The CART-IRL Split and U.S. Drivers
One of the themes of coverage of the CART-IRL split in 1996 concerned the rise of non-US drivers in Indycar racing. ARA looks at the statistics of the CART and IRL era to analyze the trend and the state of Indycar racing’s driver lineup today.
CART’s first season in 1979 concluded with Rick Mears of the USA as champion. No driver from outside of the USA finished in the top ten in 1979 points, with Vern Schuppan the highest-ranked outsider at fourteenth. USAC conducted its final Indycar season (not counting the “Gold Crown” series) in 1979 with A.J. Foyt taking the title, also with an-all USA top ten.
1980 saw Johnny Rutherford win the CART title and Vern Schuppan finish tenth in the CART standings as he became the first non-US driver in a CART top ten season point ranking. In 1981 Rick Mears won his second CART title and the first non-US driver was all the way down in twenty-first spot in points: Josele Garza. 1982 produced Mears’ third CART title and the best result thus far for a non-US driver, eighth in points, by Geoff Brabham. Teo Fabi became the first real non-US contender for a CART title in 1983, finishing second to Al Unser, but was the only non-US driver in the top ten. Mario Andretti won the 1984 CART title and Geoff Brabham was the only non-US driver to crack the top ten in eighth.
The real breakthrough came in 1985, Al Unser’s final title season. Emerson Fittipaldi finished sixth in points and was joined in the top ten by Jacques Villeneuve, brother of Gilles, as two drivers from outside of the USA finished in the CART season top ten for the first time. Never again in the history of CART would there be fewer than two non-US drivers in a season top ten!
Bobby Rahal won the 1986 CART title and again Emmo was the top non-US driver, this time ranked seventh. Roberto Guerrero placed ninth as two non-US drivers placed in the top ten for the second consecutive year. Rahal won his second consecutive CART title in 1987 with Guerrero leading the non-US drivers in fourth as a new record of four non-US drivers finished in the top ten with Arie Luyendyk, Geoff Brabham and Emerson Fittipaldi completing the quartet. Danny Sullivan took the CART championship in 1988 and again four non-US drivers placed in the top ten, this time finishing 7-8-9-10 in the order Emerson Fittipaldi, Raul Boesel, Derek Daly, and Teo Fabi.
The eleventh season of CART racing produced its first non-US champion as Emerson Fittipaldi took the 1989 title! Rick Mears finished second to lead the US drivers. Teo Fabi and Arie Luyendyk gave the non-US contingent three drivers in the 1989 top ten. Al Unser, Jr. took the title back for the US in 1990 with Fittipaldi ranking fifth as the best of the non-US drivers. Arie Luyendyk also finished in the top ten as only two non-US drivers achieved the feat. In 1991 Michael Andretti won the CART title and again Emerson Fittipaldi was fifth to lead the non-US drivers and again he was joined by Arie Luyendyk as only two non-US competitors finished in the top ten! Bobby Rahal scored his third and final CART title in 1992. Emerson Fittipaldi moved up to fourth in points and three non-US drivers placed in the top ten as Scott Goodyear and Raul Boesel joined Emmo.
Nigel Mansell won the 1993 CART championship, becoming the second non-US driver to achieve the feat! He led a 1-2-3 sweep of the top positions by non-US drivers with Fittipaldi second and Paul Tracy third! 1992 champion Bobby Rahal ranked fourth as the best-placed US driver. Raul Boesel ranked fifth as Rahal was the only US driver in the top five! Arie Luyendyk and Scott Goodyear placed eighth and ninth as a record six non-US drivers finished in the top ten.
Al Unser, Jr. achieved his second and final CART title in 1994 but again six non-US drivers placed in the top ten, led by Emerson Fittipaldi’s runnerup finish! From 1988 through 1994, Fittipaldi finished 7-1-5-5-4-2-2 in the title rankings, failing to lead the non-US drivers only in 1993 when Mansell won the title with Emmo second!
