Editorial

Is CART's problem really a lack of Americans?

 by Mark Cipolloni
January 16, 2001

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CART has too many foreign drivers!  We hear that statement uttered often as the reason CART lacks the following NASCAR enjoys in the USA.  But is that REALLY the reason, or is it CART's inability to effectively market what I view as a distinct asset - drivers from around that world competing on a diversity of circuits for the title Best-Of-The-Best?

It stands to reason that if you draw from a larger worldwide talent pool rather than just a national talent pool, you are bound to end up with a higher caliber of driver talent.  Genetically there is no reason why one country's drivers should be any better than any other.  The trick is to find the best talent, and to give it the opportunity to rise to the top.

Frankly I'm tired of hearing that CART has too few American's and too many foreign drivers.  CART team owners do NOT go out of their way to hire foreign drivers on purpose, they hire who they think can best get the job done.  Sure there are some drivers in CART who get a ride because they bring sponsorship money with them, but that is no different than NASCAR, F1 or the IRL.  There are a certain percentage of ride-buying drivers in all forms of motorsports.  It's inevitable because auto racing always has and always will be an expensive sport.  The trick for any sanctioning body is to make its series popular so that team owners can find sponsors on their own and not rely on a driver bringing one.  That way they are free to pick who they think is the best driver available instead of having to settle for the one that brings the most money.

Drivers fall into four categories - 1) Those that bring no money and are hired strictly for their talent, 2) Those that bring no money but the sponsor insists on the best available driver from a certain country which increases their chances of landing a ride, 3) Those that bring some money, thereby increasing their chances of landing a ride, 4) Those that bring the majority of the money through personal sponsor relationships.

Given the above four categories, let's examine just how many drivers in CART land rides that fall into each category.  Because of ongoing misinformation spread by those who want to discredit CART for their own malevolent reasons, the results will likely surprise you.

Team

Category Comment
1 2 3 4
Brooke Racing

Max Wilson

X Team already has sponsorship

Project Racing Group

Luiz Garcia Jr.

X Garcia brings a good portion of $$

Michel Krumm

X Krumm brings some German money

Dale Coyne Racing

Alex Barron

X Barron hired strictly for talent

Andre Couto

X We think Couto may bring some $$

Fernandez Racing

Adrian Fernandez

X Owner secures sponsorship $$

Shinji Nakano

X Honda insists on Japanese driver

Forsythe/Zakspeed

Bryan Herta

X Hired strictly for talent 

Marcel Tiemann?

X Driver will likely bring some $$

Herdez/Bettenhausen Motorsports

Michel Jourdain Jr.

X Sponsor insists on Mexican driver

Marlboro Team Penske

Gil de Ferran

X Hired strictly for talent

Helio Castroneves

X Hired strictly for talent

Mo Nunn Racing

Tony Kanaan

X Sponsor insists on Brazilian driver

Alex Zanardi

X Hired strictly for talent

Newman/Haas Racing

Cristiano da Matta

X Hired strictly for talent

Christian Fittipaldi

X Hired strictly for talent

PacWest Racing Group

Mauricio Gugelmin

X Hired strictly for talent

Scott Dixon

X Hired strictly for talent

Patrick Racing

Roberto Moreno

X Hired strictly for talent

Jimmy Vasser

X Hired strictly for talent

Player's Forsythe Racing Team

Alexandre Tagliani

X Sponsor insists on Canadian driver

Patrick Carpentier

X Sponsor insists on Canadian driver

Sigma Autosports

Oriol Servia

X Hired strictly for talent

Target/Chip Ganassi Racing

Bruno Junqueira

X Hired strictly for talent

Nicolas Minassian

X Hired strictly for talent

Team Green

Paul Tracy

X Hired strictly for talent

Dario Franchitti

X Hired strictly for talent

Team Motorola

Michael Andretti

X Hired strictly for talent

Team Rahal

Max Papis

X Hired strictly for talent

Kenny Brack

X Hired strictly for talent

 Walker Racing

Toranosuke Takagi

X Sponsors insists on Japanese driver

Total

21 6 3 1 31 Drivers Total

% of Total

68 19 10 3 100%

As can be seen from the above analysis, 65%, or a full 2/3 of CART drivers have been hired strictly based on talent.  Another 22% have been hired based on talent, but the sponsor insisted on the best driver available from a specific country.  That means 87% of all CART drivers have been hired based on talent alone.  The remaining 13% have been hired because of their ability to bring sponsorship money to a team.  That may or may not mean they are good drivers, just that money had some influence on them being hired.

Based on the 13% we conclude, therefore, that CART does NOT have an inordinate amount of ride-buying drivers.  In fact, it has less than some other popular series, less in fact than the IRL which accuses CART of the very thing it is guilty of.  Which brings us back to the argument that CART has so few Americans because of all the ride-buying foreign drivers.  We would like to put an end to that misconception and disinformation once and for all.  Certainly we wish all of the drivers were hired strictly on talent alone, but as we said earlier, auto racing is an expensive sport and has always had a certain percentage of ride-buying drivers.

