Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Strange Death of American Single-Seater Racing

Remember when America used to produce single-seater drivers of real standing? AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr, Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears, et cetera.... Drivers from a time when the Indy Car Series was, if not quite on the same level as the F1 World Championship in terms of its global significance, then at least within touching distance.

Then came the infamous IRL/Champ Car split of the mid-1990s, with Tony George's Indy Racing League laying claim to the blue riband Indy 500 and the Champ Car Series taking all the big name drivers, teams and most of the other individual races of any significance. Then years on from the split, both series were on their knees and it was clear that some kind of reunification was the only way that either would survive. The way things turned out, the slightly more virile Indy Racing League effectively swallowed up the remains of the Champ Car World Series (notable assets, Newman Haas Lanigan Racing, KV Racing, the Long Beach Grand Prix and, er, that was about it). Reunification occurred more or less by default, the weaker of the two series reaching the point where it was no longer really a going concern.

Two years on, its hard to tell whether the creation of the Indy Car Series from the ashes of the IRL and the Champ Car World Series marks the rebirth of American Single-Seater racing or merely another staging post on its inevitably decline into insignificance. It doesn't appear to penetrate the popular consciousness of the American public to anything like the extent it once did. It is telling, I suspect, that the two drivers in the field who have 'name recognition' among the wider public are Danica Patrick - famous chiefly for not quite becoming the first woman to win the Indy 500, and Helio Castroneves, who is known to TV viewers as the winner of 'Dancing With The Stars'. Last weekend, a close fought battle for the series title between reigning champion Dario Franchitti and Penske's man of the moment Will Power was settled in the Scot's favour. The battle between road-course specialist Power and jack-of-all-trades Franchitti was an intriguing one, and the likes of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves all figured at various points.

However, it's hard to ignore the fact that the races have been taking place on one continent - North America - while the leading drivers are coming from every corner of the world except the US. There's Kanaan, Meira and, Matos, Viso and Castroneves from South America, Wheldon, Lloyd, Wilson, Conway and champion Franchitti from the UK, Dixon, Power and Briscoe from the Antipodes, Mutoh and Sato from Japan and a small sprinkling of continental Europeans in Baguette and Di Silvestro. In Tagliani and Tracy, there are even a couple of decently quick Canadians.

But the series is, despite the races in Motegi and Sao Paulo, overwhelmingly US-based, and you have to go down to 7th in the points table to find the highest placed American driver in the field, Ryan Hunter-Reay. He is one of just three American drivers who raced full time in the series last year, along with Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick. And while all three of them have won races in their career, none of them strike me as really first rate racers. Andretti impressed me at first, but seems to be running his career in reverse, and has never matched the pace he showed in his debut year in the IRL in 2006. There is a reason why Penske and Ganassi, who have dominated the series over the last three years, have opted for foreign talent.

To be fair, another son of a famous father, Graham Rahal, who didn't exactly embarrass himself when paired with Sebastien Bourdais as an inexperienced teenager at Newman Haas back in 2007, found a berth for most of the season, albeit acting very much as a gun for hire, driving for no less than four teams over the course of the season. It would be interesting to see what he might be capable of given a regular drive in a truly competitive car, but I've not seen anything to suggest he's on quite the same level as Franchitti, Power, Dixon or Castroneves.

So where are all the American single-seater stars? After all, it's a big country with a population close to that of Western Europe and one with a significant motorsports culture. And it's not like they've all gone overseas to dominate Formula 1! The short answer is that they're all going round in circles in NASCAR stock cars. In an earlier era, before Bill France and sons saw an opportunity to take advantage of the IRL/Champ Car feud to turn NASCAR into the US' premier motorsport championship, I rather think the likes of Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Jimmy Johnson and Matt Kenseth would be fighting out for victory in the Indy 500 rather than the Daytona 500.

As it is, when Scott Speed found himself booted out of Toro Rosso half way through 2007, it was to NASCAR, rather than the Indy Car Series, which his experience might have suggested he would have been better suited, that he went. And if even drivers who came up through the European junior ladder - and let's not forget, Speed finished 3rd in the inaugural GP2 championship and didn't exactly embarrass himself in F1 - elect to go stock car racing, it goes to show how little regard there is these days in the US for the Indy Car Series.

Don't forget, either, that the last really successful American single seater driver, three-time IRL champion Sam Hornish, upped sticks and went off to race in NASCAR at the end of 2007. Danica Patrick, probably the most well known American single seater racer, dipped her toe in NASCAR's waters this year, and probably only the fact that she looked frankly out of her depth is likely to keep her in the Indy Car Series for the time being.

Surely though, not every US-born driver is interested only in trading paint, going round in circles, driving 1960s-era technology NASCAR stockers? There must be drivers for whom the lure of what they call 'road racing' is too much to resist, who would far rather ply their trade at Laguna Seca, Road America or Watkins Glen than exclusively on identikit ovals? So where are they?

It's hard to be sure, but I can't help thinking that what is holding back budding American single-seater drivers is the sheer competitiveness of the European junior formulae. Where many of the best young drivers in the USA are pushed towards stock car racing from an early age because - simply - that's where the money is, the junior single seater formulae in the US are dominated to a significant extent by ex-pat Europeans who have cut their teeth in a vastly more competitive environment than is presented by the Star Mazda or Skip Barber formulae where the Americans will have learned their trade.

And its noticeable that, even at the very top of the American single seater ladder, the field is made up of drivers whose burning ambition was to become Formula 1 World Champion, but who for various reasons, found that path blocked. Perhaps because they didn't quite have what it took and Indycar racing was the next best thing, perhaps because they lacked the connections and sponsorship to make their way through the fiercely competitive upper ranks of the European junior series (where exactly do you find the £1m or so a season in a competitive team in GP2 costs?) After all, Will Power didn't exactly stand out in British Formula 3 when he raced there in 2004, and Dario Franchitti was easily beaten to the F3 title ten years earlier by Jan Magnussen. Likewise, drivers like Briscoe, Kanaan, Castroneves and Wheldon all looked good in their junior careers without appearing exceptional. And it is noticeable that the drivers in the field who did make it as far as Formula 1 - Takuma Sato and Justin Wilson, were not conspicuously successful when they got there. The end result is that the Indy Car Series is not the pinnacle of American motorsport so much as a dumping ground for people who didn't quite make it in Europe. Because Europe's second division of single seater racers is, these days, a good bit quicker than America's best.

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