The Indianapolis 500 is the centerpiece sporting event of a great American holiday — Memorial Day — a day for waving the United States flag and honoring those brave Americans who gave their lives in the field of battle.
It’s part of Americana — a chance to bask in the warm weather, fire up the grill and watch 33 brave drivers battle each other around the world’s most famous racing course. Before the green flag waves, however, there is the march of the military who are honored before the race, the playing of Taps and a breathtaking flyover that has involved such aircraft as the Stealth Bomber.
But there is an endangered species at the Indianapolis 500 — American drivers.
The drivers who will comprise the 33-driver lineup will be from Brazil, Australia, Scotland, New Zealand, England, Belgium and even Switzerland.
Since its inception the Indianapolis 500 has been an international event, but this used to be a sport whose heroes were A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Rick Mears, Al and Bobby Unser, Wilbur Shaw, Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. — all drivers from the United States.
The low point came last season when not a single IndyCar Series race winner was from the United States. It was the first time since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909 that an American-born driver did not win a race on the Championship Trail.
But there is one team — Andretti Autosport — in the race that will give fans of the good old USA reason to cheer. The five-driver lineup includes four American drivers led by Ryan Hunter-Reay, Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and John Andretti. The fifth driver is Brazilian Tony Kanaan.
Ironically, team owner Michael Andretti doesn’t understand why so much is made about the lack of American drivers at the Indy 500.
“I think we have very competitive American drivers,” Andretti said. “It is a bonus, I guess, but it is not imperative. You want the Americans doing well against the rest of the world. I think we have the Americans who can run with anyone else in this series.”
Andretti tried to downplay the American influence on his team and how important it is to the sport.
“It’s funny that we have a bunch of Americans on our team, but it wasn’t by design,” Andretti said. “I think it comes down to the personalities more than where you were born. I don’t get stuck on that. Ryan is definitely up there as far as the best American in this series. He is firing on all cylinders right now.”
Hunter-Reay, however, understands the importance of having American drivers not only compete but win races in the IZOD IndyCar Series. When he drove to victory in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach he was the first American IndyCar Series winner since he won at Watkins Glen Int’l July 6, 2008. It was also the first victory by an American driver at the Long Beach Grand Prix since Michael Andretti won in 2002.
“I’m happy to be wearing the red-white-and-blue colors and being the guy who won,” Hunter-Reay said. “I’m so honored to be carrying that flag as an American.”
Marco Andretti has been competing in IndyCar since he was 19 years old in 2006. At 23, he remains one of the youngest drivers in the sport and believes that if he starts to win more races it may inspire younger American drivers to consider a career in IndyCar.
“I’m hoping there will be a few more Americans besides us,” Marco Andretti said. “That will be great, and hopefully we can get some of us to the front. It would be awesome if I won to try to help get more Americans involved in this sport. But it would be awesome for a lot of different reasons. All we can say is we would hope to bring some young Americans back in this sport.”
Patrick is perhaps the most famous American driver in IndyCar because her appeal extends outside of the sport. The driver from Roscoe, Ill., is another driver proud of representing the United States.
“I don’t know if there was an effort to have American drivers; I think that is how it happened,” Patrick said. “But it’s Memorial Day and the best part is I like racing IndyCars, they race in the United States and I like living here, so if anybody is going to cheer for the home team it should be an American.”
John Andretti competed in CART in the 1980s and early 1990s when American drivers made up most of the field. That has changed drastically since he made the decision to depart for NASCAR in 1993.
“Drivers go to where opportunity is and the opportunity has been more to go to NASCAR than IndyCar from the American standpoint,” he said. “It would be great to have some of those guys venture over here to see what it is like. Sort of what Danica is doing over there. One thing NASCAR does do is keep you busy. The idea you could get an off weekend and come to an IndyCar race is tough.
“But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of young guys on the short tracks who aren’t coming up can’t come to IndyCar. Now that IndyCar has set up its ladder system to the series that should help, but they have to do it so that race teams aren’t providing the funding; that teams are providing the funding. That is typically the biggest difference as to why there is opportunity there (NASCAR) than here. If a team has the funding in place and wants to take a chance on somebody most of the time the sponsor would say yes.”
Mike Hull is the managing director at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and his team includes Scott Dixon of New Zealand and Dario Franchitti of Scotland.
“It gives hope to people from grass-roots racing in the United States,” Hull said. “Let’s face it — we need more owners like Michael Andretti so that the field can be deeper so that drivers from the United States can come through the open wheel ranks and race at the Indianapolis 500.”