Tuesday, July 23, 2013

IndyCar's Finest Years: Twenty Years Apart

Six different winners from three teams. Sixteen races, ten on road and street courses, six ovals, only three wins by Americans. A rookie champion from across the pond. You would think this was a recent season, probably right after the merger when Ganassi and Penske dominated with an occasional win by Andretti-Green. In fact it was prior to the split and was the famed 1993 season, the pinnacle for IndyCar.

Defending World Drivers' champion Nigel Mansell left Williams F1 to join Newman-Haas and replace Michael Andretti who went to McLaren. Mansell joined fellow world champions Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi on the grid along with Indianapolis 500 winners Bobby Rahal, Arie Luyendyk, Danny Sullivan and Al Unser, Jr.; young up and coming talent such as Paul Tracy, Robby Gordon, Jimmy Vasser and experienced veterans Raul Boesel, Scott Goodyear, Teo Fabi, Roberto Guerrero, Scott Brayton, Eddie Cheever and Stefan Johansson.

The international, star-filled field was complimented with a diverse schedule heading to three different countries. The street races were highlighted by Surfers Paradise, Long Beach, Exhibition Place and Vancouver with the Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland producing one of the best races you will ever see. There were only four permanent road course, Portland, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca. Indianapolis Motor Speedway headlined the oval schedule with Michigan International Speedway hosting a second five-hundred mile race and four one mile ovals Phoenix, Milwaukee, Nazareth and the recently opened New Hampshire International Speedway.

Mansell came in and dominated race one of his IndyCar career at Surfers Paradise but he would not win another road or street course event in IndyCar. Mansell missed Phoenix with a back injury and his teammate Mario Andretti went on to win what would be his final career race. After losing the lead in the Indianapolis 500 on a late restart Mansell finished third in his first career oval race. The remaining four ovals all went to Mansell, who had never raced on an oval prior to 1993. A win at Nazareth clinched the title for Mansell with a race to spare.

A lot of other notable wins came in 1993. Paul Tracy would pick up his first career win at Long Beach. Emerson Fittipaldi got by Mansell late at Indianapolis and held off Luyendyk to pick up his second career Indianapolis 500 victory. Along with Andretti's final career win at Indianapolis, Danny Sullivan won his final career race at Belle Isle. Al Unser, Jr. won at Vancouver of what would be his first of three consecutive wins on the streets of the seaport city. Tracy picked up four more wins in 1993 including Cleveland and his home race of Toronto.

Indianapolis featured a few surprises. AJ Foyt retired on pole day in front of a packed crowd. Defending IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal missed the thirty-three car field and was the second alternate. Al Unser, Kevin Cogan and Geoff Brabham all made their final Indianapolis 500 start in 1993 and Nelson Piquet returned to the Speedway one year after a terrible accident, qualified and made his one and only career start in the famed race and IndyCar. He finished thirty-second after completing thirty-eight laps.

Many notable drivers made their debut in the 1993 season. Future champion Scott Sharp made his debut in the final race at Laguna Seca. Robbie Buhl made ten starts in 1993 and finished sixth in his third career race at Long Beach. Adrián Fernández made his debut at Long Beach and finished seventh in his third career start at Belle Isle. Mauricio Gugelmin made his debut as did Mark Smith who finished ninth at Phoenix in his second career start but failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. David Kudrave finished a career best eighth on debut at Phoenix, did not attempt to qualify for Indianapolis and only picked up one more top ten in his career. Even better from that Phoenix race in 1993 was that Hiro Matsushita rounded out the top ten.

Andrea Montermini finished fourth in his second career start at Belle Isle. The co-overall winner of the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans Bertrand Gachot of Belgium (though born in Luxembourg and raced under the French flag in Formula One) made his only career start in 1993. He finished twelfth at Toronto. Gary Brabham and Andrea Chiesa made their debuts at Surfers Paradise. Chiesa only completed two laps and never competed again in IndyCar. The son of three-time World Driver's champion Jack Brabham finished fourteenth becoming the first Australian to compete in the IndyCar race on the Gold Coast. He would return to race one more time at Surfers Paradise in 1994 where he completed only ten laps.

The 1993 season featured the powerful Cosworth and Chevrolet engines of the time period. The beautiful Lola and Penske chassis. Not to mention the Penske PC-23 with it's Mercedes-Benz 500I engine were a year away from destroying the competition at Indianapolis. Honda was two years away from coming on the scene and Toyota was three away. Reynard would join the series in 1994 and Dallara was three years away from introducing their first generation IndyCar in the IRL.

