US Racing, the graveyard for F1 drivers?


Not my cup of cake
Valued Member
Just picking up a point Hammydigrassi made in the Romain Grosjean thread, is US racing the graveyard for F1 drivers? The only men I can think who has successfully moved back and forth between US Cart/Indy racing and F1 are Mario Andretti and Jacques Villeneuve. All F1 drivers who have taken a "sabtical" in the US or tried to move to F1 from Cart/Indy never make it back or have been pretty hopeless.

Are the technical requirements for drivers in American open wheel racing less onerous than F1 or is it simply that no top US driver has ever really tried to get into F1 as the US series are so strong (and lucrative)? There have been many famous names in US racing, Al Unser jnr, Paul Tracy, Bobby Rahal, to name but a few, could these drivers have made it in F1 if they had tried?
With so many domestic series in the US that pay exceedingly well, have security, and have feeder series to enable drivers to progress up the ladder,I don't think too many drivers are all that eager to go into what clearly seems to be overtly hostile territory. It seems that Italian, British and French drivers are given years to show if they have the makings of a WDC, but Americans HAVE to produce IMMEDIATELY or be thrown under the bus. That, at least, is largely the perception.
Montoya? It can be argued that he never quite maximised his opportunities in F1 (and should probably never have left Williams).

CART used to be a fantastic series, before it split into IndyCar and ChampCar, and was a good place for those who couldn't graduate into F1 after success in F3000 to go (Junquiera, Bourdais, Wilson, Pagenaud, to name but a few) - you could always look at it as a "Big Boys'" spec series. With the likes of Panis, Trulli, Fisichella, Half Schumacher, Villeneuve, Frentzen, DC, Heidfeld, Barrichello etc. cluttering up the F1 grid for season after season during the noughties (added to the inability of anyone to depose Ferrari & Schumacher for the early part of the decade), there were only ever back-of-the-grid drives available at Minardi or Jordan/Midland/Spyker (& Jaguar, to a lesser extent). You only have to look at those who had a sniff at these teams and disappeared off the F1 radar (Kiesa, Wilson, Doornbos, Wirdheim - even Ant Davidson!).

I suppose there is a school of thought that could regard US racing as the "graveyard of F1 ambition", but really it is a viable alternative for those good enough to ply their trade as racing drivers to follow their calling, even though the F1 paddock is closed to them. If you look at those who have done stints in the US and made it back (Bourdais, Glock), you could argue that circumstance has not been in their favour - what with Toyota pulling away Timo's rug, and Bourdais arriving to the in-season testing ban.

Really, since IndyCar swallowed up Champcar, the modern "F1 pilots' resthome" has become DTM. Those who wish to carry on being successful however have moved to Sportscars and endurance racing...
In short to the OP - yes

Now I'm going to veer off topic as one could argue that they are 2 very different career paths these days.In the past it wasn't unusual for the F1 drivers to nip over and do the Indy 500 in the F1 season

On the flip side, a few drivers who I think could have excelled in F1 as they have in the American series are Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon and on the other hand you could also add in Juan Pablo Montoya who made the switch the other way and wasn't too bad.

In short to the OP - yes
The US scene has always operated pretty independently of Europe (or indeed, the rest of the world). Indy-style racing, incorporating the various dirt oval sprint car and midget categories, stretches way back and fostered a pretty self-contained, self-sustaining industry. In the 1950s and 60s there was quite a bit of cross-fertilisation, particularly in the sports car fraternity, with US manufacturers trying to succeed internationally and vice versa, and that continues to this day really. The top US drivers of the time - Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Andretti were every bit a match for their rivals.

I remember reading an interview with Rick Mears a year or so ago, talking about his F1 test with Brabham in the early 80's. The team were suitably impressed with him, and he with them, but no deal came together - Mears was well remunerated in a top CART team and didn't have a burning passion to move into F1, with a lot of upheaval and no guarantees of success.

In recent years the top US drivers are simply refugees from the European scene, with very few exceptions. For a young driver with little or no prospect of getting to F1, Indycar is the next-best thing; though there are many pay drivers, if you do well you can earn a tidy salary with one of the top teams, and the 500 largely retains its lustre. Cristiano da Matta, Scott Speed and Sebastien Bourdais had all gone from Europe to the US before making their moves back again.

Partly it's about fashion - certain series go in and out of favour. Formula Nippon used to be all the rage, then when Formula 3000 was on its last legs people again started to look to CART. Now GP2 is looking strongest of all and the US is taking a back seat with the talent spotters. But undoubtedly the IRL/CART split and ongoing shockwaves have badly damaged US single-seater racing, and the driving strength in depth in much diminished from what it once was. The very, very top guys - Franchitti, Power, maybe Dixon, maybe Graham Rahal - by my assessment could do a decent job in F1, but there's very little coming through below that.

