Heated rivalries hard to come by in IndyCar

Published May 29, 2010

| Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Dario Franchitti has spent the better part of his career trying to find ways to beat Tony Kanaan.

Yet when it looked as if Kanaan might miss the Indy 500 after crashing during his first qualifying attempt on Pole Day, then wrecking again in practice on Bump Day, Franchitti texted Kanaan words of encouragement.

While Kanaan zipped around the track during his last-ditch effort to get in the 33-car field, Franchitti sat in his trailer going nuts.

"My dogs were definitely worried because I was shouting at the TV when he was on his qualifying run, and they were definitely confused as to what I'm shouting at," Franchitti said.

The day ended with Kanaan in the race and Franchitti buying dinner. If Franchitti or Target/Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon doesn't make it to Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon, Franchitti is openly rooting for Kanaan to finally come through at the Brickyard.

"Nothing would make me happier," Franchitti said.

Therein lies one of IndyCar's great dilemmas.

New CEO Randy Bernard talks often about creating compelling storylines to build around his drivers, but every good story needs a yin to offset the yang. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The Red Sox and the Yankees. Ohio State and Michigan.

An intense rivalry combined with a little gamesmanship and an ounce or two of bile can raise an entire sport. In IndyCar, the rivalries are largely benign.

Danica Patrick is the closest thing the series has to a lightning rod, yet she is also its most popular driver.

Although she has been competitive, the only people Patrick is feuding with are the guys working on her Andretti Autosport car. Patrick was booed last weekend for criticizing her setup during qualifying.

Even IndyCar's version of the Celtics and Lakers get along swimmingly.

Ganassi and Penske Racing have turned the series into a thumb-wrestling match, combining to win three of the last four 500s and 20 of the last 22 races overall since the start of the 2009 season. Their drivers occupy five of the top six qualifying positions for Sunday's race. Yet the relationship between the two organizations is hardly hostile.

"We're great friends, and we work together on a lot of issues that come along from time to time," Ganassi said. "At the same time we'd cut each other's heart out after the last pit stop somewhere."

Even so, those battles usually end with a handshake.

That wasn't always the case. A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti spent years in an icy staredown as they fought for supremacy both on the track and in the stands. Their relationship didn't warm until both men retired.

Looking for grudges? Try NASCAR, where teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are feuding. Try Europe, where drivers talking to each other can be construed as a sign of weakness.

Not in IndyCar.

"You'd like to hate (Ganassi's team) to death, but they're such great guys," said Penske driver Ryan Briscoe.

It's a refrain echoed throughout the garage.

Dan Wheldon considers Dixon and Marco Andretti among his best friends. Kanaan is universally respected and has become everybody's big brother. Castroneves might be one of the most approachable personalities in all of racing.

It's not exactly the Hatfields and the McCoys out there as the current generation of drivers are linked in a common purpose: lifting IndyCar's profile.

The entire 500 field went on a road trip earlier this week to Boston and New York to drum up interest for the race, sitting side-by-side signing autographs and doing interviews.

"Back in the day we didn't do that," said 47-year-old Davey Hamilton, who will start 14th in Sunday's race. "We weren't hanging out with each other. It was more competitive and because we didn't know each other so well, there was more controversy. If you did something, you were on them hard. Now you're all kind of friends."

Some of the blame lies in the nature of IndyCar racing. NASCAR cars are built to sustain a certain level of punishment. That can't happen in IndyCar, where a gentle nudge likely would send one — or both — cars into the wall. That means any messages must be carefully delivered — an aggressive pass here, a bit of traffic interference there.

Although retaliatory driving and mild trash-talking aren't a part of the IndyCar culture like they are in NASCAR, that doesn't mean the series couldn't benefit from a little bit of both.

NASCAR's popularity skyrocketed in the late 1990s, which happened to coincide with the rise of Jeff Gordon, who challenged Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s dominance.

"They didn't create that, it just happened," said John Andretti, a veteran of both series. "All of a sudden two huge groups of people are like 'Hey, I'm for him, I'm for him.'"

Can it happen in IndyCar? Perhaps. But it can't be forced.

"I think it would be good for here, but you've got to find that one person that's going to be right that," Andretti said.

Ganassi, for one, isn't encouraging either of his drivers to fill the void. And he's not sold on the idea that a bitter rivalry will bring any more fans to the sport. It's heated enough as it is.

Franchitti agrees, insisting that when the green flag drops drivers are on their own. They all want to win badly. They don't have to throw a tantrum or pick a fight to prove it.

"If you tell me Scott Dixon or Tony Kanaan doesn't (want to win) or Helio doesn't (you're wrong)," Franchitti said.

"Helio, behind all the hair gel, that guy is as hard a competitor as you're going to meet. Maybe people confuse an easygoing attitude with that and that's a shame."

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