Recognizing Those that are Fan-Friendly

I will let you in on a secret. Sometimes I write these daily May posts early. Such is the case with today’s post, although this is the last one this month that was written ahead of time. With yesterday’s crash involving Katherine Legge and Stefan Wilson, I felt like I needed to acknowledge it. Legge walked away, but Wilson was taken directly to the hospital wearing a neck brace. It sounds as if both cars can be repaired without going to a backup car. But last night we learned that Wilson will be sidelined for the 500. Who will drive the car is still unknown as I add this in on Monday night. This is a tough break for Wilson (no pun intended). At least it sounds as if he was awake and alert when he was transported to the hospital. Hopefully, he’ll fully recover and be back ion the car next year. Now on to today’s plausibly recent post…

We always hear the term “fan-friendly” tossed around a lot, whether it relates to a facility, a schedule or an event. We also hear it tossed about as it relates to athletes – in our case, IndyCar drivers. Practically all drivers claim to be fan-friendly, but not all of them are. Some truly go out of their way to interact with fans. Others think they do, but they really don’t; and a few can be just downright rude.

My first foray into Gasoline Alley was in 1993. My wife (at the time) really cared nothing about racing, but she was all in for chasing down drivers to get her picture made with them over the first weekend of Qualifying. This was in the day of film cameras, where you took your canister of film to Fox Photo the next week and picked up your photos a couple of hours later, to see how much you enjoyed your vacation. The word “selfie” had not been invented yet.

Even back then, it was apparent that the Marlboro Team Penske drivers, Paul Tracy and Emerson Fittipaldi, were practically off-limits. They zoomed through the garage area, hopped out of their golf carts and immediately went into their garage – without even making eye contact with the fans. Our friend that was taking us around, CJ Alexander, said that no Penske drivers ever stopped to talk with fans. They were there for one thing – to focus on the race.

Al Unser, Jr. drove for Galles in 1993, and was the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion. Although he wasn’t particularly fast in qualifying that year, he was very fan-friendly. He posed for a picture with my wife and chatted it up a little bit. We left with a very good feeing about Little Al. The next year, he was a Penske driver and was all-business. He had no time for any fans. Of course, he won the pole and the race that year, so his approach seemed to work.

My wife and I were regular visitors to Gasoline Alley from 1993-95, and we came away with some definite opinions on who was and was not fans friendly over that time period. Those that seemed to go the extra mile to interact with fans in that time frame were; Mario Andretti, John Andretti, Roberto Guerrero, Scott Brayton, Raul Boesel, Stan Fox, Jim Crawford, Tony Bettenhausen, Gary Bettenhausen, Big Al Unser and Scott Goodyear. What I find troubling about this list is that the majority of them are now dead.

Those that left a bad taste in our mouth were Nigel Mansell (invisible), Arie Luyendyk (aloof), Kevin Cogan (rude), Jacques Villeneuve (stand-offish) and Mark Jones (pouty). Of course, you can include anyone driving for Penske in that time period.

A couple of notes about non-drivers from that era…Car-owner Dick Simon was about as friendly as anyone in his position could possibly be. Former Chicago Bear Walter Payton was part-owner of Payton/Coyne Racing at that time. My wife leaned against the barrier of their garage to ask for a picture, and a Yellow Shirt told her to get back. Payton glared at him, moved the barrier aside and asked us both to come in. He posed for pictures, shook our hands and chatted for a minute, much to the chagrin of the Yellow Shirt.

On Race Morning of 1994, we saw David Letterman strolling around the garage area by himself. He was wearing a baseball cap and sun-glasses and a plain white T-shirt. My wife spotted him, but we chose to leave him alone. We were in one of those side shops across from the garages, visiting with our friend CJ, when Letterman ran in and shut the door. A mob had realized who he was and started chasing him. As it turns out, one of CJ’s friends in that shop was a good friend of Letterman from high school in Indianapolis. We were locked in there for about 20 minutes with David Letterman. Based on his snarky persona on TV at that time, I had no idea what to expect. He ended up being one of the nicest and most approachable celebrities I’ve ever met, and was happy to pose for a picture with my wife. This was also before he had bought into Bobby Rahal’s team, but it was obvious he was more than just a casual fan. He knew his stuff.

One year later, Jay Leno was the celebrity pace car driver. We figured if one late-night talk show host was exceptionally nice, the other would be. That was not the case. While Letterman walked around alone, Leno had an entourage of about ten people around him at all times. When my wife asked for a quick photo, she was met with an abrupt NO.

Most of you know that I have a special-needs daughter, with Down Syndrome. In 2004, I took her to the Indianapolis 500. The day before the race Susan and I were at the track, with her son Eric and my daughter Katie. Mario Andretti was on his golf cart in a parking lot. When fans recognized him, he started to speed away from them. On his way out of the parking lot, he spotted Katie out of the corner of his eye. He did a U-Turn and pulled up to us, simply to give her a hug. We snagged a quick picture with Mario, Katie, Susan and Eric. Katie had no idea who he was, but almost twenty years later – I’ll never forget that fifteen seconds of kindness.


