INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Where have all the American drivers gone?
Mere hours before the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500, there's a glaring lack of American drivers on the grid -- in fact, only nine of the 33 starters are U.S.-born. Steve Ballard of the Indianapolis Star notes how the IZOD IndyCar Series has taken on the international characteristics of the late CART/Champ Car series, where the foreigners outnumbered Americans, 19-14, in 1995 -- the last year before the split.
Tackling the matter of driver nationality is a tricky one; the "Greatest spectacle in Racing" has always been a global affair and to be sure, new IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard has said that he wants his series to showcase the best drivers in the world. But at the same time, it's been disheartening for fans to see great U.S. talents like Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal have to scrap and claw for sponsorship while foreigners dominate the American open-wheel racing landscape.
There may be some hope on the horizon, however. The recently created "Road to Indy" ladder system has carved out a path for young, homegrown talents to try and work their way up to IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. The U.S. Formula 2000 National Championship is the opening step and from there, drivers look to move up to Star Mazda, and then up again to Firestone Indy Lights before hitting the big leagues of IndyCar. Perhaps we'll see American hopefuls like USF2000's Zach Veach and Sage Karam or Star Mazda's Conor Daly (the son of former pilot and notable race announcer Derek Daly) or the Lights' Charlie Kimball make their way to the top soon and validate this new path.
But that part will take time. Right now, there's definitely a bit of resentment in the fan base over the lack of top American drivers contending for wins and titles in IndyCar. A lot of the woes stem from the economy, but the overall health of the sport is also a factor. While IndyCar appears to be gaining some of its strength back following the split, it's still very much in rehab. And until TV ratings and exposure improve, potential U.S. sponsors will be reluctant to go full-time with promising U.S. talent.
The sooner the sport can work itself back into fighting shape, the better the chance we'll see the current ratio change in favor of the Americans.