INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - There have been more men in charge of IndyCar racing than American winners of the Indianapolis 500 over the last decade and countless opinions as to why the U.S. flag was not flown triumphantly over the famed Brickyard.
But up and down pit lane everyone seems to agree that if IndyCar is ever going to return to its former glory, American fans will need homegrown drivers to cheer for.
Ryan Hunter-Reay gave many of the estimated 250,000 people gathered in the sprawling grandstands reason to roar on Sunday when he became the first American winner of the Indy 500 since 2006 after making a dramatic pass of Helio Castroneves on the final lap and hanging on to edge the Brazilian by .06 seconds.
For the first time since Sam Hornish rolled into Victory Lane in 2006 chants of “USA! USA!” rang across the historic 2.5-mile oval considered the spiritual home of American motorsport.
The significance of the moment was not lost on Hunter-Reay, who was quick to wrap himself in a red, white and blue American flag and share his victory.
”I‘m a proud American boy, that’s for sure,“ Hunter-Reay said in Victory Lane. ”I‘m just so proud of this race, for more than one reason.
”I grew up as a fan of this sport first and foremost. My dad took me as a kid to some IndyCar races.
“This is the biggest one. This is the granddaddy of them all. This is where drivers were made and history is made.”
Much of the Brickyard’s recent history, however, has been written in another language by drivers from other countries.
Staged on the U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend, the Indy 500 may indeed be a uniquely American event but it has taken on a distinctly international flair. Only two homegrown drivers had triumphed here since 1998 going into Sunday’s 98th running.
During that span British and Brazilian drivers have claimed the Borg Warner Trophy five times each along with a Swede, Colombian and New Zealander.
At a time when “Made in America” has become a battle cry, U.S. drivers remain a minority on the IndyCar starting grid.
Even Castroneves, crushed at narrowly missing out on what would have been a record-equaling fourth Indy 500 win, could see through his disappointment at how much Hunter-Reay’s win meant to the sport and its fans.
“It’s great because for several years the series was a foreigner up front,” said Castroneves. “It’s great to see American drivers succeed. And third was (American Marco) Andretti.”
Some of the most iconic names in American motorsport remain connected to the series as team owners but even they have been caught up in the foreign wave.
Roger Penske, who has more 500 wins (15) than any other owner, has a stable that includes Castroneves, Australian Will Power and Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya while Texan A.J. Foyt, a four-time 500 winner as driver, has employed Japan’s Takuma Sato and Briton Martin Plowman.
Former IndyCar chief executive Randy Bernard and current head Mark Miles have recognized the importance of developing and promoting homegrown talent to provide fans a rooting interest.
Miles, who oversaw the ATP, the governing body of men’s professional tennis, before joining IndyCar, would know better than most the challenge ahead having watched the slow but steady decline of interest in tennis in the United States after the retirement of stars like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier.
American motor racing fans, however, have not had to look far for some of their own to cheer for each weekend.
NASCAR, the most popular form of racing in the United States, has drivers that are household names across the country, attracts huge TV ratings, sponsorships while sucking up the best American talent including IndyCar converts Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick.
But for a story to be compelling every hero needs a villain, and IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti, who provided Hunter-Reay with the winning car on Sunday, believes American drivers taking on and beating the world can deliver the type of high-octane flag-wavering patriotism NASCAR cannot.
”Going up against the best in the world, not just the United States, is a big deal,“ said Andretti, who as a driver wore the Stars and Stripes on his crash helmet. ”That’s why to me it does feel more precious when an American wins it because he won in an international field.
“That’s when you feel really proud.”
Editing by Frank Pingue