Influx of American drivers could usher in a new era in IndyCar
In 2010, the American contingent in IndyCar consisted of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick, the lowest ever total for a national championship that has been contested for 101 years under five sanctioning bodies.
It was a trend forced by several negative factors. One major factor: weak television ratings that made sponsorship a tough sell. Accordingly, IndyCar teams were seeking drivers with experience and proven performance. In an ironic twist, the lack of young American drivers may have been the reason for the poor ratings.
But something changed in 2011. The number of Americans more than doubled that year, and even with the loss of Patrick to NASCAR, the Americanization of IndyCar continues to move forward in 2012. There will be seven Americans driving in Sunday's opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., all with full-season programs.
Veterans and 2011 race winners Hunter-Reay and Andretti return with Andretti Autosport. Graham Rahal, an emerging star at 23, and second-year IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball continue at Chip Ganassi Racing. JR Hildebrand, 24, is back for a second season at Panther Racing. Veteran Ed Carpenter, who won at Kentucky last year, has formed his own team. Rookie Josef Newgarden, last year's Firestone Indy Lights champion, will race with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
Panther's decision to hire Hildebrand, the 2009 Indy Lights champion, into its National Guard seat was a boost to the series, and Hildebrand nearly rewarded the team with a victory in the Indy 500.
Rahal, Kimball and Carpenter were able to create new seats by attracting sponsorship. It's a significant change in the attitude of corporate America toward the IndyCar series.
Kimball's story is personal and unique. Racing in a top-level European development series in 2007, the 27-year-old from Camarillo, Calif., was forced to stop when he developed Type 1 diabetes. Kimball was successfully treated and returned to race in Europe in 2008 and then decided to pursue an IndyCar career, switching to Indy Lights in 2009. It has led to a sponsorship deal with Novo Nordisk, which produces the insulin Kimball uses to manage his diabetes.
"It takes time to come back and race at home, but Indy Lights opened avenues commercially," Kimball said. "A lot of people underestimate how much drivers have to do outside of the race car. You have to do it in the race car, but also in the board room. We're businessmen at the same time. You have to bring value to sponsors.
"Our partnership with Novo Nordisk started through my doctors. My doctor sent an email to them and we built a relationship that started small [in Indy Lights in 2009] and grew into last year's [IndyCar] program."
Kimball had a solid rookie year in IndyCar. He finished ninth at New Hampshire, 10th at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and 19th in the points. Kimball had strong runs at Toronto, Long Beach and Motegi, Japan, with potential top-10 finishes ruined by crashes.
"It was a good season," Kimball said. "I'm shooting this year to qualify in the top 10 and race in the top 10 in the first half of the season and race in the top five in the second half."
Kimball began with a one-year deal and was rewarded with a multi-year extension last November. He's been featured in a 60-second national television spot that began running in late February and continues through May 6. It's the kind of exposure IndyCar needs to rebuild its fan base and television ratings.
Kimball and Novo Dordisk may be the perfect match -- he's the only IndyCar driver with Type 1 diabetes -- but he says IndyCar as a series had to merit the investment.
"They were able to see the value in using me and IndyCar," Kimball said.
Kimball points to Rahal's Service Central sponsorship as another example of the new attitude toward IndyCar. Rahal drove a partial IndyCar season of 12 races in 2010, four of them with Service Central, and it expanded into a full season in 2011.
"Graham brought Service Central along and they saw the value of IndyCar," Kimball said. "The revitalization of IndyCar as a race series has given drivers like myself a stronger foothold."
Kimball believes that now more young Americans will be successful in finding the backing needed to break into IndyCar.
"Part of it is having an example to follow, a route to IndyCar," Kimball said. "They can go to a sponsor and say, 'This is how it worked for them and [this is] how it can work for you.' It can bring that Americanization of IndyCar into a national mentality."
Newgarden was the recipient of the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship -- reportedly worth between $500,000 and $1 million -- after he won the Indy Lights title in 2011. With the money, he'll graduate to IndyCar and drive for Sarah Fisher Harman Racing.
Kimball wants to compete against the best drivers regardless of where they're from and believes Americans need to be a part of that mix for the series to grow.
"IndyCar is significantly based in the United States and North America and needs to be focused on drawing either American or Canadian drivers," he said. "I think when Americans are given a chance, they'll excel, they'll be among the best drivers in the world."
IndyCar must overcome the tragic loss of two-time Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon and the popular Patrick to continue its momentum this season. Luckily, a new generation of American drivers is just what the doctor ordered to move the series ahead.