Published July 12, 2012
When Ryan Hunter-Reay picked up his third consecutive win last week, it pushed him into the lead of the IndyCar points standings for the first time in his career.
It also marked the first time an American has led the points since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006, and many believe drivers draped in red, white and blue is what IndyCar needs to flourish.
"It certainly does need successful Americans because it's an American series that competes mostly in the U.S.," said Hornish, who left IndyCar after the 2007 season for NASCAR. "I like watching IndyCar races, the racing has been really good this year, and it's great that Ryan has been able to do what he's done. It's nice to see American drivers succeed."
It was league founder Tony George's intent to create a series for American drivers when he broke away from CART in 1996. Americans dominated through 2002, but since then Hornish's 2006 championship is the last title for a U.S.-born driver.
The other championships went to Scott Dixon (2003, 2008) of New Zealand, Tony Kanaan of Brazil (2004), the late Dan Wheldon of England (2005) and Scotland's Dario Franchitti (2007, 2009-11).
Why? Hunter-Reay has a theory.
"For a little while, there was a lack of American talent," he said. "There was far less American talent than there is now. You had myself, Graham (Rahal) and Marco (Andretti). Certainly we have more numbers this year, and more Americans a little farther along in their careers."
The series boasts seven full-time American drivers this season, the most since 2007. Among them are Andretti and Rahal, the sons of racing royalty, and youngsters JR Hildebrand and Charlie Kimball, who both deferred college to pursue IndyCar careers. Josef Newgarden, a 21-year-old rookie from Nashville, Tenn., has shown flashes of promise this season, and Ed Carpenter of Indiana is the only owner/driver in the series.
Hunter-Reay is the veteran, and he is finally hitting his stride in his ninth season at open-wheel's highest level.
His three wins this year are a career best, and it has doubled his win total in IndyCar. He has also led a 1-2 American finish in the last two races, leading teammate Andretti across the finish line at Iowa, and beating Kimball on Sunday at Toronto.
Prior to the Iowa race, Americans hadn't finished 1-2 in the series since the 2006 Indy 500 when Hornish defeated Andretti.
Michael Andretti, owner of the Andretti Autosport organization that fields cars for Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Canadian James Hinchcliffe, believes the lack of proper development has slowed American drivers.
Michael Andretti fields teams in all three IndyCar ladder systems.
"The farm system, frankly, hasn't been great," he said. "We haven't had a real good one for a long time, and now we are finally starting to see more Americans coming along and see the fruits of that labor."
But Andretti said he's disappointed that more IndyCar team owners don't participate in the ladder systems.
"It's really important for the future, and we need more people from the series to support it from an ownership standpoint," Andretti said. "It's a bit of a headache, it's not easy to do, and we're not getting rich off of it. And I'm disappointed that we do our part, and then our drivers, like Charlie and Hildebrand, they get plucked away by other team owners at the next level."
Andretti stressed that he doesn't develop only American drivers, and his two entries in Indy Lights this season are piloted by Colombians Sebastian Saavedra and Carlos Munoz.
"I don't purposely go for Americans," Andretti said. "I go for future."
Right now, the future looks bright for Americans, particularly Hunter-Reay, who grew up rooting for Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears, Jimmy Vasser, Al Unser Jr., and Robby Gordon, who became his brother-in-law last year when Hunter-Reay married Beccy Gordon.
"As a genuine IndyCar fan, I rooted for the American drivers," Hunter-Reay said. "Long before I was ever go-karting, I was watching IndyCar and cheering for the drivers from my country. So having successful American drivers is a big deal to some people, and maybe not to some others.
"Although being the top American is not something I focus on, I'm extremely patriotic and I'm definitely honored to be carrying the American flag at the front right now. Every time I get on the podium, I raise that thing up there because I'm proud of it."