Young Drivers Lead American Revolution in INDYCAR
By Eric Gilmore
It’s been five years since an American driver captured the IZOD IndyCar Series championship, with Sam Hornish Jr. accomplishing that feat in 2006. Since then, not a single American driver has finished higher than fifth place in the series points race.
Both of those streaks could continue this year, but there have been signs at INDYCAR races throughout this season of what has been called an American Revolution in the sport, spurred by a trio of young, promising drivers – Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti and rookie JR Hildebrand of Sausalitio.
All three have spent most of the season ranked among the top 10 in the IZOD IndyCar Series points race, and fellow American Danica Patrick could well finish in the top 10 for the sixth straight year. Americans Ryan Hunter-Reay, who finished seventh last year, and Charlie Kimball also have full-time INDYCAR rides this year.
Last year only three Americans – Patrick, Hunter-Reay and Andretti – had full-time rides on an INDYCAR circuit that holds most of its races in the U.S. but has been dominated by international drivers, particularly from Brazil, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand.
The series’ international flavor has attracted many racing fans, but American open-wheel racing fans have been waiting years for some American drivers to emerge as legitimate contenders to win a series championship.
“It would mean a lot to me,” said Rahal, the son of Bobby Rahal, who won the 1986 Indy 500 and won three CART Series championships. “Clearly my dad did it three times, and I hope for the same thing. It would mean a lot to me to be in that position and accomplish those things. I certainly think there’s a lot of good Americans in this series and a lot that have the potential to do that.”
Andretti broke through for a victory at Iowa Speedway in June, his first win since his rookie season at Infineon Raceway in 2006, while Hildebrand placed fourth that day.
At the Indianapolis 500 earlier this year, Hildebrand was leading on the final lap before slamming into the wall on Turn 4 and settling for second place. Rahal was right behind him in third, and Andretti finished ninth.
When the IZOD IndyCar Series hit Toronto in July, three Americans finished in the top eight and four in the top 13. Hunter-Reay placed third, Andretti fourth, Hildebrand eighth and Rahal 13th.
Hildebrand said his dream is to one day win the IZOD IndyCar Series title.
“In the end, that’s really the goal,” he said from Toronto. “In the end, that’s what we’re here to do. The schedule requires that you’re a versatile driver and team. I feel like myself and Panther Racing together undoubtedly have the capability of doing that. There are a lot of things that go into making that happen. The pieces are definitely in place.”
Rahal flashed his potential in his very first INDYCAR race, winning the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as a 19-year-old rookie in 2008. He was the youngest driver to win a race in major open-wheel racing history.
Yet through the first 10 races this season, Rahal was still searching for his second career win.
“For me it was a great achievement to win my first race in my first start, but I look at it as I’ve got to do that again and figure out how to get back into victory lane,” Rahal said from Toronto. “It’s been a long time. We’re working hard to do that.”
Rahal finished second twice and third once in his first 10 races this year. During a tumultuous 2010 season, Rahal had one top-five finish all year. He lost his full-time ride with Newman/Haas Racing after McDonald’s pulled its sponsorship support, and Rahal started just 12 races, driving for four different owners.
This year, Rahal secured a new sponsor – Service Central – and landed a new ride, the No. 38 car for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“To be able to go to one place every week and one truck and one car and see one crew and work with one engineer, it’s a lot better than bouncing around,” Rahal said. “But at the same time, I learned a lot last year. I learned to appreciate each and every opportunity that’s given to me.”
While he was growing up, Rahal had the opportunity to follow his famous father and spend countless hours at the track. It didn’t take him long to decide what he wanted to do with his life.
“I loved being around the track,” Rahal said. “That’s what got me hooked on racing and the thought of being a race car driver. I absolutely loved that and traveling with him and being around him. Racing is an addictive thing, that’s for sure.
“Certainly my dad was always very cautious of letting me get involved in this sport. You have to have the passion. There are some guys who see the success of their family and it scares them away, but I’ve always loved it.”
Rahal, though, has made a point of trying to blaze his own racing trail and want to be respected for his own accomplishments. He said it would have been easier to attract sponsorship money if he simply joined forces with his father at Rahal Letterman Racing. He chose a tougher route.
“I need to go out and be my own person and kind of step away from his shadow,” Rahal said.
Ganassi hired both Rahal and Kimball as he expanded a racing stable that already had three-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti of Scotland and two-time champion Scott Dixon of New Zealand.
“I’ve never been the most nationalistic guy,” Ganassi told Sports Illustrated. “We always went with the talented guys first. I didn’t care if they were from Italy, New Zealand, San Francisco, could be any country. I think talent is the start. It just so happens that there is this surge of American drivers right now that are guys that have been coming along and are ready to make the next step.”