There is no doubt 1993 was a great year and arguably it was IndyCar's finest season. But is 2013 better? Twenty years later there are three more races, though in the forms of doubleheaders. The amount of ovals are the same. The defending champion is an American driver. This season we have seen eight different drivers win a race, two more than won in 1993 and there are still six races to go. Those eight winners have come from seven different teams including Dale Coyne Racing who had only one top ten in 1993. The eight winners have come from seven different countries including IndyCar's host nations the United States and Canada, the stalwarts the United Kingdom and Brazil, and New Zealand, France and for the first time ever, a winner from Japan. Of the thirteen teams on grid each weekend, all but one has won a race.

Chevrolet is back and has a good back-and-forth battle with Honda week in and week out. Dallara produces the only chassis, the DW12 but despite the lack of competition, the racing has never been better. The pack racing of the mid-2000s is gone and the drivers are driving cars that are a handful on ovals. The engine displacement is smaller and the turbo levels aren't as high as some would like but the racing has been phenomenal.

There have been some race track causalities over the last twenty years. Gone are Surfers Paradise, Cleveland, Road America, Portland, Laguna Seca and Vancouver are gone. New Hampshire came back for one season and decided not to renew it's contract a year before the DW12 came to fruition. Nazareth has been reclaimed by mother nature. Michigan and Phoenix are gone but over the past eighteen months both have been mentioned as possibility returning, as well as Road America, with Road America and Phoenix probably closer to returning than Michigan if any are to return at all. The ten tracks to come on the schedule over the last twenty years include a trip to São Paulo instead of Surfers, a 7/8 of a mile oval in Iowa, a return to Pocono which seemed impossible as little as three years ago and Texas Motor Speedway has been a good partner with IndyCar since the track opened in 1997. Fontana opened in 1997 as well and has had an on-and-off relationship with IndyCar all that time that's currently on.

Sonoma has replaced Laguna Seca as IndyCar's stop to Northern California. While the Pacific Northwest lost it's two races, the Southeast has picked up two races, one on the streets of St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park just outside of Birmingham, Alabama and both are popular venues. Cleveland was a fan favorite event that produced some of the all-time great races. Sadly that race is gone and may never come back but the Baltimore Grand Prix has had two great crowds in it's two runnings and brings together IndyCar fans from all across the Atlantic region. Houston is on the schedule for the first time since 2007 and has a lot of promise since it is a doubleheader and has great backing coming from Shell/Pennzoil.

There are a lot of things about 1993 that are missed but 2013 isn't all that bad if you think about. Sure, it sucks IndyCar doesn't go to Cleveland and Road America. If New Hampshire, Michigan and Phoenix were currently on the schedule, IndyCar would have a great array of ovals and the fans would get to see more of the great racing they produce. Sure the schedule is just a bit off, (IndyCar has two, two week breaks and a full month off and they were off when NASCAR's top division was off) but that can be fixed. We have an American champion in Ryan Hunter-Reay. The name Andretti is back at the front of the grid while the Rahal name is struggling, he's showed some speed and has promise. Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden are two popular American drivers, Canada has a hero in James Hinchcliffe. Though the grid features many international drivers, almost all, if not all are fan friendly and are great additions to the grid. Unqualified ride buyers are few and far between with the grid full of talented drivers. The ladder system is working better than ever with many good drivers in the pipeline including non-North American drivers Carlos Muñoz, Jack Hawksworth, Gabby Chaves and Diego Ferreira; Canadians Scott Hargrove, Garrett Grist, Zach Meyer and Matthew Di Leo; and Americans Sage Karam, Zach Veach, Spencer Pigot, Scott Anderson and Neil Alberico.

Trust me, there are plenty of things where IndyCar has taken a step back in the past twenty years. Is IndyCar making as much money as it was twenty years ago? No. Better television ratings? No. More television coverage? No. Recognizable by the average American public? No. Better marketing? No. The series has been struggling but IndyCar and open-wheel racing is at just as good a point today as it was in 1993. IndyCar's product just needs to be made known. Unfortunately there is no easy way to do that and more importantly, there is no easy way to get people to follow something they have no prior knowledge of. It would be easy but it is not impossible for IndyCar to turn some heads.

Twenty years later, despite the split and the bad feelings afterward, despite falling out of the public eye and losing many favorite venues, IndyCar is having one of it's finest years ever.