IndyCar: importing talent or just plain importing?

Throughout the modern era, IndyCar – and not just the Indy 500 – has enticed drivers from across the globe.

For decades, international drivers looking for a chance to prove a point have raced alongside Americans with big dreams of lifting the Astor Cup. Ex-F1 pilots with unfinished business running against Europeans who should have made it but ran out of cash. Add a liberal sprinkling of Canadian and South American racers plus a few youngsters hoping to get noticed and you have the makeup of the IndyCar grid – in its various guises – since the 1980s.

2019 will be no different. Alonso-mania 2.0 ramps up for the month of May and ex-F1 driver Marcus Ericsson and the perennially under-rated Felix Rosenqvist line-up for their rookie IndyCar seasons with Schmidt Peterson and Chip Ganassi respectively.

IndyCar: importing talent or just plain importing?

They join IndyCar’s international band of 2018 rookies that included Jordan King, Matt Leist, Rene Binder, Alfonso Celis Jnr, Pietro Fittipaldi and Candian sensation Robert Wickens. This latest batch of new faces – much as the 2018 crop did – reflect both sides of the international import ‘coin’ that has often been a gift to IndyCar but also something of a curse.

Robert Wickens SPM Honda Mid Ohio testing IndyCar
Canada’s Robert Wickens was nothing short of sensational during his rookie IndyCar season until his horrific accident at Pocono. (Image: IndyCar)

Every international import to IndyCar by definition closes a door for an American driver. In the cases of Alonso and Rosenqvist, it is a price the series, fans, broadcasters and sponsors are probably happy to pay.

Alonso’s return is the kind of box office pull the series craves and all the attendant ‘triple crown’ media coverage it will entail. Rosenqvist is an undoubted talent that has never been in the right place at the right time to really show his full potential, so many are expecting Robert Wickens-esque performances in his rookie season.

But Marcus Ericsson hints at something a little too familiar for American open-wheel fans. Especially those that can remember ‘greats’ like Tõnis Kasemets and Jan Heylen from the final days of ChampCar.

Marcus Ericsson will race for Schmidt Peterson in 2019. (Image: IndyCar)

A cautionary tale from ChampCar

American open-wheel history demonstrates there is a fine line between importing talented drivers and simply importing drivers.

ChampCar – the son-of-CART that tried to beat the IRL – was arguably at its peak in the early 2000s. Take the 2002 season as a case in point: three official engine manufacturers, one as a presenting sponsor; plenty of tobacco cash still slushing around; big teams with multi-car entries and major sponsorships from the likes of Target, Shell, Texaco and Coors.

And of course a cosmopolitan line-up of drivers on the grid.

CART ChampCar class of 2002
Spot the American: the CART ChampCar class of 2002.

Out of 18 full-season drivers that year, just two were American: Michael Andretti and Jimmy Vasser. By contrast, there were more full-time drivers from Canada, Mexico and Brazil that year for a US-based, predominantly US-fan supported racing series. Meanwhile, in the same year, the IRL had eight full-time American drivers plus a further 14 competing in two or more races.

The crowding out of American talent and the open-wheel split

Thousands of column inches have been devoted to explaining the origins of the ‘split’ and why ChampCar eventually had to wave the white flag. The crowding out of American drivers was undoubtedly part of the problem.

Fans who had grown up with Unser, Andretti, Mears and Rahal were left with few drivers to relate to. No drivers that hailed from their state or city. Even fewer still that they had watched coming up through the junior ranks. At the same time, NASCAR was unleashing 30-plus all-American heroes every weekend, at tracks across the US. Is it much of a surprise that ChampCar’s core fanbase struggled to relate to the cosmopolitan field?

Did he race midgets?

American fans of an American racing series need American drivers to root for. It is that simple.

Of course that is not to suggest that fans only support home-grown talent. If that were true the likes of Arie Luyendyk, Emerson Fittipaldi, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti would not have become fan favourites. But as a championship built around the most famous of American races – the Indy 500 – the bulk of competitive drivers need to be American.

Emerson Fittipaldi racing for Penske in the 1989 Indy 500 a race he would later win.
Emerson Fittipaldi: IndyCar racing hero, fan favourite and not American.

For the 2019-spec IndyCar series this is particularly the case. With just a single international race, the presence of homegrown drivers capable of competing for podiums, wins and championships is essential. When talented overseas racers like Wickens, Sebastien Bourdais or Takuma Sato arrive they become valuable assets. The arrival of international drivers with cash to burn and a mediocre track record is something quite different.

Is this a pressing issue for the series right now? Of course not.

In Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi IndyCar has two genuine stars who could race well into their 40s and will accumulate multiple championships and Indy 500 wins during that time. Ryan-Hunter Reay – though the elder statesman – is due a least a couple of seasons without his wretched bad luck and Marco Andretti will figures on ovals for a while yet. Plus the next generation is already coming through in the form of Spencer Pigot, Kyle Kaiser and the promising Colton Herta.

IndyCar’s blossoming future

Is it worth keeping an eye on? Absolutely and for a couple of reasons. Of most concern is the dwindling IndyLights field in recent seasons.

From 21 drivers in 2013 it has dropped to just 12 in 2018. In terms of nationality, there was a 50/50 split between American and overseas drivers last season. Combined with Mazda’s withdrawal from the Road to Indy programme the opportunities for up and coming American drivers, especially those without significant existing backing, are not plentiful.

Kyle Kaiser 2018 IndyCar 500 qualifying with Juncos Racing
Will 2017 IndyLights champion and 2018 IndyCar rookie Kyle Kaiser make it to the grid for 2019? (Image: IndyCar)

The economic climate at every stage of the IndyCar ladder remains extremely challenging. Last week Marshall Pruett revealed on his Week in IndyCar podcast that Kyle Kaiser is struggling to find budget to return in 2019. Similarly so the Juncos Racing outfit that ran the 2017 IndyLights champion and made their series debut last year.

The hope must be that IndyCar’s current management team – that has pretty much done everything right so far to rehabilitate the series – can learn another important lesson from the demise of ChampCar. By working with teams to ensure the next generation of Rossis, Newgardens and Kaisers do not get crowded out.

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