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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/ America's best racers

by Gordon Kirby
Who are America's best race drivers today? It's an interesting question because without doubt all the best Americans are racing in NASCAR. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are multiple NASCAR Sprint Cup champions while each of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards have won second division Nationwide championships and are serious contenders for this year's Cup title. All six of these NASCAR stars deserve consideration for the moniker of America's best racer.

And when you look at NASCAR's second level contenders--guys like Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski--it serves only to emphasize both the immense depth of field in NASCAR and the paucity of the rest of American racing.

In IndyCar, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal stand out as the best Americans. Both Hunter-Reay and Rahal have won races and might develop into championship challengers over the next few years but all the other top IndyCar drivers are foreigners.

In American sports car racing Grand-Am champions Scott Pruett, Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty are a cut above the rest and the ALMS has guys like Chris Dyson, Patrick Long and Joey Hand. But it's hard to argue that any of them are in the same league as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch.

Based on the record you have to rate Johnson and Gordon at the top of the list. Johnson has won five consecutive Sprint Cup championships and 55 races, showing a cool head and analytical mind as well as tremendous raw talent. Gordon has four titles to his credit and has won 85 Cup races, second only to Richard Petty and David Pearson, and in terms of accomplishments he is the top driver in NASCAR and America today.

Tony Stewart has won two Cup championships and 39 races and has become an owner/driver in recent years as well as capturing many hearts by showing up for the odd midget or dirt car race. Kyle Busch has yet to win a Cup title but has won more than 100 NASCAR races of all types and led the points going into this year's 'Chase for the Cup'. Many fans consider Kyle the fastest driver in NASCAR and if he wins his first Cup championship this year it will be hard to argue against him being America's best racer.

As I say, Hunter-Reay and Rahal stand out on the IndyCar front. Ryan and Graham are excellent racers who have matured into the best American open-wheel drivers of the times. Both are in the prime of their careers but Hunter-Reay and Rahal have a long way to go before they can point to records comparable to Johnson, Gordon, Stewart and Busch.

Sadly, there are precious few other American IndyCar stars. Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick have been disappointing, to say the least, although JR Hildebrand sparked hopes this year with a strong showing at Indianapolis as well as establishing himself as IndyCar's leading rookie of the year contender. And we share this year's Indy Lights standout Josef Newgarden's high hopes for a bright future for him in IndyCar.

It's worth noting that the last American to win an IndyCar title was Sam Hornish in 2006 while the last American to win a CART/Champ Car title was Jimmy Vasser back in 1996. Hornish moved on to race in NASCAR, of course, but failed to shine and now finds himself as a back-up driver for Penske's Nationwide team.

All this stands in stark contrast to the great days of yore when the United States produced F1 world champions like Phil Hill and Mario Andretti as well as great Indy car champions such as A.J. Foyt, Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti as well as superb drivers and car builders like Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones and Mark Donohue.

Most of these great American drivers were also very versatile, competing and winning in a wide variety of categories. In fact, the broad reach of their success in many forms of racing places our great drivers from the sixties, seventies and eighties on a different level above anyone competing today. Unlike most NASCAR drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have successfully raced Grand-Am sports cars but that's the limit of their versatility although Gordon also showed his ability when he tested an F1 Williams-BMW at Indianapolis in 2002.

When it comes to versatility Hill, Andretti, Gurney, Foyt, Jones, Donohue, the Unsers and Rahal stand out and, as I've written many times, it's sad that the structure of racing today prevents rather than encourages drivers to race in different categories. Phil Hill was an accomplished long-distance sports car racer (a three-time Le Mans winner) as well as a Formula One champion and the same can be said for Andretti. Mario, Foyt, Jones and the Unsers (Bobby, Al and Al Jr.) also were great dirt drivers who were equally good on pavement and in road racing, each of the them winning in a wide variety of cars on all types of tracks. Gurney is a rare bird who won in F1, Can-Am, long-distance sports cars and NASCAR and was equally successful as a legendary team owner and car builder.

