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RR's Uneducated, Rambling Thoughts About Automobile Racing writes:
"Driver of the Decade: American Open Wheel Part I"
Posted by RR on November 19, 2009
Viewed 381 times


I thought that I would comlpete this sooner, but I didn't realize how much time this would take, not to mention I have been a bit busy lately. Anywho, this is part one of my Top 10 AOWR drivers of the decade.

American Open Wheel Racing was mostly defined in this decade by the events that occurred the previous decade. Regardless of which side one took with ?The Split? it is generally agreed upon that, while Indy Car racing had its flaws prior to 1996, the open wheel schism certainly didn?t help matters. During the decade, the racing on the track actually raised more questions regarding driver talent than it answered. What if, for example, Sebastien Bourdais ran against Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti Green? How would Zanardi do at the Brickyard? How would some of the early IRL do on road/street circuits? How would a major F1 (ala Nigel Mansell) do in American Open Wheel?

With all this being said, I shall try to rank the top ten drivers of the decade for American Open Wheel Racing, which will include both CART/Champ Car and the IRL. While stats and accomplishments will obviously play a big part in determining the list, I shall also take into account the different circumstances surrounding each driver. This should be evident for at least a couple of drivers.

10. Sam Hornish Jr.
It was rather difficult to determine where the Defiance, Ohio native fit on this list. He did have two great seasons at the beginning of the decade, winning the IRL Championships in both 2001 and 2002. Of course, those championships came without much of the major competitors that came aboard in later years. With that being said, those two championship seasons were outstanding, with eight wins and 19 podium finishes in 28 races. Though he only finished fifth in 2003, he had impressive performances against the big teams that had joined the IRL in 2003; Ganassi, Andretti Green, and Rahal Letterman.

After joining the Penske team in 2004, Hornish collected seven more victories ? including the thrilling Indy 500 win in 2006 ? and a third IRL title. However, it looked as though he struggled mightily on the road courses, with only one podium finish in twelve non-oval races.

9. Paul Tracy
The Thrill from West Hill has been a major factor in AOWR for the past two decades. While many of the ?name? drivers and team of CART/CCWS defected to Tony?s League, PT became the series? stalwart. Aside from his talent and skills inside the cockpit, Tracy also produced much of the off-track entertainment for the series, most notably his feuds with Sebastien Bourdais and Alex Tagliani.

Putting his bad-boy reputation aside, Tracy collected several accolades on the track during this decade, highlighted by his dominant 2003 season. In what would be the final season for CART, Tracy took home seven victories and had an average finish of seventh on the way to taking the series championship. From 2000-2007, Tracy captured 16 wins and 51 top five finishes. While he did have some struggles in the early part of the decade, Tracy became a threat to win during the Champ Car era.

Tracy also finished either 1st or 2nd in the 2002 Indianapolis 500, his first trip to the Brickyard in seven years. Whatever the outcome, the incident divided the already-fragmented open wheel community even further. Tracy certainly helped add fuel to the fire, and derided the IRL for the next several years.

That is, until Champ Car closed its doors. After the merger, the Canadian hero soon became an open wheel hero, as fans yearned to see PT in an IndyCar once again. They got their wish by the unlikeliest of means, as Tracy stepped into a Vision Racing ?crapwagon? in a one-off at Edmonton. While many were just happy to see Paul Tracy racing again, Tracy stunned the racing world by finishing third in his first start in the Dallara. For 2009, Tracy competed in select races for his buddy Jimmy Vasser and KV Racing. The most notable moment came in front of Tracy?s home fans in Toronto, where he led 12 laps before being involved in a crash with Helio Castroneves.

Despite his rivalries on the track, it seems as though Tracy is his own worst enemy. Throughout his career, Tracy has made his fair share of bone-headed moves, moves that have cost him greater success. Despite these mishaps, his talent has carried him through almost two decades of racing. Though he?s now reached the age of 40, PT has shown no signs of letting up. Here?s hoping we haven?t seen the last of Paul Tracy.

8. Helio Castroneves
While he has made front page headlines for his prowess on the dance floor and his differing interpretations of the U.S. Tax Code, race fans recognize Helio Castroneves as a charismatic driver who has helped Penske stay in the spotlight for the past ten seasons.

Out of a horrifying tragedy, Castroneves? career was brought out of the brink of darkness. After two mostly fruitless seasons driving for Carl Hogan, Castroneves had no real hope of a drive for 2000. After the untimely death of Greg Moore, Roger Penske quickly signed Castroneves to partner with Gil de Ferran for the 2000 season. In that year, Penske ditched his own chassis and his Ilmor engines in favor of Reynards and Hondas after five seasons wandering in the wilderness. This combo proved to be an immediate success for Team Penske and Castroneves. While de Ferran took the championships in 2000 and 2001, Castroneves also contributed to the Red and White Renaissance, scoring three victories in both ?00 and ?01, and eight podiums in his two seasons in CART. He earned a fourth place finish in the final point standings in 2001, by far his highest in four seasons.

