Both of last weekend’s Indycar and NASCAR races featured fierce, side-by-side duels to the flag, with Hélio Castroneves shading new IRL champion Scott Dixon at the Chicagoland Speedway and defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson beating Tony Stewart in a similar battle on the tighter, slower Richmond Raceway in Virginia.
In the TV ratings, NASCAR blew away the Indycar race, as always of course. “That’s probably one of the greatest races I’ve ever had here at Richmond, racing like that with Jimmie with 15 laps to go,” remarked second-placed Stewart about his battle with Johnson.
At the Chicagoland track, Castroneves and Dixon were equally enthusiastic and complimentary about their wheel-to-wheel contest, but the sad truth is few people in America care. Unification of the IRL and Champ Car has at least cast Indycar racing in a favourable light this year, but the American public and media continue to be transfixed by NASCAR.
For example, USA Today, the country’s leading national newspaper, did not send a reporter to cover the IRL championship decider. Nor did Chicago’s two leading papers, the Tribune or Sun-Times, send their motor sport writers to the race. The American media was focused instead on Richmond where the 12 qualifiers for NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup were being determined.
Without doubt, one of the factors in this sad state of affairs is that NASCAR is jam-packed with American boys while the days of American open-wheel or international drivers seem to have disappeared. The highest-ranked American in this year’s IRL IndyCar Series was Danica Patrick in sixth place, while Marco Andretti finished seventh in the points ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay. The only other Americans regularly racing Indycars this year were Graham Rahal, Buddy Rice, Ed Carpenter and AJ Foyt IV. And Japanese driver Hideki Mutoh won the IRL’s rookie-of-the-year award, beating Brit Justin Wilson and Aussie Will Power. Jimmy Vasser was the last American to win a CART or Champ Car championship back in 1996, and while Sam Hornish won three IRL titles, the most recent with Penske in ’06, Hornish moved to NASCAR this year, of course.
We’ve whined on and on for years in America about the decline of our domestic talent in Indycar and international racing, and the recent passing of Phil Hill has emphasised the irrefutable truth of how far the United States has fallen off the map of worldwide motor racing. In the ’60s we had the likes of Phil, Dan Gurney and Richie Ginther racing in both F1 and international sports cars, as well as race-winning Cobra, Ford and Chaparral sports car teams. In the ’70s we enjoyed the worldwide exploits of Mario Andretti, Peter Revson and Mark Donohue.
But the stark fact is an American hasn’t won a Grand Prix in 30 years since Mario’s last victory in the Dutch GP at Zandvoort in August 1978. In fact, Eddie Cheever aside, the United States has been without a regular presence in F1 over most of the past three decades. Indeed, following Michael Andretti’s failed season with McLaren in 1993 and Scott Speed’s brief, more recent flirtation with F1, courtesy of Red Bull, the likelihood of any more Americans racing in F1 appears to be zero, unless Graham Rahal somehow makes the leap in a few years.
The fact is, America’s race-driving talent heads at an early age to NASCAR these days, and unless the IRL can find a way to create a new generation of champion American drivers, Indycar racing will continue to languish light years behind NASCAR.