Fast-forward to 2011. Danica Patrick was always portrayed as fan-friendly when the cameras were rolling, but what I witnessed one day at Barber Motorsports Park said differently. Teams and drivers were heading out to the Friday afternoon practice. On Fridays at Barber, the track will host special-needs kids from all over the Birmingham area. As we were all headed to the pits for practice, I happened to be walking along next to Danica.

As we made our way to the pits, you could hear the voice of a young special needs boy, yelling for Danica. She looked back, saw him and told the person with her to speed up. The young fan was relentless as he kept calling for her and she kept walking.

Finally, he ran to catch up to her and grabbed her hand. She wheeled around and yelled “What?” When he asked her for her autograph, she quickly grabbed the sheet of paper, scribbled her name and stormed off. The young boy was beaming as he looked at it. All I saw was her stomping off, looking as if someone had just shot her dog. For totally opposite reasons, I will remember that incident just as I remember Mario and my daughter.

Buddy Lazier always came across as a pretty good guy on television. He may be, but what I witnessed in the garage area in 2016, sort of tarnished my opinion of him. Lazier was in the waning years of his career, and was twenty years removed from his Indianapolis 500 win. It was early Saturday morning of Qualifying weekend. The garages were relatively quiet, as most cars were out for practice. Buddy was walking alone headed to his garage when a fan spotted him. He had some kind of artifact and he wanted Buddy if he would sign it.

Rather than taking the three seconds it would have taken for Lazier to scribble out his name, Buddy took over a minute to explain to the guy why he wouldn’t sign it. His logic involved something about if other fans saw him signing something, they would run up t him and he would then feel obligated to sign their autographs. He went on to explain that these things snowball and he would never get to where ever he was on his way to. The fan left with a very confused look. All I could think was “Buddy, be glad someone is still asking for it”, because many fans in the garages that day had no clue who he was.

Today, the IndyCar paddock is made up of a completely different set of drivers. But as it will always be – some are better with fans than others. Because I may have to deal with them some this month, I will refrain from naming those who are rude, or just not good with fans. Instead, I’ll go out of my way to recognize those drivers that seem to go out of their way with the fans.

The list has to start with Tony Kanaan. I’ve seen where some fans have taken exception whenever I tout how good Kanaan is with fans. That is only because they have caught him at the wrong time, when things were not going well in qualifying or he has just crashed. Always remember, their job is racing and that is always their top focus. I’ve seen Kanaan commit multiple acts of kindness, when there were no cameras around and he thought no one was watching. When he hangs up his IndyCar helmet later this month, he will be remembered not only for his driving abilities – but also for his interaction with fans.

Graham Rahal doesn’t mind giving his fellow drivers a piece of his mind on the track, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he is tough to get along with. He doesn’t care if there are cameras around or not. He is great with fans! Whether he is posing for pictures in the paddock with fans, or he is helping out a fan with cancer – Graham Rahal is considered a prince of a fellow when it comes to fans.

When you think of Formula One drivers, you imagine out-of-touch elitists who take fans completely for granted. That is why I was so surprised to realize how down-to-earth Romain Grosjean is. My first personal experience with him was at Road America in 2021, in his rookie season. Susan and I were eating lunch at Honda Hospitality. He sat down at our table after politely asking if he could join us. I generally clam up when talking with celebrities, but Susan will talk to a dead tree.

I was thankful she did not ask him about his still-visible scars from his fiery F1 crash just a few months earlier. Instead, she asked about his family and he really opened up to her. He was about as normal and approachable as he could be. Since then, I’ve witnessed Grosjean chatting it up with fans in the paddock on numerous occasions. His driving style may not make him overly popular with his fellow drivers, but fans love him – for a reason.

Jack Harvey had a rough season last year, but that did not turn him away from fans. It probably helps that his girlfriend, Gracie Norton, is a social media influencer (whatever that is). She probably realizes the importance of a driver’s branding, so she may be giving him tips on how to interact with fans. If he is being coached, it comes off as natural because he does a very good job with fans in the paddock and in the pits.

Of course, all of these lists are completely subjective and most of my examples are based on my personal experiences or observations. You may have had a horrible experience with a driver that I claimed was so good with fans. And just because your favorite current driver is not on my good list, does not mean they are awful with fans, or not just as great with fans as the ones I listed. I just haven’t personally witnessed it. Are there some current drivers that belong on the naughty list? Yes. Worse than that, there are a few drivers in today’s paddock that have a reputation of being fan-friendly, when they really aren’t. But I’ll be kind and not list them either. Let’s just hope they will realize the importance of being kind to fans, and they’ll eventually come around.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “Recognizing Those that are Fan-Friendly”

  1. I purchased junior garage credentials for my daughters this year, ages 9 and 12. The 9 year old got pictures with 14 drivers (current and past). My 12 year old daughter got pictures with 20. After reading your post, I asked them who they thought were the friendliest. Their list (in no particular order) is Stefan Wilson, Simon Pagenaud, Rinus VeeKay, Colton Herta, Takuma Sato, Alex Palou, David Malukas, and Johnny Rutherford.

