Many Americans like to see American drivers in American-based car racing series.
When a U.S.-based series is overrun with drivers from other countries, those fans tend to feel cheated. It is not that fans dislike anyone who is not American racing in the U.S., it just seems wrong to fans when Americans are not the majority of drivers and champions in an American-based series.
It would be the same as if more than two-thirds of the drivers in Formula One racing were Americans. That would be strange to European fans.
So, the question often asked is, “Why aren’t there as many Americans racing in the IndyCar Series as there are international drivers?”
In the IZOD IndyCar Series for 2011, out of a total of 42 drivers, there are six American drivers competing full-time, and five competing part-time.
In 2010 there were five Americans competing full-time and seven competing part-time in the series.
In the Firestone Indy Lights Series for 2011, out of a total of 28 drivers, there is one full-time American driver competing, and eight part-time American drivers competing in the series. In 2010, there was one American driver racing full-time, and eight American drivers racing part-time in the series.
This disparity was not always the case. Up until the early 1980s, American drivers dominated IndyCar racing. From 1911, the first year the Indy 500 was held, through 1927, 11 American drivers won the race, and five international drivers won. From 1928 through 1941, an American won every Indy 500 race.
From 1946 to the present, 46 American drivers have won the Indy 500 and 16 international drivers have won.
A subtle series of events that began in 1983 may have set in motion the influx of international drivers coming over to the U.S. to race in IndyCar.
In 1983, four years after he retired from Formula One racing, two-time Formula One World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi, a Brazilian, was invited to come to the United States to race in the new IMS Grand Prix of Miami to be held in February 1984. Fittipaldi accepted the offer, and enjoyed the experience so much, he accepted another offer to race in some of the IndyCar races during the 1984 season.
In 1985, Fittipaldi joined Patrick Racing and raced a full CART PPG IndyCar World Series season, winning his first IndyCar race at Michigan International Raceway and finishing sixth in the CART PPG IndyCar World Series championship points.
In 1989, he won his first Indy 500 race, and he won the CART PPG IndyCar World Series Championship.
After Fittipaldi began racing in the IndyCar series, many international drivers followed suit. At that time, there was no racing in Europe, South America and Asia that compared to IndyCar racing. Formula 3, which ran strictly in countries outside the United States, was the closest thing to IndyCar racing in the United States.
There were not a lot of opportunities for a driver to move to Formula One, mainly because of the high cost of running in the series and the very limited number of seats available.
International drivers like Arie Luyendyk, Jacques Villeneuve, Kenny Brack, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran, Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon all came to the U.S. to race in IndyCars after Fittipaldi’s success in the series.
For many years, IndyCar racing was the most well-known and by far the most popular form of car racing in the U.S.
IndyCar racing was “America’s” racing, but during the early 1990s when IndyCar racing split into two separate series — CART and the Indy Racing League — fans didn’t like what it had become.
Many of them left, some never to return, and others slow to return.
Unbeknownst to many Americans in these years, there was another kind of racing that had been going on for some time in the southern parts of the United States.
Its roots came from as far back as Prohibition, when “runners,” the men who delivered moonshine from one place to another, souped up their cars to avoid being caught by the feds while they were transporting moonshine on back roads.
In time, these runners began competing among themselves to see who had the fastest car. That was the beginning of what was to become organized stock car racing, now known as NASCAR.
Since 1988, the first year NASCAR held a race west of the Mississippi, the organization started growing at a rapid speed. Today it is a huge corporate conglomeration that provides many levels and series for stock car racing.
NASCAR races are now held across the entire United States, giving many more people than ever before the opportunity to go to a NASCAR race.
Because NASCAR has become so big and is so popular with fans, many companies that used to support American drivers in IndyCar racing have moved their sponsorships to NASCAR drivers.
There is more money to be made in NASCAR, and there are more driver seats available, more exposure, more popularity and more races. And NASCAR fans are more likely to support NASCAR sponsors’ products. Another plus, NASCAR races are televised, even some in the lower divisions like the NASCAR K&N Pro West and East Series.
Another problem for open-wheel racing is that until recently there has not been a clear route for young race drivers.
USAC cars, which used to be very similar to IndyCars and provide an easy transition for many drivers, have fallen far behind in technology. With no obvious place to start, many young drivers made wrong choices and ended up floundering in series they were not ready for.
However, with the recent formation of the “Road to Indy” program, there is a much clearer path for would-be IndyCar race drivers.
But all car racing is driven by money, and it takes a lot of it to succeed.
What most people don’t realize is that most of the successful race car drivers in IndyCar and other major series use a lot of their own money to race.
Today, most teams will not hire a driver if he doesn’t have money to bring to the table.
Peter Fry, communications director for StarMazda, one of the series on the “Road to Indy” program, said, “The majority of IndyCar drivers are paying their own way to drive.”
Maybe not all of it, but a big chunk of it.
Although NASCAR has replaced IndyCar racing as the favorite of most Americans, there are still many true IndyCar fans who show up for the races or watch them on TV.
Open-wheel racing remains the second most popular sport in the world, trailing only World Cup soccer.
It just hasn’t been able to retain that position here in its native land.
Tune in next Thursday for more on this subject. Part two of this story will cover more reasons why it is hard for Americans to succeed in IndyCar, and thoughts and ideas from some of the top people in IndyCar and other series involved in the new “Road to Indy” program about how to make IndyCar more popular with American fans.
Motorsports writer Jeannie Broussal can be reached at napasports @napanews.com