His success continued after Penske left for the IRL after the 2001 season. In 2002, Castroneves picked up seven podium finishes, and ended up with an average finish of 4.2 while taking second in the championship. In his eight years in the IndyCar series, Castroneves has been one of, if not the most consistent drivers in the series. He has never finished lower than 6th in the final standings, while having an average finish of 7th in his career and taking home 16 wins.

Without question, his biggest successes have come at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing: the Indianapolis 500. As a ?rookie?, Castroneves led 52 of the 200 laps and won the 2001 edition of the 500, helping to erase the memories of Penske?s previous month of May at Indy. One year later, Castroneves did it again, becoming only the 5th driver to win back-to-back 500s. In 2009, he became only the 9th driver in Indy history to win three 500s.

Despite his accomplishments, Castroneves still has one thing missing from his resume: a series title. He has competed for a championship crown for most of his career in the IRL, collected a pair of seconds, thirds, and fourths. This is without a doubt the one accomplishment that he needs to go over the top.

7. Will Power
While he has only been a full time competitor in American Open Wheel racing for the past four years, the Aussie has solidified his status as a top-of-the-line driver, and one to watch for years to come. After a pair of starts in 2005, Power went full time for 2006 for Team Australia. He steadily improved throughout the year, taking a third place finish in his final race of the season at Mexico City while taking Rookie of the Year honors.

The idea of a ?sophomore slump? never came to existence, as Power won his first race in the first race of the 2007 season at the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix. He kept that form all season, taking another checkered flag and seven more top five finishes, earning a 4th place championship finish. Power also has the distinction of winning both the first and last races with the Panoz DP01 chassis.

After the merger, Power found a ride with KV Racing, teaming with veteran Oriol Servia. Despite having no experience on the ovals, and no experience with the Dallara/Honda package, Power became one of the top ?transition? drivers in the series. He was a factor in all of the road courses and street circuits, and had some good finishes on the ovals, where the Champ Car guys were at a severe disadvantage. In the final points paying race of the season, Power got his first top 5 finish on an oval, at Chicago.

When Aussie Vineyards left after 2008, Power soon found himself without a ride. His good performances did not go unnoticed, as he soon got a call from the Captain. Power found himself as the interim driver of the Penske #3, subbing for Helio during the Brazilian?s tax evasion trial. In Power?s only start in the 3 car, he finished sixth. After Helio was acquitted, Power got a ride in a third Penske car, finishing second with a makeshift team. Despite that success, Penske couldn?t find support for a third team, and Power was relegated to part time status. Even with the part-time deal, Power still had a great season, culminating in a dominant win at Edmonton. Injuries suffered in a practice incident at Sonoma sidelined him for the rest of the 2009 season, but he?ll get to driver in a third Penske car full time next year. Expect great things from him.

6. Tony Kanaan
After a disappointing 2009, one could be inclined to forget what Tony Kanaan has done over the years. Like several of the people that are on this list, TK spent his first years in major open wheel racing in CART, debuting in 1998. After winning his first race for Gerry Forsythe in 1999, Kanaan moved to Mo Nunn?s team, where he would race from 2000-2002. During his first season with Nunn, Kanaan missed four races due injuries suffered in a qualifying crash at Detroit. Despite this injury, and the struggles that come with a start up team, Kanaan and the team improved with time. From 2001-2002, Kanaan scored nine top five finishes, and improved his average finish each year. Also in 2002, Kanaan led 23 laps in that year?s Indy 500 before crashing out and finishing 28th.

For 2003, Kanaan moved to Andretti Green racing, where success came almost immediately. In his second race with the team, Kanaan won both the pole and the race at Phoenix. Kanaan would reach the podium six more times that year, and claim 4th place in the very tight points battle that year.

Kanaan?s 2004 season would go down as one of the more dominant seasons in open wheel history. In 16 races that year, Kanaan would only finish outside the top five once (a 8th at the season opener at Homestead). He would win three of those races: Phoenix (where he led 191 of 200 laps), Texas, and Nashville. He led a mind-boggling 889 laps, 384 more than 2nd place in that category. His average finish was 3.0. Anyway you look at it, 2004 was a season for the ages for Kanaan.

Though he hasn?t quite matched that season (though who could), Kanaan has been a player ever since. He finished 2rd overall in 2005, and 3rd in 2007 and 2008. From 2000-2009, Kanaan has won 13 races, and has finished in the top 5 eighty times. In addition to his stats, Kanaan has been the one consistent driver at AGR, despite all of the changes and drama that has taken place over the past few seasons. Even after his vicious crash at Indy and being barbecued at Edmonton (not to mention a struggling car all year), Kanaan managed to get a 6th place points finish. Though the stats fail to show it, 2009 was a prime example of Kanaan?s toughness and talent.

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