Which then brings us back to the argument that CART needs more American drivers.  Certainly one could argue that more American drivers would increase interest by the American fans.  However, I will argue that while American fans would like to cheer for American drivers, deep down inside they would prefer to cheer for the best American drivers against the best the world has to offer.

When Mario Andretti became the first American driver to win a US Grand Prix race at Long Beach in 1977, the American crowd went wild.  They were rooting for Mario because he was the best American driver and he had beaten Austrian Niki Lauda and South African driver Jody Scheckter in a down and dirty race long dogfight on the streets of Long Beach that day.  He had beaten the best in the world at the time and the crowd went wild. It was a special moment in motorsports.  We have witnessed similar scenes in Brazil when Ayrton Senna won in front of his home crowd.  Ditto for Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Nigel Mansell, Michael Schumacher, etc.  Shall I go on?  No, I think you get the point, beating the best the world has to offer is like winning a gold medal in the Olympics, it is something special, very special.

While watching Dale Earnhardt win last year's race at Talladega in a miraculous drive from mid-pack in a few short laps, the large throng on hand witnessed a very special moment in American motorsports, but to the rest of the world, it went unnoticed. 

As CART increases its presence in the global market, like F1, it will be better served if the starting grid is comprised of the best drivers from around the world.  NASCAR failed miserably in Japan, drawing crowds much smaller than CART, because NASCAR brought strictly an American show - American drivers in low-tech American cars.  The world is accustomed to F1.  It is recognized as a true World Championship because the best drivers from around the world compete on race tracks worldwide to determine who is best.  If a typical F1 grid consisted of, say, 90% British drivers, F1 would quickly lose its status as a World Championship, and be viewed as strictly a British Championship series.

What would serve CART best is for it to develop the best farm system it can for American drivers, and help those drivers win rides based on talent and not because lack of money stopped them on the way up the ladder.  And that is sort of what CART is doing in their new relationship with Skip Barber.  

A key component of the CART-Skip Barber Scholarship Ladder is bringing young talented drivers into a system where their development is not hindered with large financial obstacles. Ensuring that their talents will not go unnoticed builds upon the foundations of the partnership. 

"Talent can go further in this system than in any other without big money being a factor. The Barber-CART Scholarship Ladder will invest over $1.3 million annually in the future stars of open-wheel racing," said Skip Barber. "Many of the drivers that come through our schools and series aspire to race in CART. I am very pleased that we and CART are able to come together to ensure that those racer's dreams have a better chance of becoming reality through the assistance that we offer coupled with CART's ability to promote these future talents." 

Although these drivers will be 'bringing' money so-to-speak, they will be doing so because they were able to prove that they were the best qualified driver for the ride.  That is very different than a driver getting a ride strictly because of money, when in fact they may be what some would call a 'moving chicane'.  And when those drivers reach the top rung, Champ Cars, the owners will have little doubt that those drivers can get the job done for them.  Then if they bypass a driver from their ladder series, very possibly an American driver, it will likely be because they found someone even better in the world.

Maybe it's the purist in me, but I dream of the day when I see flags waving throughout the CART grandstands from all over the world, carried by fans cheering on their countrymen, in a battle to determine who is the true world champion, the driver who can win on small ovals, superspeedways, street courses and road courses.  To me, the driver who can win the CART Championship, is the best driver in the world, worthy of the title World Champion.  That is what CART must strive for, not to be a copy-cat of NASCAR or the IRL, strictly American Championship series, but to be like F1, but only a more diverse challenge.

CART - USA vs. World Poll
CART should?
Pull back and become a 100% American series
Increase overseas venues and become a viable World Championship
Stay the course

Results | Poll Archives

It seems everyone has an opinion of what CART should be (including us), yet sometimes we feel CART itself doesn't know who it is. It tries to be everything to everybody.  It doesn't have a clear direction.  In this related article we asked, what CART is and made a case for what CART needs to be?

  • American or international?

  • Oval or road course?

  • Foreign drivers or American drivers?

  • Turbocharged or Naturally Aspirated?  And so on....

In another related article we wrote that CART's leader must be a corporate visionary, the one person who gets all of CART's staff, the press, the sponsors, and the fans to understand clearly what CART is all about.  Getting everyone rowing in the same direction to get the message out what CART is, and it's starts right at the top with CART's President.  What do we think CART's message should be?  CART is:

  1. Not all-American like NASCAR, but American and Canadian, Brazilian, Japanese, etc.

  2. Not the IRL, but more, much more.

  3. Not about American drivers, but about the best drivers

  4. Not about ride-buying drivers, but about ride-winning drivers

  5. Not about just ovals or road courses, but about small ovals, big ovals, street circuits and road courses

It's time CART start being CART, and it's time the whole world clearly understand what CART is - the best and diverse open wheel race series in the world.  And should it have more American drivers?  Only if they are indeed the best available.  To settle for anything less, is to accept mediocrity.  Is auto racing a Broadway play, a show?  Or is auto racing a sport where the best athletes do battle for supremacy?

You decide.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

Go to our forums to discuss this article

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