Founded in 1909, the Indianapolis 500 is an American tradition almost as old as the automobile itself. Every Memorial Day weekend, around 400,000 fans squeeze into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch the race. It’s one of the largest annual gatherings in the United States.
But the crowds don’t get to see a whole lot of Americans on the track: In racing, as in other American industries, homegrown talent has been squeezed out by foreign competition. Americans have won only two of the last thirteen Indies.
This year just nine of the 33 qualifiers are from the U.S.. The other competitors come from a variety of European and Latin American countries where formula racing is popular. It’s a wide open field, but the bookies’ favorite appears to be Ryan Briscoe, a 30-year-old Aussie who races for Penske. Briscoe just barely won the qualifiers over Canada’s James Hinchliffe (by .003 seconds!), meaning he’ll start Sunday’s race in the pole position. Other likely contenders include Will Power, another Australian; Hélio Castroneves, a Brazilian who’s already won three Indy 500’s; and the American Marco Andretti, son of racing legend Michael and grandson of another legend, Mario. The fastest rookie, Josef Newgarden, is also American. Many see this year’s race as a welcome opportunity for an American to chug the traditional winner’s milk, something that hasn’t happened since 2006.
What happened to the good ‘ol USA?
After a rough few years at the start, U.S. drivers dominated the Indy 500 until the 1980s, according to an in-depth piece in USA Today. That’s when the IndyCar Series — the year-long circuit of races that culminates in the Indy 500 — switched from front-engine to rear-engine cars. The latter have always been more popular with foreign drivers, who traditionally stuck to the international Formula One circuit, where the rear-engine is king.
As IndyCar’s bureaucracy became bogged down by political infighting and NASCAR rose in popularity, American racers found the sport increasingly difficult to break into. NASCAR in particular has proven to be the Indy 500’s greatest challenge, as it is far more lucrative for drivers and sponsors and generally receives better TV ratings. Scott Hornish, the last American to win the Indy 500, has since switched over to NASCAR, along with Danica Patrick, the female racing star who finished 3rd at the 2009 Indy. NASCAR also has the advantage in recruiting young drivers: racing is an expensive sport and IndyCar provides far less financial backing to rookie racers than its larger rival.
Despite the recent success of foreigners, one non-American group is cause for concern: the British carmaker Lotus has proven unable to get its engines into top gear. As a result, two Lotus drivers have already dropped out of this year’s race. Two others, Jean Alesi (France) and Simona di Silvestri (Switzerland), have decided to compete even though they only hit top speeds of 214 and 210 mph during qualifying. Sounds pretty fast to us, but pole winner Briscoe hit an astounding 226 mph.
Race officials and drivers, including Alesi himself, have publicly worried that their slow cars will pose a danger to other drivers. No one wants an accident: IndyCar already had to deal with the tragic death of English racer Dan Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 in 2011 but died in a crash at a race last year.
This year’s Indy 500 even features a foreign-born presence at the parade. Olivia Newton-John, the Australian singer/actress, will serve as the Indy 500 Parade grand marshal. Newton-John and family are big racing fans. Her nephew, a pro driver not competing at this race, is named for the Brazilian star Emerson Fittipaldi, who won the Indy 500 in ’89 and ’93.