MONACO (Reuters) - Very few Formula One fans, even from the older generations, can name the first U.S. driver to score points, win a round of the world championship and lead the standings.
Even the engraver who had the job of inscribing the name of 1950 Indianapolis 500 winner Johnnie Parsons onto the silver Borg-Warner trophy got it wrong, famously writing ‘Johnny’ instead.
Parsons, his name now eclipsed by Formula One world champions Phil Hill (1961) and Mario Andretti (1978), did much more than win America’s biggest race that May afternoon, however.
From 1950 to 1960, Formula One counted the Indy 500 as a round of the championship and, as winner of the third race of the inaugural F1 season, Parsons led the standings with Italian Giuseppe Farina and Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio.
On the back of that one win, and despite never starting a grand prix, Parsons ended the 1950 season sixth overall in the championship.
Even now the United States ranks third for providing the most Formula One drivers — after Britain and Italy — because every year tens of them started Indianapolis.
Some statisticians exclude the Indy racers from the F1 record books, although Parsons’s win provides a good trick quiz question, but Formula One has also helped shape the history of the 500.
If Indianapolis to modern F1 fans is mostly a reminder of the farcical six car U.S. Grand Prix in 2005, a race that did much to damage the sport’s reputation in America, earlier decades were different.
Sunday’s 100th running of the race, on the same weekend as Formula One’s showcase Monaco Grand Prix, evokes some good memories.
“I liked it. I liked the people. It was a cultural change to go there, but we all adapted very well to driving there,” triple world champion Jackie Stewart, who almost won on his Indy debut in 1966, told Reuters.
“Jimmy (Clark) obviously did, Jack Brabham did, I was leading by two laps with only eight laps to go and who was second and third? Two other Brits. So we adapted very quickly to it,” he added.
“The technology that we had over here was way ahead of anything they had in America. And in those days we did sportscars, GT cars, CANAM cars, touring cars; That was the only way you made any money.
“Indianapolis was a money machine for us in one respect, but we wanted to do it,” said Stewart.
The late Graham Hill, Formula One champion in 1962 and 1968, won Indianapolis 50 years ago while fellow Brit Clark, also a double world champion, won in 1965.
Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi was triumphant twice after his Formula One days were over while Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya won before and is reigning champion again.
Stirling Moss, Fangio’s team mate in the 1950s, never raced in Indiana but his father Alfred did in 1924.
“My father raced it, of course,” the 86-year-old told Reuters. “In my day, I couldn’t get to it because it meant giving up too many races ... I’d have loved to have done it, I really would have enjoyed it.”
By the 1970s, the calendar made doing both impossible and ties weakened.
“When I was racing I was always interested, I had some offers at the time, but it always clashed with Monte Carlo,” triple world champion Niki Lauda, now the Mercedes team’s non-executive chairman, told Reuters.
“So there was for me no discussion. Sure as a challenge, it’s interesting. I always looked at it but never got close. It is done perfectly for the Americans.”
Formula One’s modern breed is less interested.
Damon Hill, 1996 world champion and son of Graham, had no great desire to follow his father.
“I had my focus on F1, so my direction was always toward F1. And once I had got to the end of my career I was finished with driving anyway ... I saw too many drivers walking around with broken ankles,” he told Reuters.
“I have total admiration for the guys who compete out there. It’s a big event. I’d love to go, I’ve never been.”
Memories of Britain’s Nigel Mansell racing Indy in 1993 as reigning Formula One world champion, and finishing third, are from a different era.
“At that period of time the car looked really cool and perhaps I would have wanted to do it, but I don’t have any desire now,” said Mercedes’ triple world champion Lewis Hamilton when asked by Reuters for his opinion.
“I don’t think the cars are as exciting as they perhaps were years ago. It’s not something that’s on my radar or that I have on my goals list. I’d rather just do a NASCAR race.”
McLaren’s Jenson Button, the 2009 F1 champion and a friend of the late two times Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon who died at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011, also ruled it out.
“I think there’s some areas with the sport that need to be improved still, in terms of safety,” he said.
Editing by Frank Pingue