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Monday, July 12, 2010

Opinion: The Plight of the American Open-Wheel Racer, Pt. 2

Last month, the American open-wheel racer was an endangered species.

Other than Marco Andretti, the futures of most American drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series were shaky at best. Ryan Hunter-Reay was on a race-by-race deal; Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter were on the sidelines after Indy; J.R. Hildebrand and Jonathan Summerton never had rookie-of-the-year campaigns materialize; Danica Patrick was still testing the NASCAR waters in order to potentially make the jump.

What a difference a month makes - Hunter-Reay has a deal to keep him at Andretti Autosport for the balance of the year, Hildebrand will make his IndyCar debut for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing next month, and Patrick's generally unsuccessful NASCAR runs make you wonder if she'll reconsider.

Hunter-Reay is the biggest feel-good story of the year in IndyCar. On a limited schedule with Andretti, he won the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, only to have a couple potential sponsorship deals fall through after that victory. The former series Rookie of the Year and IZOD spokesman been one of the most consistent drivers in the series all season, but even having everything going for him couldn't keep him in the car beyond Watkins Glen. The signing of Adam Carroll, a talented Irish driver with the chops for Formula 1, also seemed to hurt Hunter-Reay's case.

Then, good karma came back to repay Hunter-Reay. Andretti's existing sponsors, including IZOD, Snapple, Ethanol USA, Inland Industrial Services Group, and the Michael Fux Foundation, announced just before Watkins Glen that they had stepped up funding to keep Hunter-Reay in the car for the rest of the season. Not only that, they created the charitable initiative Racing for Cancer, dedicated to Hunter-Reay's mother, who passed away in the offseason.

Of course, Hildebrand is a bit of a feel-good story himself. The man they call "Captain America" won last year's Firestone Indy Lights title for Andretti, but besides some time testing Marco Andretti's car this year, he'd been generally out of open-wheel, instead competing in the American Le Mans Series. But with Mike Conway still on the sidelines at DRR, and two tracks coming up that Hildebrand performed well at in Lights last year, he became the perfect fit for the No. 24 team.

Mid-Ohio yielded a third-place finish last year for the young American driver, while Infineon Raceway, his self-proclaimed home track, was the site of his fourth and final victory of the year. There is also the outside shot that he may run at Edmonton for the team, the final race before Conway's return that does not yet have a driver under contract. Hildebrand won at that track in Lights last year as well.

But while these instances are progress, the sport still does not have many American drivers under long-term contracts. Patrick and Marco Andretti over at Andretti Autosport are the only drivers with guaranteed futures at the moment. The team will certainly try to bring Hunter-Reay back, but it all depends on sponsorship. Hildebrand's deal, for the moment, is for two races only.

Rahal is still looking for a bit of certainty after having driven three different cars over the course of this season, with some spotty results. Carpenter and Vision Racing, the team owner by ex-IRL czar Tony George, have not been heard from since the end of May. Townsend Bell runs Indianapolis only these days, Davey Hamilton's bid to run races after Indianapolis was dashed by de Ferran Dragon Racing's totaled racecars, and Sarah Fisher still has a long way to go sponsorship-wise to bring her team to full-time status.

Worse, while the trend of open-wheel stars jumping to stock cars may continue with Patrick, few NASCAR competitors seem willing to go to at least Indianapolis and compete for the proposed $20 million prize that would come with winning the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.

Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, two of NASCAR's finest that grew up with 500-mile dreams in the state of Indiana, have passed on the idea. Juan Montoya, perhaps the driver with the best shot, doesn't seem too keen on it, either. Robby Gordon hasn't been able to make something happen, and ex-F1 pilot Scott Speed and Team Red Bull, despite potentially making a great fit, have not commented on the possibility. Meanwhile, at the press conference introducing the New Hampshire IndyCar race for next year, Dario Franchitti downplayed the possibility of making such a run.

The series also has to bring in more American equipment in order to maintain relevance in the United States. Yes, Firestone is an Akron-based tire company with a storied history at Indianapolis. But Dallara is an Italian chassis manufacturer, and Honda is a Japanese engine builder. As many Americans as there are who drive Hondas, it doesn't hurt to have an American brand promoting the sport, something that disappeared in open-wheel once Ford pulled out of Champ Car at the end of 2006.

The new-for-2012 engine regulations, providing for (as a maximum) a 2.4 liter turbocharged V6, should open up that category to more American brands. But if the series sticks to a single chassis manufacturer for 2012, the only American company with widespread fan support that is in the running is Swift, which also provides chassis for the Japanese Formula Nippon Series.

Part of the reason why NASCAR flourished and American open-wheel racing declined was the preservation of American values in one niche as the other moved towards becoming a minor-league F1. NASCAR remains to this day dominated by Americans. The sad reality is that, in order to firmly entrench a sport in a country's consciousness, you have to embrace some of that country's core values - Americanness, if you will - even when they may bring the product down a little bit.

Part of the reason why IndyCar is great stems from the fact that these are some of the "fastest drivers in the world," representing every inhabitable continent and over a dozen countries. But American fans need more American drivers to back. The series also visits Canada, which has Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani; Japan, besides all the engines in the series, can get behind Hideki Mutoh and Takuma Sato; although Australia is now off the schedule, fans down under can embrace two-thirds of Team Penske; Brazilian fans have about a third of the series to get behind.

American fans don't really have those drivers or that equipment to strongly identify behind in IndyCar right now; they just have the races on their own soil. Danica is too polarizing a figure at this point, when plenty will bash her for her lack of on-track production, instead of just appreciating the strides she's helped make for women in motorsports. Marco hasn't won in nearly a presidential term, and Hunter-Reay needs a long-term deal to keep him in the sport. We can't even bring up Rahal until somebody signs him to a solid deal, either. The quick fix of NASCAR drivers in the 500 seems unlikely.

Has the series made progress over the past month? Yes. The American open-wheel driver is now a "protected" endangered species, with every intent on rebuilding its population over the next few years. But wholesale changes may still need to come before the sport can once again rival NASCAR in popularity - and that means a little more red, white, and blue on the track.

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