Young Americans ushering in new era of IndyCar in 2011
ELBURN, Ill. -- The IZOD IndyCar Series is in the midst of a true American Revolution. For years, the knock against IndyCar has been the lack of American drivers and a disconnect with the fans who have gravitated away from the sport that was once the home of great American heroes such as A.J. Foyt, the Unsers, Rick Mears and others. Over the years the proliferation of international IndyCar stars, particularly from Brazil, has dramatically changed the makeup of the series through the 1990s and 2000s.
Last year, there were just three full-time American drivers in IndyCar and they were on the same team at Andretti Autosport -- Ryan Hunter-Reay, Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti.
That is about to change in 2011. Talented American driver J.R. Hildebrand has been hired at Panther Racing, replacing England's Dan Wheldon in the No. 4. That was followed by team owner Chip Ganassi's hiring Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball at the newly-expanded Chip Ganassi Racing. Ganassi also has Scotland's Dario Franchitti, a three-time IndyCar Series champion, and New Zealand's Scott Dixon, a two-time IndyCar champion, at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.
Ed Carpenter has also been hired by Sarah Fisher Racing to replace Fisher as the driver of her race car, which is set to run a limited a schedule in 2011.
Six full-time talented American drivers may not sound like much to a series that fields 26-28 cars for most of its races and 33 at the Indianapolis 500, but it is definitely a start in a new direction for IndyCar.
"I think the keyword you use there is talented," Ganassi said. "I've never been the most nationalistic guy. We always went with the talented guys first. I didn't care if they were from Italy, New Zealand, San Francisco, could be any country. I think talent is the start. It just so happens that there is this surge of American drivers right now that are guys that have been coming along and are ready to make the next step. These are obviously two of those guys. We're very proud to have them as a part of our team, and look forward to getting our arm around them as we go forward and helping them understand what our team and this industry is all about. At least the way we look at it.
"You're seeing a lot of interest right now with a lot of new teams coming on. I think now we're going to have six American drivers next year in the series, which is a great step forward. I think it's because a lot of the work that [IndyCar CEO] Randy Bernard has been doing. And we're starting to see the snowball getting a little bigger and bigger as it's coming down the mountain here with IndyCar racing."
At 21, Rahal is already a proven veteran. When he was just 19 he was the youngest driver in history to win an IndyCar race when he drove to victory at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008. That was his first-ever race in the series and the second since the sport was unified between teams from the Indy Racing League and Champ Car.
Rahal has been hailed as the next great American driver, but did not have a full-time ride in 2010, switching between rides with Sarah Fisher Racing, Rahal Letterman Racing and Newman/Haas Racing last season competing in just 12 of the 17 races on the schedule.
When Rahal was able to land a lucrative sponsorship with Service Central, he was able to find a top team to give him a ride.
"It is cool to see a lot of the young Americans coming up," Rahal said. "Quite frankly, a lot of us went go-cart racing together many years ago. As Chip said, it's a product of lots of years of work. This is what our fans have been saying they want -- more Americans and more Americans in cars that can win. So now it's time. I would certainly challenge the fans to embrace this, because there are several of us that are going to get a great opportunity next season to succeed, and so I think it's great to see the Americans there and hope that people embrace it."
Kimball has an interesting story as the American driver moves up from the Firestone Indy Lights Series to IndyCar. "I think Chip talked about when asked the question about bringing young American drivers or talented young American, you focused on the talented part of it," Kimball said. "From my side it's really special to be a part of the new class, so to speak, to be able to talk about the program, announce it today, and look to the future.
"So being a part of the 'American Revolution,' as you put it, is a great opportunity to continue to do what I love and drive race cars, yet connect with a lot of the people that make this series great, the fans. To be able to be out there and connect on a national level is a great chance, and one I'm looking forward to wholly embracing."
The 25-year-old Kimball is from Camarillo, Calif. and finished fourth in the Firestone Indy Lights series in 2010. He is also diabetic and with sponsorship from Novo Nordisk is able to spread a message that despite his medical condition, he is able to compete in a demanding sport.
"Novo Nordisk is a diabetes health care company that produces the insulin Levemir and Nova Log that I use every day to manage my diabetes is a great chance as well," Kimball said. "Together, Novo Nordisk, Chip Ganassi Racing and myself are out there to prove that diabetes doesn't have to slow you down, and even with the condition you can do anything you want in life."
Kimball is well-prepared for competition on race day and is able to compete from green flag to checkered flag without any health issues.
"I proved that in the last three years since diagnosis," Kimball said. "In fact, my first race back with diabetes, I finished second in the formula three Euro series event. So I have some tools in the cockpit to help, but it all happens largely before I get to the race weekend, and then the active management that my health care provider and I have worked on during the race weekend."
Kimball's father, Gordon, was a noted IndyCar engineer and mechanic in the 1970s and 1980s when Ganassi was an IndyCar driver.
"I had a working knowledge of Gordon," Ganassi recalled. "Then throughout the years while he was in Europe, we stayed in contact from time to time. Having and being in a business that employs a lot of engineering skills from time to time, our paths crossed frequently over the years. As Charlie was coming of age and becoming a young race driver, we sort of had an eye on him from afar. We said, 'Hey, some day when you're back in the states, maybe we'll talk about something.' Obviously he came back and did a very good job in Indy Lights and here we are."
Over at Panther Racing, Hildebrand will also play a significant role in the resurgence of Americans in IndyCar. Hildebrand is from Sausalito, Calif. and won the Firestone Indy Lights championship in 2009 after winning four races, six poles, and notching 11 top-5 and 12 top-10 finishes in 15 starts in the series. He made his IndyCar Series debut with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing at Mid-Ohio and Infineon Raceway in August, running as high as fourth-place. He also tested a Formula One car with Force India F-1 at Jerez in December 2009.
"I couldn't be more excited to be at Panther Racing and a part of the National Guard," Hildebrand said. "This is my first full-time IndyCar ride and the Panther No. 4 car is one of the best seats in the IZOD IndyCar Series, so to be able to start my career with a team with this kind of pedigree is just huge. I already feel with the small amount of experiences I've had here, and just being around the shop, that it's going to be a great fit for all of us. I'm more than honored to be in a position to represent the National Guard, and I've already got a small taste of all the programs I'll be a part of through this sponsorship, and I just couldn't be more excited to get more involved in everything that goes along with this partnership."
Panther Racing CEO and Managing Partner John Barnes is hoping to duplicate the success he had when he put another young American driver in his IndyCar in 2001. That was Sam Hornish, Jr. who went on to win the IndyCar title in 2001 and 2002 at Panther Racing.
"JR is an extremely impressive young man, and he's going to be a great fit for the National Guard and Panther Racing," Barnes said. "We took a very calculated and methodical approach to making this decision because anybody who represents the 350,000 soldiers in the National Guard has a tremendous responsibility both inside and outside the race car. We feel like JR is going to be a tremendous asset to the IZOD IndyCar Series, and what really set him apart are his ambition and his intelligence -- this is a kid who was a National Merit Scholar and accepted to M.I.T. We tested him at Phoenix last week and brought along my friend Al Unser Jr. to help us with the evaluation, and all of us knew by lunchtime of the first day that we'd found the next driver of the No. 4 car. We know we all have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but our expectations are very high for the 2011 season."
For a sport that has seemed so foreign to grassroots race fans in the United States, the addition of three more American race drivers could be the start of an "American Revolution" in IndyCar, signaling change to a sport that has had such a strong heritage in the United States.