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Numbers Show Indy 500 Has Become Brazilians’ Race to Lose

Hélio CastronevesFor years now I’ve been trumpeting the accomplishments of Brazilians at North America’s crown jewel of racing, and this year I decided that the time has come for a more rigorous examination of their performance. I chose to assess the Brazilians at Indy from the 2001 race because that’s when the Brazilian invasion really began. Five Brazilians ran in 2001 from an average starting position of 19.8. 

Hélio Castroneves, Bruno Junqueira, Airton Dare and Felipe Giaffone, after all, were all rookies. But Hélio won, veteran Gil de Ferran was 2nd and all five finished in the top 10!

Statistically, as I point out in my new braziliansattheindy500 blog, the Brazilians from 2001 through 2008 accounted for 16.8% of all entries, led 34.5% of all laps and won 37.5% of the time. Dominance is the only word for it.

From 2001 through 2008 an average of 5.4 Brazilians qualified and ran. This year six more qualified but, for reasons I note in my blog only five will start the race. Brazilian dominance has taken several forms.

Hélio Castroneves energized the IRL, finished 1st, 1st and 2nd in his first three Indy 500s, has now captured three poles and should become a six million dollar man, the all-time money winner at Indy, by next Tuesday.

Tony Kanaan has led every one of the seven Indianapolis 500s he has ever competed in, an all-time record, has a 2nd and a 3rd to his credit and has been a perpetual contender for both the pole and the race.

Kanaan, who has never started from worse than the 6th position, is often touted as the best driver to never win at Indy, but what about Vitor Meira?  He’s has never been on a top-3 team though his results would have you believing otherwise.

Meira has never had the good fortune to start from better than 6th, and his average starting position has been 12.2. He’s never finished worse than 12th (which is better than his average starting position), and he has twice finished 2nd.

Airton Dare last raced in 2006. But in his four starts at Indianapolis during this period he finished on average a whopping 11 positions better than he started. Unfortunately Dare’s average starting position was 28.6 in the 33 car field.

But how do the top-3 currently active Brazilians stack up against the currently still active best non-Brazilian drivers. I decided to take a look, beginning with 2003 since it was only by then that Castroneves, Kanaan and Meira had all arrived on the scene.

I measured for 1) average start-finish differential, 2) laps led, and 3) by differential within best finishing position. All currently active Indy 500 race winners were included.

Deciding who the non-Brazilian top drivers are was arbitrary. I relied on what my media counterparts seemed to believe. I gathered data for eleven drivers all total. The eight non-Brazilians in alphabetical order:

Marco Andretti
Ryan Briscoe
Scott Dixon
Dario Franchittti
Danica Patrick
Graham Rahal
Buddy Rice
Dan Wheldon

The results probably surprised me as much as they will you. To begin with only two of these divers (really) had positive differentials through the six year period (or whatever portion of it they had participated in). To me that was a shocker.

That Vitor Meira had the better differential was no surprise to me he finished on average 5.2 positions better than he started. Dario Franchitti was next with 2.1. Everyone else was in the negative, including Castroneves at -5.2!!

Dan Wheldon (234), Tony Kanaan (191) and Scott Dixon (147) were 1-2-3 in laps led. I was a little surprised Tony, having led in each of the six races considered, had not led the most laps. But that didn’t much diminish my feelings about Brazilian dominance.

In the final category Brazilians only ranked 5th, 6th and 8th. Remember, I only measured from 2003. Castroneves won in 2001 and 2002, and De Ferran, who won in 2003, is no longer in the IRL. 

Since the category three rankings was laps led within best finish, and fifth was the first ranking for drivers whose best finish was 2nd from 2003 through 2008, a 5th place ranking in that category was the best a Brazilian could hope for.

In eight years the Brazilians captured four poles, had the fastest lap four times, won the pit-stop challenge three times (and one year it was rained out), and won three Scott Brayton Drivers Trophies for character and racing spirit.

Although only Castroneves was named a Rookie of the Year it needs to be noted that each of the other three rookie Brazilian drivers that year (Junqueira, Dare and Giaffone) performed well enough to win.

The numbers don’t lie. Brazilians have become a dominant force at Indianapolis and more are on the way. Three Brazilians will be running in the Indy Lights developmental league Freedom 100 on Friday, two days before Sunday’s race. 

See the complete starting grid for the 2009 Indianapolis 500 at http://www.indy500.com/grid.

Phillip Wagner, a long-time contributor to Brazzil Magazine, has covered the 500 since 2001. He is the co-founder and director of Georgia based Rhythm of Hope in Brazil, www.rhythmofhope.org, which is actively seeking door support after recently gaining federal nonprofit status. Phillip maintains, and invites Brazzil readers to see, a chronicle of his work at http://rhythmofhope.spaces.live.com/ and, as of today, at http://braziliansattheindy500.spaces.live.com/, a new blog for “The Brazilians at Indy.”

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