Very interested to hear the views of Americans on this question, though.
In a way I don't think we should be surprised that it is like this. Young talent in Europe is usually snapped up by Red Bull or one of the other driver development programmes, and they place them in one of the major European junior series - racing on the same circuits as F1, in cars that are designed to be approximations of F1 cars (the new GP2 even has a DRS). Why would the bosses of those junior programmes send their youngsters to the US, where they won't race on any of the F1 circuits, half of them are ovals, and the machinery is somewhat different (some would say elderly)?

Going the other way, young North American drivers seem to have a devil's job of getting into IndyCar in the first place. So many drives are taken by funded Europeans that the best domestic talent is fighting over a handful of seats, often in the weakest teams. Last year's Indy Lights champion, Jean-Karl Vernay (another European import, yes) was handed a very big prize fund (I think $1m?) to put towards an IndyCar drive...but has found that still isn't enough cash! By the time the Allmendingers, Hildebrands and even Rahals of this world get to Indy they're exhausted and bankrupt - and still in no position to win races; hence well off of F1's radar.

And that's where the tentacles of NASCAR come in...:D
I've frequently pondered this topic since becoming an unabashed F1 convert in the not too distant past. As for the main questions posed in the original post,

is US racing the graveyard for F1 drivers?
I would have to say any driver looking to enter, or re-enter Formula One after having raced in the States for any meaningful amount of time will be fighting an uphill battle. If F1 was their true aspiration, and they find themselves in a top US series, then they've obviously been de-railed from their career path.

Are the technical requirements for drivers in American open wheel racing less onerous than F1
I believe they are, but I'm not sure that is what stops drivers from making the jump across the pond.

is it simply that no top US driver has ever really tried to get into F1 as the US series are so strong (and lucrative)?
A young driver growing up in the US will have a mountain of obstacles to overcome if they dream of racing in Formula One. They're at an enormous geographic disadvantage as most F1 feeder series are based in Europe. They're fighting against recent history. Michael Andretti's short stint and Scott Speed's year and a half have left people with a very sour taste of American drivers. And if they do follow their open-wheel aspirations across the pond, they're eschewing an enormous opportunity to make an extremely good living in the cozy confines of their homeland. The best US drivers invariably end up foregoing open wheelers if they stay at home, as I'm sure most of you have noticed that the Indy Racing League is dominated by foreigners. There's just too many sponsorship opportunities in NASCAR for them to turn down.
By the time the Allmendingers, Hildebrands and even Rahals of this world get to Indy they're exhausted and bankrupt - and still in no position to win races; hence well off of F1's radar.

And that's where the tentacles of NASCAR come in...:D

You couldn't be more right G. I was still trying to make a coherent post on this subject while you were writing these words, so I hadn't seen your overall conclusion that NASCAR is at the root of the American open wheel racing problem.

And this isn't a new phenomenon either. It's been said that a driving force behind Tony George's decision to create the IRL was because up and coming star Jeff Gordon couldn't even find a seat in the CART series. Jeff was basically forced into NASCAR without any other good options.
Some very good points Galahad :thumbsup:

Perhaps this is a legacy of Sir Jackie's safety crusade? Now it's possible for a good-enough driver to prolong a career for a decade or two, there's less of a turnover of prime seats available for the up-and-comers.

Big money sponsorship of teams on both sides of the Atlantic mean that the more successful outfits are far less likely to take punts on unproven talents, and those that do have normally evaluated their potential replacements through many years of the junior formulae. The underfunded teams are those that have to take a deep-pocketed rookie, which becomes a law of diminishing returns for the driver - an underfunded team in any series is unlikely to be challenging near the front these days, which means that the rookie is on the back foot immediately in terms of trying to make an impression and therefore vault up the grid to the better teams.

It has ever been thus though - how many mid-to-back-of-the-grid drivers have come and gone over the 6 decades of F1, with only a handful of truly competitive race-seats each season? Surely this is the essence of a meritocracy - if you're considered good enough as a driver to be able to hold down one of the "prime" seats on the grid (and can back it up with consistent results), then fair play to the (M.) Schumachers, Alonsos, Hamiltons, Vettels & Buttons of this world. As for all the hopefuls and nearly-men - tough titty guys, thems the breaks...
Thinking back to drivers who finished their careers in the States, one can't help but recall Nelson Piquet's close call at Indianapolis in 1992. After lapping at 228 MPH in practice, Piquet plowed into the concrete wall nearly head on, severely damaging both legs. Nelson was lucky to survive.


Here's the video.

I should point out that I "liked" that not because I enjoy watching Nelson Piquet crash but simply because I hadn't seen it before. Even though my "initial" buddy enjoyed watching Nelson Piquet crash...
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