that the series needs to have at least 50% of drivers coming from North America. A few more Mexican or South Americans would also make sense. If Grosjeans success attracts a whole load of mediocre pay drivers from Europe then while it will make the local talent look good it won’t bring better racing.

    As we know the number of eyes on the screen converts to sponsorship and while global audience figures are on the rise the series owners need to look after there own back yard first. Penske knows this but so does Oliver Askew….

  3. Owners care about money. The more the better. You got money you drive, You don’t, you walk.

    Nationality has nothing to do with the decision making process in my opinion.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Well, we are only a little over a year removed from the last Indycar race to feature a majority American field (Gateway 2, 2020 – 12 of 23 starters were American), but the trends at the moment do not point to seeing that again this season. Is that important? I do agree with George on this to some extent.

    I believe significant American representation in Indycar is important, because I believe it helps the sport relate to both American fans and aspiring American drivers. I’m not sure I could tell you what percentage of the field constitutes “significant representation”, but I do think the share of Americans in Indycar’s expected 2021 field qualifies as such. Not that I would mind seeing more, but the Indycar field is not at a level where its American contingent is uninspiring or invisible.

    Just as, if not more, critical as American representation is American success in Indycar, and this is something that has improved pretty significantly in the past half-decade or so. American success in Indycar reached a depressing nadir in 2009, the only season in the history of National Championship racing in which Americans failed to win a single race (the 5 full time Americans finished with a combined 4 podiums and led 5 fewer laps than a winless Tony Kanaan). Since then, though, American drivers have gradually found more and more success, winning at least 3 races each season of the last decade. Since the introduction of the UAK in 2018, Americans have won 41% of the races, a winning percentage they did not achieve once between 1997 and 2016 (CART and IRL results combined for split years). Additionally, the USA would have won a CART-style Nations Cup in all but one year since 2011. This recent success, especially by Road To Indy grads like Newgarden and Herta, should encourage team owners to continue to trust American talent coming out of Indy Lights.

  5. Bruce Waine Says:

    George – It would be interesting if the picture that you present today is expanded by inserting data that shows the full field number of drivers along with the number of drivers that bring dollars to support (buy) their ride.

    I think that I read a while back that the number of drivers NOT having to pay for their ride (even portion of their ride) is very few.

    As they say, the dollar speaks for this racing era and buys your ride.

    Dollars first.

    Talent……………… second.

    • Just off of my head I counted 13 drivers for the coming year that aren’t bringing money but are paid. That’s right around half so it’s certainly more than just a few.

  6. The part that concerns me is the “Grosjean factor.” Yes, I enjoy his personality, and very much enjoyed watching his racing talent last season. I think his story was one of the highlights of the 2021 season. But not every F1 castoff is going to be like Romain Grosjean. Yet I fear his success could lead to a trend where fired F1 drivers bring the cash they earned over there and come race IndyCars as a consolation prize. IndyCar deals with enough perception issues as it is. I hate for the series I love to become known as the dumping ground for jobless F1 guys.

  7. American sponsors do want American drivers to be able turn American heads and give their brand exposure.
    It seems like there are just so many American sponsors who are not willing to be outbid on scoring a cockpit for their protegée in this series by, let’s say, international competition. Whereas one or two particular other series who are more popular amongst American fans does indeed have a lot of American talent in their driver lineup, which is mostly down to American sponsorship.
    So the money is there and the talent is there in the US of A.
    From my European perspective, it seems like in the mind of American sponsors, open-wheel racing these days might compare to tin top racing in a similar kind of way that American Football would compare to soccer. I know that comparison is a bit too harsh but still, there is no denying that, in an economically competitive country such as the US, sponsors will always try to make the best business decisions. So the more mass market appeal a sport has got, the easier it is to find local sponsors for the athletes and teams competing.
    There are so many sponsors who have moved on during the Split years because they didn’t see as much value in this sport than they used to.
    And in every global economical crisis since then, it has been the same: sponsors left the series and teams had to get their budget anyway, selling their cockpits to the highest bidders.
    So it is no surprise that now, with that global health crisis still not finished, drivers with bigger budgets from abroad get the nod over established local talent.

    Time has shown that fans of the sport couldn’t have both: Jim Guthrie winning Phoenix on a shoestring budget in 1997 or AJ Allmendinger winning an open-wheel champion title in 2008. The business side of things worked out in a way that it enabled the former feelgood story but not the latter, which would have felt great as well.

    Now, AJ has become the “regular season champion” in tin tops’ B-division this year, which is a feelgood story all in itself, and I feel that should be celebrated in IndyCar circles as well, where he still has got fans. Might his current team, Kaulig Racing, run IndyCar these days if it still were the most popular form of US motorsports? Probably.
    In tin tops, the team had the chance to shine in the b-division whereas in open-wheel, they would have had to go directly to the major series and trundle around as backmarkers for a while before being able to take the fight to the established teams because the open-wheel b-division is merely a junior series. So the threshold to enter the sport and make it attractive to your sponsors is way higher in open-wheel than in tin tops.
    This year has proven that the new role model on how to establish yourself in open-wheel racing as a new team is the way Michael Shank has done it: go to the big league right away with a sponsored driver on a partial schedule in a technical alliance with an established team. Build the schedule up slowly towards a full season whilst creating continuity and gaining experience. And then invest in experienced people to try and win the series flagship even which is the one that you must win.
    It’s stories like that of Shank and Kaulig that attract sponsors. For them to attract sponsors, a series must help give them exposure so their achievements can actually turn heads.

    On another note, Alpine Racing must have quite a high budget this year to buy rides for their junior drivers: they got Guanyu Zhou into the 2nd Sauber-Alfa car in F1 (even though that team uses a different power unit than Alpine) and Christian Lundgaard into the 3rd Rahal car in IndyCar, both times outbidding drivers that were more established with their respective teams. These guys now will have to prove they are worth the investment.

    I must add I was rather impressed by Santino Ferruci’s performances in the 3rd Rahal car this year.
    Also, the ride-share with the boss in the #20 car at ECR hasn’t yet worked out well in the long run for any driver who started their career there: it seemed like Spence Pigot was lacking in oval experience when he switched to the #21 because he had just run the road courses prior. And once, he had made up for that, the team dropped him a few seasons later. Unless a driver only wants to run the road courses (like Mike Conway did), the #20 ride-share doesn’t seem like such a great place to establish yourself in this series. Here’s hoping Rinus VK has recovered enough to get back to his winning ways next year.

  8. Yannik for the win:

    “So it is no surprise that now, with that global health crisis still not finished, drivers with bigger budgets from abroad get the nod over established local talent.”

  9. Yannick,
    of course.

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