Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Forgotten American

Other than the words “Tony George” it is perhaps the most polarizing topic in IndyCar racing today, the number of Americans in the IndyCar series.  The number is up this year, but a defection is looming as are the retirements of some of the 500 one off drivers. 

For many of the remaining domestic IndyCar fans and the international contingent that follows the series, the count of Americans is not a blip on their radar and it represents an aspect of American Culture they don’t completely grasp or share.  But for the fans that the League insists it is targeting to regain: Racing fans it has lost over the past 15 years, it is a significant issue.  On a Friday night go to any short dirt track running sprint cars, modifides or late models or try the local drag strip and ask the throngs of ticket buying fans the question “Why don’t you watch IndyCar?” the first answer always given is always the same.  “There aren’t enough Americans”.  It is issue number 1 to regrowing the sport if your core acquisition targets are endemic racing fans.
I have commented on the issue before, I tend to fall in line with many of the current IndyCar fans…it doesn’t really matter that much in a general sense.  It is only in the implication for popularity, ticket sales, ratings and ultimately business that the issue concerns me.  My opinion is this, if your core markets are The US, Brazil and Canada, then 2/3 of your drivers must come from those countries in order to be marketably viable in those locales.  The other Third?  I don’t care where they are from as long as the talent is more pronounced than the checkbooks are deep.  It is hard to be world class if the world is not part of your pool of competitors.

If you have any doubt what locally grown drivers can do for race attendence or TV ratings, we need to look no further than the most recent race in Toronto.  Race attendence was up to it's highest level since reunification. Even more, the ratings on TSN were the highest for an IndyCar race in nearly 15 years.  1.2 Million Canadians tuned in to watch a recently relevant Alex Tagliani and the hometown debut of James Hinchliffe.  Canadians turned out and tuned in en-masse to see the largest number of Canadians ever in an IICS race.  Home grown talent matters in Canada and it matters here in the US also.
Though he would probably never come out and admit it is a critical concern, Randy Bernard must understand the issue.  With a glimpse through the driver roster in Indy Lights I think you will find evidence that it is an issue he has tried to address.  While the number of full time Americans is small, 1 to be exact, additional sprinklings of American influence is seen in every race.  What’s more, until this past summer, many of these drivers probably weren’t on IndyCar’s radar, nor was IndyCar on theirs. 
A scholarship was created to find the USAC champion Bryan Clauson seat time for the oval part of the Lights Season.  Connor Daly was persuaded to keep at least a toe in the IndyCar water as he pursues his F1 dreams.  A key player in nascar’s diversity program, Chase Austin, was introduced to Willy T Ribbs and a new lights team was created.  From a year in European GP3, Josef Newgarten returned home to try his hand in an American Open Wheel series.  It may not equate to having Coach K knock on the door of a 6’ 10” 16 year old with ball skills, but I think Randy has been on the recruiting trail.  The names listed above represent his first recruiting class.  His next is to be revealed over the next month and will make their debuts in Vegas.

As a group, I think they have solid potential.  Most need more than this year to be ready for the big cars.  Newgarten and Daly have made their presence known with victories.  Josef looks to be the series champion at this juncture and will have Road to Indy $ in hand to look for a ride in the IICS proper next year.  Clauson has kept it clean and has been top five in all three races he has run.  Austin is climbing the highest mountain, his racing to date is in cars as different to an IndyCar than anything thing out there sans a dragster and he is driving for a new team that still doesn’t know where all the parts fit on the car.  Nonetheless, Chase has kept it clean and pointed in the right direction.
But there are other Americans that should not be forgotten…Drivers for whom Randy should rekindle an interest in the sport and make potential sponsor support visits on their account.  I can name a handful, but for me one stands out a little more than the rest. 
On Opening Day in May I was wandering through Gasoline Alley and I caught a strange logo on the back of a fleece jacket.  A1GP apparel is quite the rare sight anywhere these days as the international off season series went defunct a year and a half ago.  In the Jacket – Jonathan Summerton.  A credible and deserving driver, a member of the Handful mentioned above.  But in this case he was a reminder.  The second reminder came later that day.  It was a short session for the IndyCar teams, but in Virginia the Grand Am Series was racing and as the results came in and IndyCar drivers began to tweet about it.  My thoughts went to “I wonder How John Edwards did today?”  What was unfortunate…I don’t think Edwards was even racing that day.
A lot of hoo haa surrounds the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system and well it should, it is a vital tool for IndyCar to organically grow Drivers, owners and team members.  From 2007 – 2009 Edwards competed in the Mazda sponsored and powered development series, but back then it had ceased being the Road to ChampCar and was not yet the Road to Indy.  It was simply the Road to Nowhere.  In 2007 at the age of 16 Edwards competed in the Formula Atlantics series, he finished 9th in the standings.  Some older but more familiar names participated with him.  Raphael Matos was the series champ, The Canadian dynamic duo of Wickens and Hinchcliffe finished 3rd and 4th.  Jr Hildebrand placed 7th and Simona DeSilvestro 19th. 
In 2008 with no funding, Edwards, still only 17 stepped down to Star Mazda, missed the first race and then dominated the rest of the season, becoming it’s champion and earning a scholarship ride back in Formula Atlantics for the next year.  Formula Atlantics limped through the 2009 season and never answered the call for the 2010 season.  2009 was dominated by Edwards, Summerton and Desilvestro each claiming 4 victories apiece.  The season is primarily remembered for the exploits of Simona.  But when Simona received an assisted DNF at Laguna Seca in the season Finale, Edwards was the champion. 
But as the champion of a defunct series, he had nowhere to go.  Mazda paired him with 2009 Star Mazda Champ Adam Christodoulou in one of its factory GT cars in the Rolex series for 2010.  The pair won at Lime Rock and unfortunately for the life of me I cannot find where they finished overall in the championship. 
In 2011, that ride lasted for the 24 Hours of Daytona only.  After sitting several races out, Edwards is now schlepping around the middle of the field for a non factory mazda team.  It’s the racer’s story told 1000 times over:  Plenty of talent, no cash, no opportunity.  Many fans have liked drivers who fit this description.  Jonathan Summerton, Joey Miller, Jonathan Bomarito, Joey Hand, Andy Lally or Frankie Muniz all Americans with more talent than cash or sponsorship. 
At the end of May, Mike Kelley, President of Izod Declared that Simona DeSilvestro would be the face of the Izod brand in racing going forward, many speculate that means she will replace Ryan Briscoe at Penske next year.  Way too early to ponder any of the dominoes, but if Entergy looses its driver to Penske and Izod, I wonder if the Nuclear/Entergy Brass will remember that Edwards won an Atlantics Championship with their name on the side of car?
Born in Louisville, now living in Cincinnati, The youngest ever winner of a formula open wheel car race in America, Red Bull Driver Search winner, Star Mazda Champion and Formula Atlantics Champion.  Everything it would seem that Randy Bernard and IndyCar could want or desire in a young American driver. 
If you turn in to a Grand Am race and see a Mazda RX7 with Sahlen’s (yeah the cold cut people) on the side of it, that could be Edwards.  I wonder if his dream of driving an open wheel car still remains?  Does he remember the IndyCar series?  I don’t know, but it does seem the IndyCar series has forgotten him.

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