The Yanks Are Storming Gasoline Alley
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Pre-race story lines for the Sunday’s 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 fittingly will be dominated by the possibility of either IZOD IndyCar Series superstars Helio Castroneves or Dario Franchitti becoming the event’s fourth four-time winner.
Both popular drivers are bidding to join A.J. Foyt Jr., Al Unser and Rick Mears in the most exclusive club at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Castroneves, a native of Brazil, and Franchitti, a native of Scotland, would become Indy’s first foreign-born four-time champion – ironically enough following a weekend of qualifications that marked a resurgence for American-born drivers and teams.
Indiana native son Ed Carpenter, owner/driver of Ed Carpenter Racing, qualified on-pole at 228.762 mph, and was joined in the three-car first row by third-generation driver Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport.
Former Champ Car and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular A.J. Allmendinger marked his return to the open-wheel ranks with a fifth-place qualifying run for Team Penske, the winningest organization at IMS.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the reigning IndyCar Series champion, will start seventh in one of five cars fielded by Michael Andretti’s impressive team.
And JR Hildebrand will start 10th for Panther Racing, a charter member of the series dating to its launch as the Indy Racing League for the 1996 season.
It’s among the topics that certainly will be discussed during ABC’s live broadcast of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” beginning at 11 a.m. (EDT). The network’s team for its record 49th consecutive broadcast will include
American-born analyst Eddie Cheever Jr., the 1998 Indy 500 champion, and Canadian Scott Goodyear, the race’s runnerup to Al Unser Jr. in 1992 and Arie Luyendyk in 1997.
“I was going through all the nationalities that are racing at the Indy 500,” Cheever said during a network teleconference on Tuesday. “And if I’m correct, there are 11 American drivers, there are two American drivers on the front row. There is a certain point in time when A.J. Foyt didn’t exist, nor (Johnny) Rutherford, nor the youngsters. And they became what they became through the 500.
“I think there is a whole new guard of drivers that are on their way and the Americans are, I would say, very well-positioned to win this 500. It’s great as ‘the next American driver who has raced all over the world’ in all sorts of races to come here and be working at ABC and assume this resurgence of American drivers.
“Who knows? We might be starting a brand new dynasty on Sunday. And anybody who is going to win this race is going to have to beat a very large contingency of American-based drivers, and that is great. I have many friends all over the world that I have raced with from Brazil, France, Italy. There is nothing to say against them. It’s great to see so many drivers representing America in this year’s 500.”
Goodyear said this crop of Americans has done a solid job with logistics. “A lot of times we’ve had drivers that maybe weren’t placed on the right team with the right equipment and in the right situation, and that’s certainly changed here,” Goodyear said. “It’s been changing for the last couple of years. AJ Allmendinger – who is noted as a rookie has a lot of open-wheel experience along with his NASCAR experience – is with the right team, there is no doubt about it. Very impressive how he’s adapted to the new cars and gotten up to speed with all of the pressures that he has on him running for Penske and some of the things in the outside world that have gone on in his life.
“But you think about JR Hildebrand, 25-years-old, and just a driver that has a lot of talent and wealth and has gone through the feeder system that the IndyCar Series has put in place. I think we’re paying more attention today to the junior formulas for young race car drivers and they now have an outlet and a ladder system that the IndyCar Series has put together – whether it’s the form of the Mazda (Championship) series, the (Firestone) Indy Lights, they now have a stepping stone and they have something that they can set their eyes on.
“I know when I got involved in racing there was not that type of series, and you hoped that you were in the right series that was getting the right amount of attention drawn to it and that the team-owners were paying attention to it. You know, we’d send letters after every Sunday, a note out to all team- owners. I would, anyways, including Roger Penske, that this is how we did this weekend. We didn’t have social media back then. That probably makes it a little easier. But the drivers today have to go out there and market themselves just as hard off the track as they do competing on the track.”
Goodyear also had kudos for Carpenter, whose second-year organization upstaged the Andretti, Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing juggernauts on Pole Day.
“Let’s not forget, that is a single-car team, a single-car team with a good budget, not a massive budget like Ganassi or Penske,” Goodyear said. “And they have multiple cars and multiple information packets coming to them. That’s why this is so impressive by Ed. If you watch that (pole) run, 229 mph and the car starts to slide, he doesn’t take his foot off of it. He has now arrived as an American race car driver that is competing at a top level he can compete in around the world. So I think we need to really give him the recognition he deserves.”
Goodyear recalled that his early years at IMS overlapped the ends of the careers of American Indy 500 champions Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan. “There is no doubt the sport is getting younger,” said Goodyear, who competed in 11 Indy 500s from 1990 to 2001. “And that is the trick of this business right now is continuing to create stars. And I think we’re on that road now with the American drivers and getting a resurgence back to having Americans competing at a high level in IndyCar.”
Cheever said he fully expects the young Americans to push for the Indy 500 win that would forever change their lives, as it already has done for Castroneves and Franchitti _ times three.
“Obviously, every year we witness history,” said Cheever, a former Formula One regular who made 14 Indy 500 starts between 1990 and 2006. “But I think this time it will be a very difficult race to call because there will be so many cars competing for the win. So, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves will have to get everything absolutely perfect to join that very elusive club.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgNo Comment