Gilles Villeneuve’s son Jacques won the 1995 CART title, becoming CART’s third non-US champion and the third in the seven-year 1989-1995 period! Al Unser, Jr. led the US drivers in second. Paul Tracy, Teo Fabi, and Mauricio Gugelmin joined Villeneuve in the top ten as four non-US drivers placed in the top ten.
The “split” took place in 1996, and the first IRL title was shared by US drivers Buzz Calkins and Scott Sharp. Robert Guerrero ranked fourth in IRL points to lead the non-US drivers and was joined by Arie Luyendyk in the top ten as the total of non-US drivers to achieve Top Ten status fell to two compared to the four in the 1995 CART standings. In 1996 CART produced its final title won by a US driver, Jimmy Vasser! Alex Zanardi led the non-US contingent with a third-place ranking as was joined in the top ten by Christian Fittipaldi, Gil de Ferran, and Greg Moore as four non-US drivers placed in the top ten, the same total as in 1995.
Tony Stewart won the 1997 IRL title but already the IRL had five non-US drivers in the top ten! Marco Greco led the contingent with a third-place ranking as was joined by Scott Goodyear, Arie Luyendyk, Roberto Guerrero, and Eliseo Salazar. Alex Zanardi won the 1997 CART title with Gil de Ferran second. 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser placed third as the top-ranked US driver. A record seven non-US drivers finished in the top ten, with Mauricio Gugelmin, Paul Tracy, Mark Blundell, Greg Moore, and Raul Boesel completing the list.
1998, the IRL’s third season, produced its first non-US champion as Kenny Brack took the title! Davey Hamilton led the US contingent in second. Scott Goodyear, Arie Luyendyk, and Marco Greco joined Brack as four non-US drivers placed in the top ten. Alex Zanardi won the CART championship in 1998 for the second consecutive year. Jimmy Vasser led the US drivers for the third consecutive year, this time placing second. The number of non-US drivers in the CART top ten fell to five as Zanardi was joined by Dario Franchitti, Adrian Fernandez, Greg Moore, and Tony Kanaan.
Greg Ray gave the USA the 1999 IRL title; 1998 champ Kenny Brack led the non-US contingent in second as only Scott Goodyear joined him as a non-US top ten finisher. The story was different in 1999 CART competition, however, as Juan Pablo Montoya won the title in a non-US 1-2-3 sweep with Dario Franchitti second and Paul Tracy third. Michael Andretti led the US driver roster with a fourth-place finish but only Jimmy Vasser (ninth) joined him in the top ten as a record eight of the top ten spots were taken by non-US drivers. Max Papis, Adrian Fernandez, Christian Fittipaldi and Gil de Ferran finished fifth through eighth with Greg Moore tenth.
Buddy Lazier won the 2000 IRL title for the USA with Scott Goodyear’s runnerup finish leading the non-US drivers. Goodyear was joined only by Eliseo Salazar to give non-US competitors two top ten finishers. In CART, however, the 2000 results saw a record top five sweep by non-US drivers led by champion Gil de Ferran. Adrian Fernandez, Roberto Moreno, Kenny Brack, and Paul Tracy completed the top five. Jimmy Vasser led Uncle Sam’s brigade for the fourth time in five seasons but could place only sixth and was joined only by Michael Andretti in eighth as the US earned only two top ten spots! Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Cristiano da Matta completed the eight non-US top ten finishers.
Sam Hornish, Jr. achieved his first IRL title in 2001. Eliseo Salazar led the non-US drivers in fifth and was joined in the top ten by Felipe Giaffone and Airton Dare as three non-US pilots placed in the top ten. Gil de Ferran won the CART title for the second consecutive season in 2001 with Kenny Brack second but Michael Andretti placed third for the US. Andretti was the only news for the US in the top ten as Jimmy Vasser ranked only twelfth. The remaining nine drivers were all from the non-US contingent: Helio Castroneves, Cristiano da Matta, Max Papis, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, and Patrick Carpentier.
