Indy car racing’s last Mexican hero Adrian Fernandez has warned that IndyCar needs to have one of his compatriots fulltime in the series for a race in Mexico City to flourish.
Fernandez won the Mexican Formula 3 championship in 1991, before moving to the U.S. to race in Indy Lights, where he finished third in the championship. He would go on to win 11 races in Indy cars, finish second in the CART championship in 2000, and his legion of fans made the races at Monterrey (in Nuevo Leon) and Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, a major draw.
Now IndyCar is still negotiating with Mexico City track’s controllers, the Corporación Interamericana de Entretenimiento (CIE), over a return on Aug. 3-5 next year. But Fernandez has warned that for IndyCar to regain its appeal there, it needs to have a Mexican driver in the series full-time, and not just parachute a local driver into the series for a one-off appearance.
He told Motorsport.com: “A part-time driver who has a seat maybe only for that race would not be good for the series and not good for the driver to show his best.
“The reason why Indy car racing used to have such success in Mexico was because the fans started following me back when I was in Indy Lights. Then I went into Indy cars in ’93 and as a rookie my teammates at Galles [Racing] were Al Unser Jr. and Danny Sullivan, very successful drivers – champions and Indy 500 winners.
“And so the euphoria around Indy car racing in Mexico became very big. So by the time we arrived in Monterrey first, in 2001, it was a big success; national TV and journalists were following me and so the fans followed me.
“Then when we went to Mexico City the next year, that was an even bigger success. We had huge crowds and although they supported me, they knew not just me but were also familiar with the other drivers in the series because they had followed the series on TV.
“So for now the only negative part [of IndyCar returning to Mexico] is that the locals don’t really know all the current drivers like they did back then because they haven’t seen Mexicans in IndyCar a lot, so they haven’t been following the series.”
While Sebastien Bourdais recuperated from his shunt in practice for the Indy 500 this year, Esteban Gutierrez was drafted into the Dale Coyne Racing-Honda squad for seven races. The former Formula 1 racer and Ferrari test driver is the only available Mexican driver who is ready to race IndyCar, according to Fernandez.
He said: “I’m not working with Esteban, not his manager any more. But he’s a good friend of mine and I know he wants to race IndyCar and if the Mexico race happens it would be perfect for him to be there.
“I don’t really know of another driver ready to come into IndyCar. Pato O’Ward was very impressive in Pro Mazda and those few races he did in Indy Lights, too. But he didn’t complete the season and I don’t know what his plans are, although it would be great for him to get in eventually.
“So Esteban is the obvious choice for now… unless I can be reborn!
“But seriously, we come back to that fact where we need Esteban there fulltime. The media, the fans, they have only seen Esteban in IndyCar for a bit. So having a driver in for just one race will not make the event a success.
“I would like IndyCar to be back in Mexico but in the right way. If they are hoping for a miracle straight away, they will be disappointed, I can tell you that right now. Maybe the race doesn’t come back next season but in two years, when people are getting enthusiastic about the series again and Esteban is in it and has more experience.
“He’s very likeable, he has a lot of success, and he’s pretty well known. But even when I was racing, if I hadn’t had the following of TV and media, nothing would have happened, the events would not have been popular. So you need that following, and to get that, you need a Mexican driver racing the whole season.”
Unless a sponsor can persuade the apparently set teams to expand and run an extra car, Gutierrez’s best options appear to be a return to Coyne, Ed Carpenter Racing’s road/streetcourse driver sharing the #20 car with the team owner, or possible openings with the (as-yet unconfirmed) entries from Harding Racing or Carlin Racing.