One. Two. And that’s it.
Two. Dos. Deux. Zwei. Ni.
Any way you speak it, that number doesn’t sound good to fans of the IZOD IndyCar Series and American open-wheel racing. That’s the number of full-time American drivers that were involved in last week’s Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park.
Right now, Andretti Autosport’s Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti are those drivers. Their teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, is still battling to secure a full season of work. Sarah Fisher has increased her program but will still have her breaks in 2010. Davey Hamilton returns to the track this season — for three races.
Plus, there’s some guy named Graham Rahal missing. Apparently, he’s pretty good. So’s this dude — goes by the name of J.R. Hildebrand. He won a title last year, it seems. There’s plenty more on this American MIA list too — John Edwards, Jonathan Summerton and Jonathan Bomarito, to name a few.
For a league that was partially built on the premise of giving more opportunities to American drivers, the IRL isn’t exactly awash in stars and stripes right now. The fanbase is getting agitated because of it. They’re goaded by such elements like media coverage on Rahal’s plight and the tweets of former CART champion and current part-time driver Paul Tracy, which explicitly mentioned a lack of North American drivers but were used as fuel for the fire anyway.
You can’t blame people for raging. The American driver count has gone down gradually and talented internationals with lively personalities such as Tracy and Oriol Servia can’t find steady work. The dominant squads, Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing, have five drivers between them yet only one of them — Penske’s three-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves — has broken through the insular confines of the racing world. And no, Dario Franchitti’s marriage to actress Ashley Judd does not count in that regard.
We’ve become used to reserved drivers like Franchitti, Scott Dixon, and Ryan Briscoe being at the top of the heap. It’s great if you’re a fan of theirs. It’s great for open-wheel purists who enjoy “nose to the grindstone” competitors. But if you’re looking for somebody that’s American, can kick total ass on the track, and rule a room with a smile and some quick wit…Well, it may not be so great for you.
Perhaps that is why when people took a gander at the list of competitors that tested at Barber, they got angsty (and Tracy got tweet-y). I can picture the inner conversations:
“Who the bloody hell is this English bloke named James Rossiter?” “Mario Romancini? Oh yeah, you’re “super” alright…at ridebuying!” “Simona de Silvestro? She’ll never be as big as Danica. Why bother?”
Never mind that two of those three (Rossiter and de Silvestro) were just test drivers at Barber. They were immediately considered invaders by people that have seen their great American hopes like Rahal and Hunter-Reay forced to scramble for sponsorship in the abyss of our country’s economy.
It’s not the best way to welcome people. As Tony Johns over at Pop Off Valve writes, the fan base has a tendency to stay inside the box and lean towards the familiar elements. Combine that with the lack of American title contenders in the last few seasons and people are wary of accepting new talent that isn’t homegrown. They see “Takuma Sato” on his fire suit and while some will see “Formula One standout,” the sad truth is that more will see “nondescript foreigner.”
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel coming in the near future. As Johns also muses, it comes down to cold, hard economics at this current moment in time. The driver with the fattest wallet will win out because team owners have no other choice if they want to keep their team on the grid.
But try telling all of that to the prospective new fans that groups like IZOD and Versus are trying to pull into the series. They want to be entertained and, preferably, they want to be entertained by more drivers that grew up like they did. What will they make of the current pilot pool?
For one thing, they’ll see two. Two full-time Americans. And then they’ll walk away, filled with the perception that the league is nothing but a hangout for drivers with funny accents and loads of moolah.
In today’s age, perception is reality. This is the last perception the IRL needs to be tagged with.
But can they do anything to stop it? Or are we resigned to griping to Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee on Trackside, see Rahal head for NASCAR, and watch Tracy cover the sport’s downfall in 140-character chunks?
Only time will tell. But one thing is for certain. In IndyCar, Old Glory isn’t so glorious anymore.