Monday, July 9, 2012

American Revival

Are those Americans we've been seeing on the victory rostrums at IndyCar races?  Of course, Ryan Hunter-Reay has won the series last 3 races, vaulting into the series points lead.  Clearly, the Florida native has found a home at Andretti Autosport and emerged as the man to beat for the series title. 

However, Hunter-Reay isn't the only one flying the Stars and Stripes during the victory celeberations.  Two weeks ago, third generation American Marco Andretti finished second to Hunter-Reay in Iowa.  Yesterday in Toronto, 27 year-old California native Charlie Kimball finished runner-up, after surviving an early shunt with Ganassi teammate Graham Rahal.  Kimball arguably pulled off the performance of the race with a spirited charge through the field, at one point passing two cars in the same corner.

And, if you go back before Iowa to the race at Milwaukee, Hunter-Reay was atop the podium, with American Rahal finishing second at Texas the week before. Thus, you have 4 consecutive American podium finishes, an American winning 3 straight races and Americans finsihing one-two in back t back races. 
 
When was the last time any of those things happened?  Funny you ask.  As far as 4 consecutive races with at least one American on the podium, one would have to go back to the end of the 2006 IRL season, wrapping around to the beginning of 2007.  In late 2006, a Hornish win at Kentucky was followed by an Andretti win at Sonoma, before Hornish finished third at Chicago.  Hornish then finished third at the 2007 opener at Homestead. 

What about an American winning three straight races?  A.J. Allmendinger, who of course was, in conjunction with Hornish, in the news this the wekeend, won Portland, Cleveland and Toronto, consectutively in 2006. 

Now, where do we find consecutive races in which Americans finished 1-2?  This one took some digging.  You have to go back to the 2001 IRL season, when Americans finished one-two in the last nine races.  Of course, the 2001 IRL season was not exactly the golden age of Indy Car racing, and the drivers making up these one-twos were men like Jacques Lazier, Mark Dismore, Greg Ray, and Eddie Cheever, none of whom exactly captured the imagination of the American public.  If you go back to the CART/Champ Car days, the last time American finished one-two in consecutive races?  1996.  Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal finished one-two at Elkhart Lake and Vancouver, consecutively. 

What about the last time we had an all-American 1-2-3?  Indianapolis, 2006.  Hornish, Marco Andretti, and Michael Andretti. 

While we could go on, suffice it to say, recent history has not been kind to American Indy Car drivers.  Of course, the absence of successful, charismatic American stars, has often been cited in explaining a lack of appeal to mainstream America for a sport that contests 75-80% of its races in America.   Arguably, the abyss of American performance in Indy Car racing came in 2009, a year, in which no Americans won a race, and drivers from the USA combined for a mere 5 podium finishes. 

However, the recent performance of Hunter-Reay and others has provided hope this is about to change.  While Hunter-Reay-Kimball doesn't exactly evoke the nostalgia of Foyt-Andretti, IndyCar does boast a core of talented, American drivers under the age of 32, most of whom have won or shown the potential to be race winners. 

Of the following group, J.R. Hildebrand, Kimball, Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Josef Newgarden, Graham Rahal, and Ed Carpenter, all are under the age of 32.  Further, all with the exception of Newgarden have finished an IndyCar race on the podium. 

Also noteworthy, is that all of the drivers mentioned above are products of the IndyCar ladder system, which has improved as a byproduct of unification in 2008.   Whereas, a decade ago, owners looking to fill top rides bypassed junior formua standouts such as Anthony Lazzaro, Buddy Rice, Alex Gurney, Jon Fogarty, Joey Hand and others.  In recent years, IndyCar owners have filled quality vacant seats with promising home-grown talent. 

Further, in contrast to Indy Car racing a decade ago, there is little evidence that any of the young American drivers mentioned above have aspirations outside IndyCar.  Formula One (F1) seems to have little interest in IndyCar drivers, and the trend of open wheelers defecting to NASCAR seems to have ended with Danica Patrick.  Having seen the struggles of Hornish, Dario Franchitti, Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya and others, NASCAR teams have likely grown lukewarm to open-wheelers and vice versa.  In other words, all indications are that Hunter-Reay, Hildebrand, Rahal, et al., will be IndyCar drivers for years to come, providing the series an opportunity to build around them.

Of course, it isn't enough to simply fill the grid with young American drivers.  The drivers will eventually need to take after Hunter-Reay, and begin to find victory lane to generate a greater following for the sport.  Further, we've also seen that simply any American winning in IndyCar, think the charisma-deficient Hornish, will not move the sport into the consciousness of the mainstream.  Hunter-Reay, clearly has the looks, talent and polish to be that guy, but it remains to be seen if he can take IndyCar from outlets like The Chrome Horn to outlets like USA Today.

For now, IndyCar fans should take solace in the fact, there seems to be hope.  Like Kimball charging through the field yesterday, there is evidence to suggest that an American IndyCar resurgence is indeed, on the way.

Brian

Contact Brian by email at bricarr2@aol.com.  Also, feel free to follow the blog on twitter @thechromehorn33 


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