Will 2012 mark return of the American winner at Indy 500?

By Jeff Olson, Special for USA TODAY

INDIANAPOLIS – The red-white-and-blue facts are printed in black and white: An American driver hasn’t won the Indianapolis 500 since 2006, and just nine Americans will comprise Sunday’s 33-car grid. That’s tied with 2010 for the lowest number of American starters in the 96-year history of the race.

But four of those Americans will start among the 500’s first four rows, giving rise to the prediction of an end or at least a brief respite to the struggles of American racers in what once was their showcase event.

“The American talent vying for the win here is as tough as all the other threats combined,” Ryan Hunter-Reay, an IndyCar veteran from Florida who will start on the front row, told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s the best chance Americans have had to win this race in a long time.

“All the American drivers want to be the American hero. We all grew up watching the great American drivers of another era Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr. We grew up idolizing them. We wanted to be them, and now we have that opportunity.”

Only twice in the previous 13 Indy 500s – Buddy Rice in 2004 and Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 – has an American won the race, and the race’s largely U.S. fan base has occasionally resisted the changing scope of the event and its competitors in recent decades. As a result, American drivers like Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter have become favorites of win-starved American fans.

“I definitely feel in the last three years the local fan base has really been propped up,” said Ed Carpenter, an Indianapolis native. “They support not just the Americans, but the guys who live here year-round. My popularity has gone up a lot. The applause that I got last year before the race was really humbling. The past two or three years the American contingent has been rising. You’re seeing better drivers with better teams, and that’s fun to see.”

Others reject the notion that Indy needs a stronger American presence, including the owner for one of the Izod IndyCar Series’ top teams.

“I’d rather have a series that includes the best drivers from around the world. I feel like that’s what we’ve got,” said Michael Andretti, whose Andretti Autosport has Canadian James Hinchcliffe, Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti starting 2-3-4 on Sunday. “I didn’t specifically go after American drivers; it just so happened that they were American. I want the fastest guys in my cars. I don’t care if they’re from the moon.”

In recent years, three teams have dominated the sport: Team Penske, which has won a record 15 Indy 500s and five since 2001; Chip Ganassi Racing, which has won three times since 2000; and Andretti’s team, which won in 2005 and 2007. All but one of those wins (Hornish in 2006 with Penske) belonged to a foreign-born driver.

This year, though, Andretti and Ganassi each has two American drivers, and all are starting among the top 14. And, with teams still trying to sort out their first oval race of the season in new cars and engines, victory is considered possible for an American rookie like Josef Newgarden, who will start seventh for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

“There are nine American drivers, six of which have a real chance of winning the race,” said ABC commentator Eddie Cheever, who won the race in 1998. “So Penske is going to have to work very hard to pull through a win this weekend. It’s not a slam-dunk like it has been the last three or four years having the race just between Penske and Ganassi. This is really an open race in more than one way.”

Why foreigners dominate

From 1967 to 1988, Americans won every Indy 500. But as the sport began to evolve from front-engine cars to rear-engine cars, it became more appealing to drivers whose background was in European and South American formula cars.

Add to that the exploding popularity of NASCAR and political infighting within IndyCar racing, and the sport became less appealing and less available to American racers. Sprint-car racing, which fit perfectly as Indy’s training ground in the days of front-engine roadsters, now sends its best talent to NASCAR.

Many of the best drivers at NASCAR’s top levels – guys like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman – honed their skills in sprint cars. To contrast, only two starters Sunday at Indy – Carpenter and Bryan Clauson – have sprint-car backgrounds. Others, like Marco Andretti, worked through America’s relatively weak formula-car ladder series.

While he wants more Americans at Indy, Andretti also values the international scale of the race.

“I’d like to see (the number of Americans) at least 50%, especially since it’s a mostly American-based series,” Andretti said. “But at the same time, I like how it’s intermixed. It puts more on our shoulders. It gives Americans more credibility when we win, because we’ve beaten an international field.”

Of the 95 Indy 500s, drivers born outside the USA have won 25. In recent years, the disparity has become more profound: Just seven of the last 23 Indy winners were American. Hornish has left IndyCar racing for NASCAR, which fielded 41 Americans in the 43-car Daytona 500 in February.

The problem facing young American drivers is two-fold: money and opportunity. It takes money to start in go-kart racing, which is where most IndyCar and NASCAR drivers begin their careers. The best young karters have to decide early which direction IndyCar or NASCAR they want to go. From there, they advance in different directions. The opportunities and money on the NASCAR side are far greater than what’s available on the open-wheel side.

Since the equipment costs so much, drivers either have to use family funds or find a financial backer to advance to the next levels.

“It’s not like stick and ball sports,” Hunter-Reay said. “If you go out and get the job done on the baseball field, you’ll get hired the next day. As a racer, you feel like your talent is never enough. You have to have the money to go with it. You have to make yourself available. You have to put yourself in a position where you’re attractive to a potential sponsor.”

In order to succeed, Americans who choose the IndyCar path need to pursue funding continually, sometimes before they’re out of junior high school.

“It’s a lot to ask of a 14-year-old kid,” Hunter-Reay said. “In order to have a successful career at a young age, a kid has to understand that he has to be successful off the track as well as on the track. That’s sometimes difficult for teenage kids. For a kid to understand that and be able to put it into action both on the track and away from the track in order to attract that kind of money, he has to be poised and mature beyond his years. It’s easier said than done.”

Two dynamics work against American IndyCar hopefuls. First, the bulk of the young American karting pool heads toward NASCAR, which offers developmental programs that generally don’t require young racers to bring funding. Second, the influx of foreign drivers to IndyCar’s lower levels, most with sufficient and sometimes extravagant financial backing, further limits the number of seats available to promising Americans.

Fewer up-and-comers?

Critics of IndyCar racing’s thin American numbers point to Firestone Indy Lights, IndyCar’s second-level training series, which has just two American drivers this season. Proponents of the American cause point to JR Hildebrand, a 24-year-old native of Sausalito, Calif., who finished second in the Indy 500 last year, and Newgarden, a 21-year-old from Nashville who started from the pole position in the Long Beach Grand Prix in April.

“They should stop saying there aren’t enough Americans in the series, because now there are Americans,” said Brazilian and Miami resident Tony Kanaan, who has won 15 races and the 2004 IndyCar championship during a 15-year career in the USA.

“Guys like Ryan, Graham, Marco, JR, and Ed Carpenter are successful, professional American racers. If you look at the past eight or nine years, it’s steadily gotten better. To say that we don’t have enough Americans is wrong. This is a world series.”

The bottom line is the bottom line. Corporations aren’t clamoring to get their logos on Indy cars the way they are in NASCAR, largely because of the disparity between audiences. IndyCar TV ratings and crowds the Indy 500 notwithstanding are a fraction of NASCAR’s.

“Money has been the problem with racing since the beginning of time,” Michael Andretti said. “To say it’s just an American problem isn’t really correct. It’s a South American and European problem, too.”

But will an American face be cast in silver on the Borg Warner Trophy after Sunday’s race? Hunter-Reay thought so.

“Sure, I do,” he said. “I know Marco and I have remarkable race cars, and Panther (with Hildebrand) has been runners-up at this place the past four years. Graham is starting 12th, Ed is very capable of winning, and Newgarden is fast. I see those as the biggest American threats.

“It’s my fifth time, so I’m not a rookie anymore. Starting on the front row is nice, but that’s all it is a starting point.”

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