Donohue never ran the dirt but he was Mr. Versatility, a winner in Can-Am, Indy cars, long-distance sports cars and Trans-Am and a contender in his brief foray into F1 as well as the driving force behind the original Penske Racing--driver, crew chief and engineer. Rahal won in long-distance sports cars as well as Indy cars and went on to become a successful team owner. Michael Andretti ran only a handful of sports car races, focusing on Indy cars where his record of 42 wins places him behind only his father and Foyt. Michael has also established himself as a successful team owner.

So America's great road racers and Indy car drivers of recent decades have set an extremely high standard. On the face of it, nobody racing today or in the forseeable future can possibly equal the breadth of their accomplishments.

It's also interesting that most of those mentioned above--Al Jr. and Michael excepted--came along before the arrival of go-karting as a place for kids to start racing. They didn't start racing until they were grown men in their late teens or early twenties unlike almost everyone today who started racing as kids in karts and thus enjoyed the benefit of a life on wheels.

During the same time there's also been a boom in race driving schools. Thousands if not millions of people have attended a driving school and driven a Formula Ford or its like. Yet this twin modern fad of karting and driving schools has done little or nothing to produce a new generation of great American racers.

And of course, the precipitous decline over the past ten or fifteen years in the number and quality of Americans racing Indy cars and ALMS or Grand-Am sports cars is stunning. This phenomenom occured despite Tony George's early rhetoric about re-making Indy car racing as an all-American sport filled with oval tracks and grassroots American racers. It turned out he was swimming against the tide of history as foreign drivers and car builders swamped IndyCar.

Indeed, the most accomplished drivers in either CART/Champ Car or IRL/IndyCar over the past fifteen years are: Dario Franchitti with three IRL/IndyCar titles, two Indy 500 wins and 28 other CART/IRL/IndyCar wins; Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais, both with 31 CART/Champ Car wins, plus one Champ Car championship for Tracy and four Champ Car titles in a row for Bourdais; Scott Dixon with 27 wins including one Indy 500 and two IRL/IndyCar championships; Helio Castroneves with 25 wins, including three Indy 500s.

The only American on this list is Sam Hornish with 19 wins, including one Indy 500 and three IRL titles. The other foreigners are: Dan Wheldon with 16 wins, including two Indy 500s and one IRL title; Alex Zanardi with 15 wins and two CART championships; Tony Kanaan with 15 wins and one IRL title; Will Power with 14 wins; Gil de Ferran with 12 wins, including one Indy 500 and two CART titles; Cristiano da Matta with 12 wins and one CART title; and Juan Pablo Montoya with 10 wins, one Indy 500 and one CART championship.

As foreign drivers took over Indy car racing it fell into popular decline amid the CART/IRL civil war and NASCAR became the brand name for racing in the United States, attracting guys like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart who might have become IndyCar stars if open-wheel racing had remained healthy. Indeed, as open-wheel racing declined many of its stars gave NASCAR a try. Some failed, such as Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish and Patrick Carpentier. Others--Juan Pablo Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger and to a lesser degree Jacques Villeneuve--have been middlingly successful but no more. All of which has further reduced Indy car or open-wheel racing in the minds of NASCAR fans and the American media most of whom regard IndyCar as a feeder series for NASCAR.

Which brings us back to the irrefutable fact that NASCAR's current best are today's greatest American racers. Despite Dan Wheldon's glib comments last week trying to promote IndyCar's Las Vegas 'World Championship' most people are deeply aware that NASCAR enjoys a more impressive depth of field than any other form of racing anywhere in the world. Back in their open-wheel days both Montoya and Allmendinger proved themselves to be extremely talented racers and their struggles to make their marks in NASCAR underlines the immense depth in the Sprint Cup series.

It may not be as robustly healthy as it was a few years ago but NASCAR continues to boast a full field of 43 cars and a steady stream of new American talent knocking hard on the door, anxious to break in and start building their reputations against the likes of Gordon, Johnson, Stewart and the Busch brothers. Thanks to the many failures of both American open-wheel and sports car racing NASCAR's stars personify American racing today.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

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