Can An American Win The Indy 500?
INDIANAPOLIS — In the past 14 races only three Americans have had their images emblazoned on the Borg Warner trophy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sam Hornish was the last in 2006, Buddy Rice won two years before that, in 2004, and there was a five-year gap, Eddie Cheever in 1998, before Rice’s win.
While the odds are still weighed heavily in the favor of an international driver winning, the chances of seeing an American in Victory Lane on the 100th anniversary of the world’s most well known race, have improved dramatically.
A third of the field this year, 11 drivers with Ryan Hunter-Reay’s controversial inclusion, is USA born. And, three of those are in the top eight spots.
Here’s a look at each.
In fourth place, Bell is the American with the highest starting position. Even though he’s been an Indy only driver the last few years, he knows how to get to the front. He started 24th in 2009, and with a late race pass, took fourth place from Will Power. This year he’s part of the new, Sam Schmidt team that’s proved so strong. They have three cars in the first seven spots, including the pole. Bell and the team are capable of wining if all the pieces fall into place.
An American who has already tasted the milk, Rice is starting from seventh in his first Indy car drive since 2008. He’s had a tough time recently trying to land a full time ride on the IndyCar circuit, or even a competitive deal at the Speedway, but he’s a solid contender this year. His is an Indy only deal, but if the breaks go his way he could get to the front and stay there.
For the second year in a row, this USAC graduate has made his way into the top nine qualifiers. He’s starting eighth, the same place he started in last year. This year, he’s with Sarah Fisher’s ever maturing team. Carpenter nearly beat Helio Castroneves at Kentucky Speedway a couple of years ago, so he knows how to race with the big boys, and could be challenging them for first place on Sunday.
The son of a 500 winner, young Rahal has a boatload of talent. In 2009 he learned the hard way the importance of patience in getting a good result at Indy. He started fourth and squandered that good starting position by making a mistake and crashing out early. He’ll start a lot further back this year, 29th. But, Tony Kanaan proved last year, when he started in the last row and was soon with the frontrunners, that starting position has become less important at the Speedway. To duplicate Kanaan’s feat, Rahal will have to stay out of trouble.
Another USAC, and short track graduate that’s made it to Indy, Hamilton has the talent to go to the front, if his equipment is as worthy. Almost 49 years old, “Hollywood” Hamilton is no longer a kid, but he still burns with a red hot passion for racing, and is still hungry to excel. One has to look no further than his dramatic comeback from near fatal injuries at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001 to measure his resolve.
One of two Andretti’s in the field, John is the son of Mario’s twin brother, Aldo. And, that Andretti ability to drive a race car is in his genes. He’s raced Indy cars, stock cars, sports cars, drag cars, sprint cars and midgets since the mid-80’s and has won in most of them. This is a 500 only effort, with “The King”, Richard Petty as part of the project. It’s a long shot for Andretti, but what a story if there were two iconic names in victory lane on Sunday afternoon.
A talented rookie who has performed surprisingly well so far in his first month of May, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights Champion has also performed well on the IndyCar circuit. His team, Panther Racing, knows how to get around Indianapolis. They finished second with Dan Weldon the last two races. Hildebrand might not take them to the top spot this year, but many are glad to see an American in the National Guard car.
An American born in England, Charlie Kimball is another up and coming newcomer with a great resume. Chip Ganassi, who has an uncanny eye for talent, picked Kimball for his auxiliary Indy car team. But, talent and great resume’s aside, it’s very difficult to win Indianapolis as a rookie.
Patrick is, arguably, the most well know race car driver in America, and a talented one. She has a special affinity for Indianapolis, and few would doubt that one day, if she stays away from NASCAR, and ESPN is currently reporting that a deal is imminent, she has an excellent chance to become the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500. It’s going to be difficult for her this year. She’s starting 25th. Complicating her back-of-the pack starting position is the fact that her team, Andretti Autosport, seems to be in complete disarray. Two of their cars missed the race, and they fired their team manger the day after Sunday’s qualifying debacle.
Andretti nearly won the 500 as a rookie in 2006, and he has finished third twice since then. His 27th starting spot might be detrimental to a victory this year. But, some lucky breaks with the cautions, and wise use of the newly instituted double file restarts could put him in contention. “We wouldn’t show up, if we didn’t think we could win,” Marco said after qualifying. “It’ll be tough, but it is 500 miles.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay is a talented, hard working, deserving race car driver, and one of the most respected and personable in the business. Unfortunately he’s caught in the money trap that’s such an integral part of racing today. When his teammate, Marco Andretti, bumped him from the race, Andretti Autosport faced a quandary. Their SunDrop and DHL sponsorship hinged on Hunter-Reay being in the Indianapolis 500. Andretti went to Foyt, a deal was struck. Junqueira, was out, Hunter-Reay was in his car.
There’s not a person at the Speedway who feels worse about the situation than Hunter-Reay, but he’s a professional race car driver with a job to do.
Sunday, he’ll have to take a strange race car, in which he’s had limited practice laps, and race 500 miles from dead last. It’ll be tough, and the distractions from the controversy surrounding him will only make it tougher.
Hunter-Reay is an American who very well could win the Indianapolis 500 some day. For it to happen this year will take a pocket full of miracles.
All in all there’s an excellent representation of American drivers in this year’s Indianapolis 500 field. The Ganassi and Penske boys still have to be considered odds on favorites, but this unusual May has already seen the shaking of the status quo. That might just extend to Sunday.