The last great championship battle among American Indy car drivers took place over a two-year span. It was Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr, Bobby Rahal, and Rick Mears locked in a four-way fight for CART IndyCar supremacy as the quartet finished 1-2-3-4 in the standings from 1990-1991.
In 1990, it was Little Al’s title to secure, the first of two the New Mexico native would earn. Pennsylvania’s Andretti took the crown in 1991, which stands as his highest achievement in the sport. And for good measure, Rahal’s championship in 1992 – the Ohioan’s third – came despite losing Mears from the mix due to injury, and required staving off the advances of Andretti and Unser.
A number of IndyCar champions from the U.S.A. have been produced since this rich and all-too brief era came to an end. In CART, the Indy Racing League, and the modern IndyCar Series, Americans have waved the flag and celebrated their achievements with great patriotism, but we’ve waited almost 30 years for at least two Americans to follow in the footsteps of their countrymen.
Although the 2019 championship is far from over, and there’s no guarantee it will remain a red, white, and blue duel, the rare situation of having Tennessee’s Josef Newgarden and California’s Alexander Rossi holding first and second in the championship and, even better, trading first- and second-place finishes at half of the races run so far, is starting to feel like the past is visiting the present.
“I think it’s great for a sport whenever you have any rivalry, and when it’s two Americans like Alex and Josef, it’s pretty special,” Andretti tells RACER.
Having spent most of his career pitted against Unser Jr in CART where foreign drivers often comprised the majority of the grid, Andretti sees many parallels in what’s taking shape between his driver and Team Penske’s Newgarden.
“I think the one thing that me and Al had was a great rivalry because we really respected each other and we were still friends, but on the racetrack, we raced each other as hard as you can but took care of each other as well,” he says. “Even if we both went into the corner side-by-side, we’re still both going to come out the other side. We had a mutual respect for each other. Some of my best memories of racing were against Al.
“So, it’d be great if that same sort of story would come up with Alex and Newgarden because, number one, they’re both Americans. So, to have an American rivalry I think would be great, and you can see something’s brewing. They’re both great young talents that I think are going to be around for a long time in the future of our sport and for a long time. So, it’d be great if they could develop some sort of rivalry where… Not a hostile one, more a respected rivalry where they raced each other really hard on the racetrack.”
Like his team owner, Rossi has carried the hopes of Americans in Formula 1. At home in IndyCar, and just seven points shy of Newgarden in the championship with seven races left on the calendar, the 27-year-old phenom has a genuine desire to rekindle the patriotic rivalries of a Andretti vs Unser or Rahal vs Mears that added to CART’s vast popularity.
“I think it’s great for the series,” he says. “I think it’s super-timely, with obviously having our new partnership with NBC. I think it’s wonderful, and I’m really happy to kind of be one of those guys that’s the American representation fighting for it.”
Rossi also knows five-time and reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon from New Zealand has a knack for spoiling such things as a perennial title contender.
“And yeah, I mean, we all love Scott [Dixon]. We all know that he’s the best that’s ever done it and probably the best that’s ever going to do it. But, he’s not American. Right?” he continues.
“So, as much as we love that and I love watching him drive, and we all kind of wait to see what he’s going to accomplish, I think that Americans are very patriotic people and passionate about the red, white, and blue. And I think it’s cool that there’s, there’s American guys that are fighting for it. And obviously Josef already won a championship, but I think that year he was competing against Scott as well. And then when [Florida’s] Ryan [Hunter-Reay] won in 2012, he was competing against [Australia’s] Will [Power]. So there hasn’t really been an American versus American battle in a while, and it’s pretty awesome.”
In an interesting twist, Newgarden doesn’t share Rossi’s enthusiasm for the emerging American vs American angle.
“I’ve never been one to look too aggressively into what nations are being represented and who are the big rivalries,” says Penske’s 2017 title winner. “I think it is great for sports and I would agree. To me, I don’t pay too much attention to it. I really don’t. For me, it doesn’t really matter. I look at everyone out there that I’m going to be in competition with, and if you’re asking that question, then without a doubt, Alex is a huge part of the equation. When you look at the landscape of who’s competitive and who’s on the radar, he is right up there towards the top, and you’ve got a couple of guys there.”
With three wins in 2019 to the two earned by Rossi, Newgarden currently holds the upper hand in points and victories, but that could change when the IndyCar Series arrives in Canada next week. Stylistically, the 28-year-old southerner and his west coast rival have mimicked the manner Andretti and Unser treated each other on an off the track.
But with a shot at his second championship on the line, and Rossi being just as close to taking his first, the true heights of civility have yet to be tested. As the pressure builds, provided the two Americans maintain their grasp on first and second in the standings, good manners could give way to harsher tactics. Andretti hopes it never strays beyond fair play.
“Me and Al had that,” he says. “I mean, we freaking raced each other hard. Me, I had fun racing against him. I think the press and the public enjoyed that side of it. I don’t think you need them to hate each other. You don’t have to hate each other to have a rivalry.”
For his part, Newgarden believes he knows how far Rossi can be pushed before tapping out.
“Honestly, I think Rossi’s quite a consistent racer,” he says. “You know what you’re going to get from him. You know you’re going to get very, very hard driving and he’s gonna push you. But he only goes to a certain degree, and you can account for that I think, and you have to. You got to know where everyone’s limits are and what their traits are, as far as how they drive and how they race in close quarters, and I think with Rossi, you see a very aggressive driving style, but there’s always a point where that stops. He drives aggressively to a point, and you consistently know where that is and you can benchmark that.
“It gives you some parameters to operate in with him, and probably vice versa. He does the same thing with me. He’s going to look at how I drive and he knows my tendencies and he’s going to shape his way of attack around me, with, historically, what he knows that I do. I think I’m pretty consistent for the most part as well. But it’s no different than another competitor. You measure all these guys and build a profile for them and then you race them accordingly. He’s very aggressive, but I think he is fair.”
There’s no doubt which driver Andretti is rooting for as the season heads towards its September 22 conclusion in Monterey. Beyond the battle among homegrown talent, he knows a Rossi or Newgarden championship, akin to those he and other Americans earned decades ago in CART, would be enriched by keeping great international drivers at bay.
“We bring in some of the best talent all over the world, and you want that,” he says. “You don’t want to just be seen as a domestic series with only Americans. You want to be racing the best, and I think that’s important that we don’t lose that. I love it that we have our best Americans going up against the best of the world, and so I think that’s something that’s very important.
“When Juan Montoya was winning all the [CART] races, it was great to see all the Colombian flags and to see the following that he had. That’s only good for the sport. I’d love to see more French flags around, for instance, now with Simon Pagenaud as the Indy 500 winner. More American flags for our guys, too, would be good to see. We have a lot going on to be proud of.”