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Abandoning The American Driver

No matter how this essay is interpreted, somebody is going to be upset. Most likely everybody. The only question is why they got upset.

To some, this essay will be blasphemous. To others, it will be used as ammunition, for both sides, to the CART/IRL feud. And others will likely label it as xenophobic. It is not meant to be any of these. It is merely meant as an observation of the state of the American driver in open wheel racing in relation to how they are being treated by the ones who count the most -- the team owners.

There is no denying the fact that the international flair of CART is what sets it apart in the American racing world. Many people, including myself, believe this is good. No one is going to argue that you don't want the best drivers in the world competing in CART. It's makes for better racing. And that turns on the fans.

Certainly, when you get right down to the racing, it's not always important who is in the car, but rather what they do. We can look back at various moments of CART history and remember many exciting highlights. The Al Unser family fight for the championship that came down to the last race. Michael Andretti winning the championship. Nigel Mansell taking the Colonies by storm. Paul "what will he do next" Tracy. Bobby Rahal's methodical approach to years of domination. Alex Zanardi's donut years. Juan Montoya's breathtaking rookie year. Did it really matter what their nationality was? Of course not.

Yet, there is nothing wrong with rooting for your fellow countryman. Interest in Canada has increased this decade thanks to the exploits of it's many drivers. England paid attention when Mansell came over, and many English fans continue to follow CART. Brazil's TV ratings of CART events are second only to F1. Columbia now has a rabid auto racing following thanks to Montoya. Thus, America deserves the same, in a series that mostly takes place on their own soil.

There was a time, not too long ago, when this was not a problem. There was a nice mix. Some teams favored certain drivers which helped keep this mix going. If you were super talented, you got a ride. No matter what. And if you were border line, then sometimes you got the backing of a sponsor or team owner who preferred a certain driver.

Americans could depend on the first group (Andretti, Unser, Herta, Pruett). Sometimes they had to rely on the second group (Hearn, Jones). It appears they can no longer depend on that extra little help.

It wasn't always like that. Bobby Rahal used to rely on the same formula as the man that gave him his break, Jim Trueman, and look for young American talent. Now, his team has been completely switched over to foreign drivers. And remember when KOOL came onto the CART scene to specifically do for the American driver what Player's did for the Canadian driver? They had one rule for Barry Green -- hire American drivers only. Green did try. Offered Tony Stewart big money. Thought he had a deal with Robby Gordon. Did hire Parker Johnstone, but that didn't work out. Then, KOOL got impatient and changed their philosophy. Now, there is a Canadian and a Scot on the team. Again, nothing wrong with that, and it is impossible to argue with the choice of the two drivers Team KOOL Green hired. However, those are two lost opportunities for Americans.

The real issue is how the CART team owners are abandoning the American driver. Not that we would ever advocate a quota system. Never. Not that we are advocating the rhetoric being spewed out by the IRL. Not at all. We are just saying that it appears the owners are completely ignoring the possibility of hiring or taking a chance on an American driver when they seem to be quite willing to do the same for foreign drivers because the perception is that is the safe route.

I'm not talking about American open wheel drivers deciding to go elsewhere especially to stock car racing such as Stewart, Pruett, and Anthony Lazzaro. They do so because they themselves see an opportunity for their own career and goals. Maybe because they were stymied by the lack of interest from open wheel owners. However, the case is usually they simply see a different opportunity they want to pursue. That is not the problem.

The problem is the owners have become lazy and started to follow a self-fulfilling prophecy. They see one driver with a certain background do well, and they all jump on the bandwagon. Bobby Rahal said that if you win in F3000, you can win anywhere. Well, if CART hires nothing but F3000 drivers, then of course only F3000 drivers can win. The owners, under intense pressure from their sponsors to win, act like lemmings without the willingness to buck the trend. Adrian Fernandez came into CART with the aid of a sponsor, Tecate, in his back pocket. However, he proved his worth, and today would most likely be hired by a number of owners should that sponsor suddenly pull their support. He was talented, but needed a little help. A nudge.

That is the problem. The owners seemingly are no longer willing to give someone that nudge. They instead simply follow the lead. Had an Indy Lights driver stepped into the Montoya ride and done well, and not even necessarily as well as Montoya did, the owners would be clamoring for Indy Lights drivers. If it was a Toyota Atlantic driver, they would be handing out contracts to those guys. Heck, if it was a Baby Grand driver in that Ganassi ride who won a few races, it wouldn't surprise me to see CART owners hanging out at the local dirt track.

Earlier I mentioned there used to be a nice mix. Do I know what the perfect mix is? No way! But, I do know that mix isn't right when the team owners don't even consider an American driver before a foreign driver when hiring decisions have to be made. There has to be a concerted effort by sponsors and team owners to help groom American talent in the support series and take a chance on them in the big leagues. Otherwise, the spiral, the Catch-22 syndrome, will spin dangerously out of control. And in the long run, American open wheel racing, and more importantly, American open wheel driving talent, will suffer. In a series based out of America, that's just not good.

Copyright © 1999 by Roy Todd and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

 
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