Open-wheel racing in the United States has consistently struggled in recent years to compete with NASCAR, but if it is not yet apparent that the outgoing tide of fickle fandom may be slowing, and the foundation for a reversal of fortunes may be taking shape. For more than two decades an impressive degree of diversity has been clearly apparent at the Indianapolis 500. Credit Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) President and CEO Tony George for publicly promoting diversity at the IMS and in the Indy Racing League (IRL).
As open-wheel lost its cache here in the United States foreign drivers began to proliferate in the starting grids of IRL competitions. The Brazilians are a case in point.
Emerson Fittipaldi, almost accidentally, opened the door for Brazilians at the Indy 500 when he made a US appearance in 1984. The two-time former Formula One champion’s fortunes had fallen so low that by the early 1980s he had returned to racing go-karts in Brazil.
A former Brazilian telenovela (night soaps) star named Tony Correia and Willy Hermann, now a long-time staple at the track who helps facilitate Brazilian TV Bandeirantes television broadcasts of what Brazilians call ‘Formula Indy’ (IRL) races, agreed to help Emmo resurrect his career.
Emerson’s arrival in the US, in Florida, was only intended to mark the personal appearance of a renowned former F1 driver. But in Miami, Fittipaldi tested and subsequently drove a car for Ralph Sanchez. Following a remarkable performance in which only mechanical problems denied Emmo a victory, Fittipaldi was courted and signed to compete in Indy Cars by Cuban Pepe Romero.
The 1984 Indianapolis 500 was the first of eleven straight "Greatest Spectacles in Racing" for Fittipaldi, who won in 1989 and 1993. The first of Brazilian Raul Boesel’s 13 Indianapolis 500s was in 1985. Roberto Moreno, who competed this year, first arrived in 1986, Nelson Piquet in 1993, and Marco Greco in 1994. Brazilians Andre Ribeiro, Gil de Ferran (who won in 2003) and Christian Fittipaldi all arrived at Indianapolis in 1995. The floodgates had opened.
As NASCAR increasingly displaced open-wheel in the minds of North American racing fans, South Americans (and Europeans and others) increasingly found opportunities in the US open-wheel circuit. One reason is that by the 1980s and 1990s go-karting in the US had become passé.
Brazilian and European youth with track dreams remained dedicated kart racers, providing a feeder system for the youngest would-be open-wheel competitors that, increasingly, we lacked. The bleeding continued.
A new wave of Brazilians began to arrive in the new millennium with Airton Dare in 2000, Hélio Castroneves in 2001 Tony Kanaan in 2002 and Vitor Meira in 2003. Roberto Moreno returned, after an absence, in 1999, as did Raul Boesel in 2000 and De Ferran in 2002.
Bruno Junqueira from the IRL’s national competitor Championship Auto Racing Team, or CART, made an appearance in 2001, and Thiago Medeiros competed in 2006. Castroneves won in 2001 and 2002, and De Ferran won in 2003. The Brazilians were not only ‘homesteading’ so to speak, they appeared to be taking over.
Since 2000 ten Brazilians have qualified for the Indianapolis 500. In addition to their pre-2007 three new millennium victories the Brazilians tallied four second place finishes, two thirds and a one-two-three sweep by De Ferran, Castroneves and Kanaan in 2003. In one two-year period in the new millennium Brazilians accounted for eight top-ten finishes, and between 2001 and 2006 they tallied nineteen!
But Brazilians were not alone as foreign participants marking increasing diversity within Formula Indy. Scotland, New Zealand, Colombia, Great Britain and Japan, for example, have all been well and prominently represented. But through their dominance it was the Brazilians who became emblematic, in a way, of diversity in the IRL.
Diversity has quietly held potential promise for open-wheel to recapture lost market share in the competition for race fan consumer-driven television revenues and sponsorship dollars. But IRL diversity, up until now, has not significantly played to the pocket-book, and that seems to be what may be changing.
Having a woman in a Formula Indy competition is no longer a novelty; women in the IRL have become a simple fact of increasing gender-parity demonstrating that women belong on the racetrack. Brazilians and Scotsmen and New Zealanders, Japanese, Colombians and British in the US combined may not spell lots and lots of potential consumer and sponsorship dollars, but women do.
What Venezuelan Milka Duno, and Americans Sara Fisher and Danica Patrick represent is the fact that the IRL and open-wheel have a special opportunity to redefine the landscape of motor-sports fandom in the United States. IMS President and CEO Tony George is right person in the right place to make that happen.
If the IRL moves swiftly and aggressively to formulate a smart and increasingly aggressive long-term marketing campaign reaching out to women fans of the women in Formula Indy, US open-wheel should begin to regain traction. And while the Brazilians themselves may not signify the same potential, they’ve proven to be an asset. No single group of drivers has ever been so approachable and likeable.
Hélio certainly reignited fan interest in the pre-Danica days as "Spiderman" through his post-victory fence-climbing antics. Tony’s sense of humor is a media favorite. And Vitor’s youthful good looks have inspired the formation of what appears to be an enduring fan club comprised mostly – though not wholly – of young girls in Fishers, Indiana.
As the young girls of the Vitor Meira fan club become young women they may help to form the core of a growing cadre, joining other young women whose interest will be captured by women drivers like Duno, Fisher and Patrick.
But the IRL should not place all of its diversity eggs in one basket. There lies dormant another potential fan base for open-wheel which its competition has failed to sequester, potential African-American racing fans and those elsewhere in the African Diaspora.
Roberto Moreno tells me that Formula One in Britain now has a black driver. Only two black drivers have ever qualified for the Indianapolis 500. Brazil boasts of more African blood than any nation on earth save Nigeria. And the second greatest constituency in the African Diaspora is in the US. Developing more opportunities for blacks in open-wheel motor sports would be both an astute business move and a "right thing to do."
While diversity has taken hold and flourished at Indianapolis and in the IRL, blacks remain a largely excluded population, and a largely alienated potential consumer group. Open-wheel certainly has as much to offer black race fan consumers as NASCAR and, for reasons embedded in cultural histories, arguably more.
The black race fan base is even less well developed than the marginally developed (though significant in NASCAR) women race fan base. NASCAR beat open-wheel to the punch in attracting women fans, but the potential pickings there remain significantly untapped. Black potential race fans have arguably not been mined at all however.
With all of the success that Brazilians have had in open-wheel racing in the US, and given the fact that we in the United States established here such a great tradition for open-wheel racing, it seems right to ask whether elements from these two great hosts of African Diaspora populations might come together to develop opportunities for Blacks in open-wheel motor sports as a precursor to igniting black interest in Formula Indy.
Phillip Wagner can be reached at email@example.com. Phillip is a long-time contributor to Brazzil Magazine and the founder of Rhythm of Hope in Brazil, an organization which works to assist grassroots social programs serving excluded black favela (slum) youth in the Afro-Brazilian cultural epicenter of Salvador, Bahia. Phillip received his Masters Degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from Indiana University in 2006 at the age of 56 and is currently enrolled in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the same school. At http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm he maintains personal we pages which complement the pages of ROHB at http://www.rhythmofhope.org.