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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Opinion: The Plight of the American Open-Wheel Racer

Saturday night's Firestone 550k was one of the best races for Andretti Autosport in recent memory. Andretti cars finished 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th, one of their best performances as a team since the 1-2-3-4 sweep at St. Petersburg in 2005. Even better for Andretti, Danica Patrick, the all-world marketing superstar who has been struggling for much of the year, was the lead driver in that pack, and even briefly made the racing difficult for eventual winner Ryan Briscoe.

But Texas may prove to be bittersweet for Andretti, as it may be the final race for fourth driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. For the second consecutive year, Hunter-Reay's status as "the IZOD driver" will only take him about a third of the way through the IZOD IndyCar Series season, before he has to find another ride on his own. Andretti's already got another driver, Adam Carroll, lined up to drive for them in a few events.

Hunter-Reay has two weeks before the next race at Iowa to figure things out. He could get lucky and, for the second year in a row, become a replacement for a driver injured in the Indianapolis 500. Last year, he replaced Vitor Meira in A.J. Foyt's famed No. 14 car; this year, he could take over for Mike Conway at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, depending on whether or not the team feels strongly about retaining the services of Tomas Scheckter... or if DRR officials feel like he was at fault for the Conway wreck, in which his car was used as the launching pad for the No. 24's trip into the wall.

Regardless, Hunter-Reay's continued plight - even with the commercial weight of the series' title sponsor behind him - says a lot about the state of American drivers in open wheel racing. Here's a driver who just won the biggest street race in the country, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He was thisclose to winning the inauagural Sao Paulo Indy 300. Until being involved in the Conway incident, he had a solid Indy run going. He currently sits sixth in points and, with 11 races to make up 45 points, can make a solid run at this year's championship.

In other words, he's done almost everything right on track this year. So why does team owner Michael Andretti say that multiple sponsorship deals fell through for the budding star, even immediately after the Long Beach victory? Why does the Sprint Prepaid Group, through its Boost and Virgin Mobile brands, decide to throw most of its weight behind the already well-sponsored Patrick and the newcomer Carroll, only kicking a little support at Indy to their best bet to actually win a race?

If I'm Hunter-Reay, I'm starting to feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield right about now. My first thought when I wake up in the morning has to be, "I don't get no respect!"

Worse, he's not the only one. So many quality American drivers currently sit on the sidelines as their foreign counterparts trash racecars, all because they don't have the same kind of sponsorship. Ed Carpenter and Townsend Bell sit on the sidelines after strong Indy runs but mid-pack finishes. Buddy Rice - that's 2004 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice to you - and last year's Indy Lights champion, J.R. Hildebrand, have taken their talents to sports car racing. Meanwhile, four current IndyCar drivers have three or more DNFs in the seven races this season, and almost all of them are ride buyers of some sort. I won't name names, but you can probably figure it out easily enough.

Let's also call Paul Tracy an adopted American now that he lives in Vegas, and wonder aloud why the winningest active driver doesn't get a shot in more races, while his KV Racing teammates get involved in incidents like it's what they're paid to do.

I won't even bring up Graham Rahal with the list, though - he passed on the Boy Scouts ride with Dale Coyne Racing, and Alex Lloyd has been working wonders with it the past couple of races. Sure, Bill Pappas is no longer the engineer at DCR, which gave him some reservations about the quality of the cars, but surely Graham could have done just as much with that equipment as Lloyd. Newman/Haas Racing may have strung him along, but the rides were there, and he was a little too picky.

It's hard to make this argument without tapping into good old-fashioned American jingoism, but wasn't the Indy Racing League originally founded to give more American drivers a chance?

Hunter-Reay is a prime example of a driver that the old IRL would have served well, a Tony Stewart-type in that he has plenty of talent but no ride in which to show it off. Ever since losing the Ethanol sponsorship, his career has been unsteady, with plenty of uncertainty from week to week about where he'll be racing, who he'll be racing for, if he'll be racing at all.

The old IRL would have protected a driver like that. Now, not even race wins, a challenge for the championship, or, worst of all, the backing of the series' title sponsor can secure him a full-season contract. He's got two weeks to figure out how to get behind the wheel of a race car at Iowa, and I don't think anybody can come up with a reasonable explanation as to why.

I guess it all comes down to no respect.

Attention readers: The previous version of the column contained a poorly worded, easily misinterpreted remark about Mike Conway. That comment has since been removed, and I sincerely apologize to anybody who took it the wrong way. We all wish Mike Conway well, and look forward to him rejoining the series upon his recovery.

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