America's failure in international racing


Let’s get right to the point.

Over the last third of a century America’s influence has vanished from international motor racing. Mario Andretti scored the last Grand Prix win by an American in 1978 and Roger Penske’s F1 team with John Watson driving took the last Grand Prix victory for an American team in 1976. Since Andretti’s departure from F1 in 1982 American fans have had little or nothing to cheer for in F1 and after his son Michael’s abortive partial season with McLaren in 1993 the only American to race an F1 car was the hapless Scott Speed.

American drivers and teams have also been marginalised in sports car racing. Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt and Ford scored the last victory at Le Mans with an all-American team in 1967, the weekend before Gurney won the Belgian GP at Spa aboard his superb Eagle-Weslake V12. The last Americans to win at Le Mans were Hurley Haywood in 1994 and Davy Jones in ‘96 but American cars or teams are long-gone as contenders for outright victory at Le Mans.

Back in the ’60s plenty of American drivers and teams raced successfully in Europe and around the world. Jim Hall’s Chaparrals won major long-distance sports car races at the Nurburgring in 1966 and Brands Hatch the following year with 1961 World Champion Phil Hill leading the team. Richie Ginther finished third in the 1963 World Championship driving for BRM and won the Mexican GP in 1965 aboard a Honda with Dan Gurney in a Brabham-Climax completing an American 1-2.

Of course, Phil Hill took not only the ‘61 world title with Ferrari but also won Le Mans three times between 1958-’62 with Olivier Gendebien and Ferrari. Nor can we forget that Carroll Shelby co-drove a works Aston Martin with Roy Salvadori to win Le Mans in 1959 while Masten Gregory shared a Ferrari with Jochen Rindt to win at la Sarthe in ‘65. Shelby also brought his Cobras to Europe during this time before helping mastermind Ford’s Le Mans wins in 1966 and ‘67.

Going further back in history Jimmy Murphy scored a memorable victory in the 1921 French GP aboard a factory Duesenberg, a precursor to Gurney’s win at Spa in ‘67 with his Eagle. And in the sport’s early years America’s presence loomed large with the American Grand Prize and Vanderbilt Cup open road races from 1904-’16 featuring epic battles between American and European drivers, cars and teams.

Back then the Indianapolis 500 was a truly international race although it soon became a strictly American preserve. So it was for many decades through the ’60s when the rear-engine revolution brought a flock of F1 drivers and teams to the Speedway. Yet despite Jim Clark and Graham Hill’s wins in 1965 and ‘66 aboard a Lotus and a Lola respectively, the Americans were able to fight back and re-establish themselves.

But in the ’80s and ’90s cars and engines built in England began to dominate and foreign drivers also started a new invasion, starting with Emerson Fittipaldi who won both the Indy 500 and CART championship in 1989. Four years later Nigel Mansell forsook Formula One to win the CART title in ‘93 with Newman/Haas, presaging a new era in IndyCar racing dominated by foreign drivers and cars. Today, there’s hardly a shred of American engineering content in IndyCar and most of the drivers also come from elsewhere. Without doubt, it’s one of the many reasons for IndyCar racing’s sad decline.

As everyone knows, F1 returns to America this year with the first running of the revived United States GP at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. In 2014, Weehawken in New Jersey hopes to stage a second USGP. Most of us have given up hope of seeing a reputable American F1 team in action and the odds are equally long on an American driver making it big in F1 although Alex Rossi and Conor Daly are giving it serious tries. But if the new US F1 races races are to become long term successes there must be at least one successful American driver in the field.

Will it happen? Is there any hope of America regaining its glory days in international racing? I’m sorry to say that based on what I’ve witnessed over forty years of covering motor racing across the United States I seriously doubt it. If the promoters at Austin and Weehawken wish to reverse this unhappy trend they will have to seriously invest in helping American drivers and teams once again achieve success on the international stage.

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