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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Opinion: Captain America a "Charging Star" for IndyCar

2010 was a bleak year for the American open-wheel driver. The only two full-timers confirmed at the beginning of the season were Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, although Ryan Hunter-Reay pieced together a full season on a race by race basis. Meanwhile, 2009 full-timers Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter had to be content with limited schedules, and the development driver pipeline sprung a leak somewhere between Indy Lights and the Indianapolis 500.

Today, we learned that 2010 was merely an aberration.

Panther Racing will unite an American driver with their National Guard sponsorship for the first time in 2011 as J.R. Hildebrand, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, will move up to the IZOD IndyCar Series and compete for rookie of the year honors. Dan Wheldon's replacement parlayed a two-race audition with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing last season and a successful test with Panther at Phoenix earlier this month into multi-year job security.

The goal for any IndyCar team is to hire the fastest and most skilled driver possible. Hildebrand, with his successful Lights experiences and Formula One test at the end of 2009, fits the bill. He's had success thus far in just about every formula he's competed in, and leads an impressive class of young American drivers moving up the ranks - one that also includes Jonathan Summerton, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, and Conor Daly, among others.

But Hildebrand offers something else to the series, something that had previously been taken for granted: a distinctly American superstar.

The IRL used to have Sam Hornish, who won titles for Panther in 2001 and 2002 with the stars and stripes running down the side of his car. But as the CART contingent began to move in, the series moved more and more away from its original modus operandi, the employment of American-born oval specialists. No American has won the title since Hornish did in 2006. This year, Ryan Hunter-Reay finished seventh in points to represent the best finish for an American-born driver; that represents an all-time low.

Hunter-Reay, Patrick, and Andretti have all done their part for American open-wheel racing, of course. Hunter-Reay's wins on the road courses at Surfers Paradise, Watkins Glen, and Long Beach over the course of his career help dispel the notion that only foreign-born drivers excel on the road courses; Patrick has become a household name, perhaps IndyCar's best link to the general public until her NASCAR forays this year; no name better defines American open-wheel racing than Andretti.

But none of those drivers have earned the nickname "Captain America." None of them carry the flag on their car (and while some American drivers do on their helmets, the helmet isn't as distinctive or identifying for the driver as it was in the past). None drive a red, white, and blue car. Hildebrand will do all three in 2011.

Hildebrand's got two other qualities that make him unique. First, he's a racer, pure and simple. You name it, Hildebrand's done demonstration runs in it, from old Formula 1 cars to high-powered street cars. Before signing the National Guard deal, his Twitter background featured a picture of the great Steve McQueen.

Second, he's almost universally liked and respected in the IndyCar community. Patrick and Andretti are occasionally lambasted for their celebrity. Not Hildebrand, who is one of the friendliest faces in the garage. Who else would take to Twitter to personally thank every single person who sent him a congratulatory message? Not many drivers.

For too long, the personable, all-American IndyCar driver has been missing from a series that desperately needs something distinctly American in its identity. It's part of the reason why the series has dropped off so much in the eyes of the American motorsports fan. In fact, any true IndyCar fan should be rooting for Hildebrand to succeed - there's no driver better equipped to solve that problem than he is. He might even replace Hornish as the series' next American champion someday.

For now, Captain America will keep charging to the front - but it won't be long until he's the sport's next star.

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