There was a day when the greatest race in the world – the Indianapolis 500 – was within reach of the average local racecar driver. Sure, it was a long shot for anyone, but it was within reach.
Larry Cannon was a barber from a small town in Illinois. He raced Indy in 1971. Long Beach hippie Jan Opperman ran Indy in 1976 after making a name in sprint cars. The dream was alive.
Roger Rager bought his first racecar at age 14. He paid $35 for it. I watched Rager drive – brilliantly – on Paragon Speedway's 3/8th's mile dirt oval in the 1970's. In 1980 he started in row 4 at Indy alongside A. J. Foyt. The dream was alive.
The experience of watching Rager drive at my local dirt track on Saturday night and then seeing him make history by driving in the 500 stuck in my mind. When I began driving in the late 80's, I still believed that someday, somehow, it just might be possible for me, too. I never made it to Indycar, but at least I grew up enjoying the long-shot belief that perhaps it could still be done.
Legendary Chicago sprint driver Rich Vogler beat the odds and scored a top 10 finish at the 500 in 1989. Even as late as the mid-90's a few short track aces were still making it to Indy. Midget star Stan Fox competed at Indy until his horrific 1995 crash.
But with the passing of the careers of these two great short track stars, the dream was officially dead.
| Tracy Hines flirted with Indy but settled back into sprint cars.
(Photo: Nelson Skinner)
When Tony George created open wheel racing's infamous "Split" by forming the Indy Racing League in 1996, he gave a brief glimmer of hope that the dream might survive. Buzz Caulkins, Jim Guthrie, Johnny O'Connell, Jack Miller, Tyce Carlson, Tony Stewart, Dennis Vitolo, Mark Dismore, Steve Kinser and many others had their brief moment of glory when CART owners learned that the old boys' network was no longer a free ticket to the world's biggest race.
The formula had simplified. Buy a car. They were cheap and abundant. Show up. Take your rookie test. Go faster than the other guy. Presto. You're in. The world had a 1950's "anything is possible" feel.
For a few years, George's vision created a brief window of opportunity for drivers who would otherwise have never been given a chance. Several of these drivers were outstanding. A few of them were not. A couple of them, Miller and Vitolo in particular, were targets of venomous hatred spewed by hack journalists willing to destroy the careers of good people in order to defend a dying system.
But skilled or unskilled, they all shared one commonality… the IRL gave them an honest chance.
But as Indycar (the series) slowly eclipses Indcar (the 500-mile race), the dream appears to be slipping away again. The only true gunslinger attempting to qualify for this year's event is Bryan Clauson, the 22-year-old Californian who is Indycar's token gesture to its glorious past. As a USAC open wheel champ, Clauson won a scholarship from Indycar that he's taking to Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing to fund his attempt to qualify for the 2012 Indianapolis 500.
Take a good look around, people, because the pickens are slim from here. There is plenty of European, Asian and South American road racing talent. Heck, there's even a handful of American road racing specialists. There's no shortage of 2nd and 3rd generation drivers from the good ol' boys network who won the genetic lottery. And there's plenty of privileged money supporting average oval talent.
But what open wheel opportunities await the average American racecar driver? Zippo.
Wanna see incredible talent like Tracy Hines and Dave Darland? Skip Indy and try Bloomington Speedway instead. How 'bout short track aces like A. J. Frank and Jody Harrison? You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than seeing them in the Indy 500.
No wonder Sam Hornish went to NASCAR. And Jeff Gordon. And Ken Schrader. And J. J. Yeley and Mike Bliss and Ryan Newman and… well, you get the idea.
No, I am not crying for more American drivers in Indycar. I couldn't care less where a driver was born so please, save your emails. I am simply observing the chain of events that has essentially barred the average American racecar driver from participation in an event that can barely fill its own 33-car field.
As the Indycar series slowly displaces Formula 1 as the true world driving championship, of necessity it has had to follow the money. The money is in Sao Paulo, Long Beach and Toronto. The money is in Edmonton, Qingdao and Sonoma.
With only 5 oval races remaining on the schedule, who is going to hire a short track superstar with marginal road racing experience? No one. And why should they?
It's not that American oval drivers aren't good enough. On the contrary, they're the best in the world. But even if they could dominate the entire Indycar series on the ovals, there are not enough ovals on the Indycar schedule to allow them a real shot at the points championship.
And ovals are an engineer's game now anyway. With slower cars, slippery drag coefficients, high downforce and big tires squashing the cars onto the racetrack, why bother with a guy who's primary skill is manhandling a skidding car through high-speed left turns? The cars don't slide enough to make such skills an indispensable part of the race.
Oval race tracks outnumber road courses in America by more than 10 to 1. That means well over 90% of America's racers drive on ovals, and that is a conservative figure. The numbers don't lie:
- The average American racecar driver is an oval specialist.
- There is no longer a place for this driver in America's greatest auto race or its premier open wheel series.
Thanks to a shortage of car/driver combinations, Clauson is nearly certain to make this year's Indy 500 field. So yes, technically, the dream is still alive. But it's on life support.
For the average American racecar driver, the open wheel ladder is still leaning against the wrong wall.
**Follow Stephen Cox on Twitter @SopwithTV