Sam Hornish, Jr. took the IRL title again in 2002, but this time the runnerup was Helio Castroneves, marking the only time thus far in his career that Helio has led the non-US group. Helio was joined in the top ten by Gil de Ferran, Felipe Giaffone, and Airton Dare as four non-US drivers achieved top ten rankings. Cristiano da Matta won the 2002 CART championship as non-US drivers achieved a record top six sweep with Jimmy Vasser leading the US drivers in seventh, joined by only Michael Andretti in ninth. Bruno Junquiera, Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, Christian Fittipaldi, and Kenny Brack completed the top six and were joined by Alex Tagliani in eighth and Michel Jourdain, Jr. in tenth.
The IRL’s streak of four consecutive titles by US drivers (1999-2002) ended in 2003 with Scott Dixon’s first title and a record sweep of the top four positions by non-US drivers! Sam Hornish, Jr. led the US drivers in fifth. An IRL-record seven non-US drivers finished in the top ten as the top four of Dixon, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan was joined by Tomas Scheckter, Kenny Brack, and Toranosuke Takagi.
Meanwhile, the 2003 CART season marked the low point for US drivers in that series as the top ten positions were swept by non-US drivers as Paul Tracy won the title! Jimmy Vasser led Uncle Sam’s meager representation in eleventh.
Tony Kanaan won the 2004 IRL title over Dan Wheldon in a non-US 1-2 but Buddy Rice finished third to lead the US talent. Seven non-US drivers finished in the top ten. Sebastien Bourdais won the 2004 CART championship as the top seven drivers were non-US competitors; Jimmy Vasser led the US group for the seventh and final time in eighth with Ryan Hunter-Reay in ninth as the only two US drivers in the top ten.
Dan Wheldon gave the IRL its third consecutive first-time, and non-US, champion, in 2005 as he won over Tony Kanaan in a reversal of the 2004 rankings. Sam Hornish, Jr. led Uncle Sam’s warriors in third; three US drivers finished in the Top ten for the third consecutive year. The CART result was the same as 2004, with Sebastien Bourdais take a second consecutive title but this time US driver A.J. Allmendinger finished fifth with Jimmy Vasser sixth as again two US drivers finished in the top ten.
Sam Hornish, Jr. ended the three-season title streak of non-US drivers by taking the 2006 IRL title. Dan Wheldon finished second to lead the non-US contingent of six drivers in the top ten as for the first time since 2002 (when six US drivers finished in the top ten) four US drivers placed in the top ten. Sebastien Bourdais won his third consecutive CART title in 2006 but this time A.J. Allmendinger finished third, the best result for a US driver in CART since Michael Andretti’s third in 2001. Allmendinger, however, was the only US driver in the top ten and then departed for NASCAR!
Dario Franchitti won his first IRL title in 2007 as non-US drivers swept the top four positions. Sam Hornish, Jr. finished fifth, leading the US contingent (four finishers in the top ten for the second consecutive season) for the sixth time in seven (2001-2007) seasons; he then departed for NASCAR! Sebastien Bourdais scored his fourth consecutive CART title in the series’ final season as only one US driver, Graham Rahal in fifth, placed in the top ten in 2007 CART points.
Scott Dixon led a top five sweep of the 2008 IRL point positions by non-US drivers but a new name led the US drivers: Danica Patrick in sixth! Danica was one of three US drivers in the top ten, joined by Marco Andretti in seventh and Ryan Hunter-Reay in eighth. 2009 saw Dario Franchitti lead a top four sweep of the IRL positions by non-US drivers with Danica Patrick again leading the US drivers, this time in fifth. Graham Rahal in seventh and Marco Andretti in eighth joined Danica to again give the USA three drivers in the IRL top ten.
Whatever one’s views regarding the driver nationality mix in Indycar racing, the fact is that in 1995 CART had only four non-US drivers in the top ten and in 2009 the IRL had seven. Would the 2009 figure be higher-or lower-had the split been avoided? Would Danica Patrick lead the US driving contingent?