F1

Does America really need an American F1 driver? You may not like the answer

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Only two drivers would have a genuine shot at success, and they aren't who you think

This much has been established: NASCAR team owner Gene Haas, who is building a Formula One team, has said he wants a young American driver, partnered with a veteran who knows the cars and the tracks. Haas’ F1 team is supposed to debut in the 2015 season. As in: Less than a year from now.

So we’re getting very close to the time when Haas has to make some decisions. If all goes as planned, this is not a topic that may come to fruition in years, it’s a topic that must be addressed now.

The “veteran driver” role will be easy to cast. At least a dozen names come to mind.

As for the American driver? Harder.

There are three boxes that should be checked for an ideal candidate.

Box 1: He or she must be an American.

Box 2: He or she must be well known to American race fans.

Box 3: He or she must be respected by American race fans and fellow drivers.

Scott Speed, the last American who raced in F1 – and the first since Michael Andretti in 1993 -- checked off Box 1, and only Box 1. That’s because the path to a Formula One seat doesn’t really begin in America. Speed spent one year in U.S. series in 2002, competing in Formula Dodge and Star Mazda, and did not win the championship in either, before shipping out to Europe.

Which was exactly the right thing to do if Speed wanted to race in F1, and obviously he did. He worked really hard in series like Formula Renault and the A1 Grand Prix – series that were all but anonymous in America -- got noticed, and made his debut drive for Toro Rosso in F1 in 2006.

But since Scott Speed didn’t race much during in formative years in the U.S., few here cared, aside from the small but rabid core of loyalists. This is in no way a criticism of Scott Speed, because if you are a young, up-and-coming driver who wants to race in F1 – assuming you aren’t backed by millions of dollars in ride-buying family sponsorship – you must compete in Europe.

That’s why Americans like Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Michael Lewis have spent much of the last few years overseas. But while they were there making a name for themselves there, that means they weren’t here, building a strong fan base in front of the hometown crowd.

Let’s face it: The most successful American driver to have gone to F1 in recent years was when Alex Zanardi returned to the series with Williams in 1999, after winning two CART championships. Sure, he wasn’t American, but he ticked the other two Boxes: He was known to American race fans, and he was liked and respected by American race fans. Zanardi’s personality, and endearing stunts like his victory doughnuts and his unforgettable pass of Bryan Herta for the 1996 win at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, still resonate today. He isn’t American, but when he returned to F1 in 1999, a lot more American fans paid attention to him than they ever did to Scott Speed.

Which brings us to the crucial question: Who would tick all three of those Boxes today? Haas told Motorsport.com that for his team to turn a profit within his five-year plan, he’ll need sponsors aside from his own Haas Automation company, so maybe we should add a fourth Box to those American/known/liked-and-respected requirements: He or she should be able to help attract some U.S. sponsorship.

An obvious possibility: Danica Patrick. American, known and liked, maybe a little low on the “respected by fellow drivers” criteria, and certainly beloved by sponsors. But while she is talented, she isn’t Formula One talented. And – sorry, Danica – at 32, she’s too old. And she is probably also too rich and comfortable to even want to start over in a new series.

That probably also applies to some of our better American NASCAR drivers like Tony Stewart, the Busch brothers, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. And arguably the “sell by” date has passed for IndyCar’s Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, both hot F1 prospects at one time, both rich and comfortable now.

So who, then? Let me present two names.

One: Kyle Larson.

Two: Josef Newgarden.

Kyle Larson, Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Larson would be my pick. He’s 21. Part Japanese, which adds to his global marketability. But, born in Sacramento, California, he’s all-American; he’s well known to American fans; he’s well respected by those fans and his peers, and he’s profoundly sponsorable. He’s also stunningly talented, has open wheel (if not formula car) experience, adapts quickly and has the right temperament. I’ve seen him up close at the Chili Bowl, and I’ve seen him at Daytona. I can’t think of any American driver who would actually have a chance of succeeding that would bring more American fans with him to F1.

Of course, there are problems. He’s under contract to drive in NASCAR for Chip Ganassi. And he is well on his way to gaining that rich-and-comfortable status that could soon make him lose any desire to leave that million-dollar motorhome in the infield. And does he even want to try F1?

Still, if someone was selling stock in a potential F1 star from America, I’d buy shares in Kyle Larson.

First alternate would be Josef Nicolai Newgarden, 23-year-old IndyCar driver. From his name, Josef Nicolai, you’d think he might be from Munich and not Hendersonville, Tennessee, near Nashville, where he became pals with another race car driver, Shelby Blackstock, who happens to be country music legend Reba McEntire’s son. You do not get more American than Reba McEntire. But Josef Nicolai, would it kill you to just be “Joe Newgarden?”

Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda
Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda

Photo by: John Cote

Anyway, Newgarden has done well in both U.S. and European feeder series, and he has gotten every horsepower and tenth of a second out of the Honda-Dallara he drives for the perpetually underfunded Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team. While he’s only been on the podium once since 2012, he had seven top 10s last year, and he seems to get better with every race. He’s American, known to American fans to some extent, respected and should be sponsorable.

Disagree? Tell me I’m wrong. That’s what the Motorsport.com comment section is for.

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About this article
Series F1
Tags andretti, busch, danica patrick, dodge, f1, formula 1, gene haas, haas, jeff gordon, jimmie johnson, rahal, renault, scott speed, tony stewart, toro rosso, zarnardi

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