    • billytheskink Says:

      A big second from me on Johnny Rutherford. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single cross word about him, and he more than lived up to that reputation when I have met him.

  2. I was fortunate to have spent an entire day with Mario Andretti in late 2011 at a customer event sponsored by Bridgestone Americas. When I consider all his lofty accomplishments, I originally was apprehensive he might exhibit impatience with a day-long event. Nothing could have been further from how he treated EVERYONE he met that very busy day. He’s one of the truly nicest people I’ve ever experienced. After the 12 hour day ended at 10:30PM PT, he boarded a redeye flight back east from Seattle for a scheduled interview for the next morning! His commitment and love of what he does is quite apparent, IMO. He IS the GOAT, as a racing superstar not to mention a driver!

  3. I’ve had a few great experiences with drivers in Nashville and Road America. Politely interrupting Hinchcliffe and Kanaan last year as they talked near the paddock; they turned out to be extremely friendly. Talking to Rosenqvist and Malukas as they walked behind my marshal post acting somewhat surprised that I recognized them, were also very friendly guys. Ricardo Juncos working with his crew in the paddock for his IndyLights team was also pleasant. Roger Penske saying good morning to me as I stood there admiring their cars in the paddock.

  4. Patrick Carpentier was super nice to me when I was 16, that one always stands out.

    The impression I always had was that the drivers on tobacco teams had to be super careful about certain things (not signing cig packs, etc) that it was easier to just not bother.

    At St. Pete this year I saw Will Power stopped, while on a scooter going to the paddock, and have a man talk to him for at least 2-3 minutes who he obviously did not know and Will showed commendable grace and patience.

    Also, as someone who’s done a pit pass in Toronto and St. Pete, I must say the crew are EXCEPTIONALLY nice. I coudln’t imagine having so many people around asking questions while they’re working, and they seem to answer just about every question.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    First and foremost, I would cite Charlie Kimball as being tremendously fan-friendly. I have been to a lot of races over the years and he is still the only driver in ANY series who has ever spoken to me completely unsolicited at a race.

    I recall attending the autograph session at the CART race that never was at Texas in 2001 and noting that, in a field of drivers who all looked sick to their stomach from pulling those ridiculous g forces in practice, Alex Zanardi’s attitude and gregariousness especially stood out.

    I found Buddy Lazier to be quite nice when I met him many years ago at another autograph session, and this was just after he spent 5 minutes explaining to a strange man trying to sell him spark plugs that Ron Hemelgarn chose what spark plugs went in the car.

    Other drivers not previously mentioned that I have found to be especially accommodating over the years: Eddie Cheever, Mark Blundell, Will Power, Davey Hamilton, Gil de Ferran, and Max Papis.
    Also, longtime Bridgestone/Firestone racing manager Joe Barbieri was absolutely wonderful to talk to at a few races over the years.

    I’ve also heard the occasional horror story about a driver I have personally found to be perfectly fan-friendly on many occasions, which I think should remind us all that sometimes these drivers have bad days just like we sometimes do. Yes, interacting with fans is part of their job, but have none of us ever been a pill to deal with at work from time-to-time? There are a couple of drivers I have found to be rude over the years, but I try to form that opinion only after meeting them at least twice.

    • I was at that TMS autograph session as well. Some of the drivers were not very talkative, but I believe it was right after they had a heated meeting with CART officials. But Max was especially friendly.

  6. paul senseney Says:

    This goes back to the 80s. Went to Watkins Glen for a Can-Am or F5000 race, main objective was to 3meet and get Al Unser jr autograph. Was in the paddock way toward turn 1 when Al drooing saying He did not have timeve in and parked. jumped out of his car and came running straight towards us. I held out my program and said Al autograph. He kept going saying he did not have time. I was crushed. He took about 5 more steps, stopped, turned around and came back, signed and took pictures. He was very gracious to us and chatted for a few minutes. Havbe and still am a HUGE Al jr fan for life..

  7. Jim Exline , Terre Haute Says:

    Mid Ohio about five years ago. My wife and I had been to vendor village and was about ready to cross the bridge over the track. We were looking for the paddock for the junior cars and had stopped to review a track map. Along comes Scott Dixon on his scooter and he pulls up to us and stops to ask what are we looking for . We told him and he pointed us in the right direction and said have a good time. Hard to believe.

  8. Among non-drivers, Doug Boles and Ziggy Harcus are terrific with fans.

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