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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ North American talent at a record low

by Gordon Kirby
Everybody's talking about Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson's USF1 team. In the past two weeks I've written a couple of blogs on Motor Sport's website (www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk) about Windsor and Anderson's dreams and plans. I've also written a story about the team for Motor Sport's June issue.

Of course, I don't need to tell you that skepticism abounds about all aspects of the new team which aims to enter the F1 World Championship next year. To meet their goal Windsor and Anderson have to quickly decide where USF1 will be headquartered and accumulate the personnel needed to get on with designing and building the cars. They've got plenty of work on their plate, Anderson in particular.

Anderson is the team principal and engineering boss and will be on deck in North Carolina while Windsor travels the world in the final year of his role as Speed's F1 pitlane and background reporter. At the same time, Windsor will be working the market with engine manufacturers, drivers and sponsors, and it's not unlikely that a messy clash of interests could break out. Let's hope not. Meanwhile, F1 fans across America and around the world, plus the likes of Max Mosley, Bernie Ecclestone and Chris Pook, as well as Rick Minor and everyone at Speed will watch USF1's progress with more than a little interest.

The announcement of USF1 has also triggered debate about which American drivers Windsor and Anderson might hire. Windsor is right to talk about the future potential of Alex Rossi, Gabby Chaves, Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly but the two most seasoned young American road racers right now are Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the latter incredibly not mentioned by anyone as a potential USF1 candidate.

Hunter-Reay won Champ Car races at Surfers Paradise in 2003 and Milwaukee in '04. He also won last year's IRL race at Watkins Glen driving for Bobby Rahal's team which has lost its sponsorship and is out of the Indy car business after eighteen years. So Hunter-Reay is on the sidelines and seems, inexplicably, to have fallen off most everyone's radar screen. Ryan is 28, maybe a little too old by F1 standards, but USF1 should give him a test. They might be surprised.

Young Rahal won in his IRL debut at St. Petersburg last year of course and continues with Newman/Haas/Lanigan this year. It's easy to forget Graham is only nineteen but he must show this year that he can run at the front on a regular basis. If he can do that Rahal should be an obvious choice for USF1. Formula 1 is Graham's goal and he's a mature young man who's grown-up in the sport with deep knowledge of and enthusiasm for racing's history. It would be great to see him get a shot at F1.

USF1's announcement entirely overshadowed the IRL's two days of 'Spring Training' at Homestead. Twenty drivers turned out with Ryan Briscoe setting the pace for Team Penske ahead of defending champion Scott Dixon. Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth quickest at Homestead with Dario Franchitti fifth and Mario Moraes an impressive sixth in his first run with KV Racing. A record low five American drivers--Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Ed Carpenter and Stanton Barrett--will compete in this year's Indy car series.

It was good to see Andretti run well at Homestead because he, too, must put some numbers on the board this year. Marco did not enjoy a good season last year and has been very disappointing over the winter in the A1GP series where he has been stuck in the mid and backfield. Nor did young Andretti impress when he tested one of Honda's F1 cars in 2007. If he's going to make a real mark for himself in the sport this is a critical year for Marco.

It's interesting that the healthy blast of Canadian open-wheel talent we've seen over the past twenty or more years also seems to have dried-up. As everyone knows, Paul Tracy is without a ride for the second year in a row while Alex Tagliani ran a few races at the end of last year but has no sponsorship to pay for a ride this year. Patrick Carpentier enthusiastically tried NASCAR last year but has apparently retired and is trying his luck building houses back home in Quebec.

Nor are there any young Canadian racers ready to jump into an Indy car following in the wheeltracks of Tracy, Jacques Villeneuve, Greg Moore, Tagliani and Carpentier. Andrew Ranger has turned to NASCAR Canada instead and the IRL will discover that it's going to be tough to relaunch the Toronto street race this year and make Edmonton a success without any Canadian stars.

Tracy is bemused by the turn of events that took him almost overnight from being Champ Car's last remaining star and a champion of the series' supposed values to yesterday's news--a washed-up, 40-year old in whom nobody is interested. But Tracy wants to continue racing and anyone who saw him attack the opening laps at Milwaukee in the last few years Champ Car raced there knows he's still as fast and exciting as they come on ovals. And his run through the field to fourth place in Edmonton last summer in a one-off appearance aboard a Derrick Walker-prepared car showed that he can also road race as well as ever.

A few weeks ago Dale Coyne called to offer Paul his other car beside Justin Wilson in place of Bruno Junqueira. But Tracy refused Coyne's offer. "I told Dale that Bruno is a friend of mine and a good driver who deserves a ride," Tracy said. "I told him I couldn't take Bruno's seat. That wouldn't be right."

In fact, it's a defining moment when some of the best Indy car drivers find themselves gravitating towards Coyne's team. It says that Coyne stands out from the crowd as a pure racer, trying to do the right thing. It also says the sport is in dire straights.

Let's quickly review. Back in the fifties, Indy car racing boasted stars like Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Bryan, Tony Bettenhausen, Jim and Dick Rathmann, Bob Sweikert, Sam Hanks and Rodger Ward. The sixties saw superstars like A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser. Foyt, Andretti and the Unsers continued through the seventies into the eighties. They were joined in the seventies by the likes of Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock and Tom Sneva, and in the eighties by Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi who became the first great foreign Indy car star.

Through the nineties the Indy car scene went through some big changes. Mears retired in 1992, Mario in '94, Fittipaldi in '95 and Rahal in '98. Al Jr. and Michael Andretti continued racing through the turn of the century, but their careers were on the wane and there was nobody to replace them. Jimmy Vasser in 1996 was CART's last American champion.

When Tony George created the IRL he sketched his vision of making an oval-based series that would attract grass roots American racers from midget and sprint car racing. But after Tony Stewart's arrival and departure to NASCAR the vision dimmed, then faded completely. Foreign drivers began to take over the IRL as well and the trend accelerated when the first CART teams defected in 2003.

As we all know, during these years NASCAR took over American racing, stealing almost all the oxygen from both Indy car and sports car racing, the latter locked in a similar intramural squabble between sanctioning bodies. So here we are today with just five American drivers racing Indy cars and an equally small number of Americans at the front of the ALMS series as well. The sport faces many challenges in today's world but one of the biggest is how to recreate the chain of top American drivers.

As I've written before, we should thank the Skip Barber Racing School, Jeremy Shaw's Team USA and Mazda's ladder system for everything they contribute but the sport's real power brokers have been silent for years or otherwise missing in action when it comes to developing domestic talent.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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