F1: American drivers wanted, sort of

The United States Grand Prix's move from September to June received a warm welcome Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. An estimated 40,000 spectators warded off hot and humid conditions to watch Ferrari's continued dominance of the 2004 season. It was the kind of practice crowd that the Speedway also draws for the Brickyard 400 in August and can only dream of having these days in May.

F1 fans got another boost Friday when IMS president Tony George and Formula 1 czar Bernie Ecclestone confirmed to the Indianapolis Star that they have reached an informal agreement for the USGP to continue at the Speedway's 2.606-mile road course for at least two more years. This is the fifth and final year of the original contract between the two parties, and while race day attendance has dropped by about a third since the inaugural event in 2000, Sunday's expected crowd of around 125,000 still rates as one of the biggest on the worldwide F1 circuit.

Ecclestone said he picked up the option because he has respect for George and the fact that he invested tens of millions of dollars in creating the Speedway's FIA-standard road course. "We're going to make it work," he told The Star. "I'm committed. (George) is happy with it, and we should continue with it. I left (the duration of the contract) to him. We have that sort of relationship."

Added George: "It's certainly our intention to keep this going."

Despite finding a stable home at Indianapolis, F1's American fan base hasn't grown since the world's most popular form of open-wheel racing returned to the U.S. after a decade absence. Voices from all sides of the sport past to present say that until there is an American team or driver in F1, that's unlikely to change. The last American to win the World Championship was Mario Andretti in 1978, and there hasn't been an American driver in F1 since Michael Andretti ran most of the 1993 season without making a positive impact.

On Friday, a local radio commentator was raving about the performance of the BAR team's third driver Anthony Davidson, who was second fastest to Rubens Barrichello on the day. He couldn't understand why F1 rules prevented Davidson from making the race as an Indy 500-style last-minute entry.

Mario Andretti made his F1 debut in 1968 in such a fashion. Assigned to a third Lotus alongside regular drivers Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver for the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Andretti qualified the car on the pole. While concentrating on USAC Champ Cars, Andretti continued a part-time F1 career through the mid-70s, winning his first Grand Prix at Kyalami, South Africa in 1971 behind the wheel of the Ferrari team's third entry.

"I would be a strong proponent of encouraging the FIA to allow teams to field a guest driver like they used to in different countries," Andretti says. "Can you imagine the USGP if they let any of the recognized names on the American continent represent the American side? I bet they would put another 50,000 people in the stands.

"They are one step closer by allowing test drivers (like Davidson) to run on Friday, but why not allow teams that choose to do it to run a local driver? The F1 world is like the Olympics and a lot of national pride comes along with it. This would be an excellent way to open the door and it's probably time to talk about it. My experience was absolutely positive."

There are several American drivers dreaming of F1. Townsend Bell looked to Europe when his Champ Car career came to an end before it really started midway through 2002. He competed in the FIA Formula 3000 championship in 2003 and tested for the Jaguar F1 team, but the third Jag seat went to F3000 champion Bjorn Wirdheim.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, a two-time winner in Champ Cars, has expressed a desire to compete in F1 and his father/manager Nick is in Indianapolis this weekend scouting out possibilities.

In the lower Formulae, Scott Speed is winning Formula Renault Eurocup races as part of a program sponsored by Red Bull energy drink that intends to groom an American F1 driver. Then there is Richard Antinucci, who has won races in Japanese Formula 3, and he has the advantage of having Eddie Cheever as his uncle. Cheever raced in F1 from 1980-89, making the podium on more than a dozen occasions.

And don't forget Marco Andretti, Michael's 17-year old son who is currently leading the Formula Dodge National series standings.

"Of all the American drivers (Antinucci's) probably the one who's going to get a crack at F1 before the others because he's building his credentials the right way," Cheever notes. "Having said that, he had to go to Japan to race for Toyota. Series like that should be available in America. There is a lot of road racing interest. But you have to plot out the growth of race car drivers where they can stay here and do it instead of having to go to England or other places."

Mario Andretti questions why a driver successful in American open-wheel racing these days would want to start over again in F1. "Let's be realistic, the only way you're going to be noticed in F1 is if you are a champion in another discipline," he says. "I assume in the United States that it would have to be Champ Car, because that's where you hone your skills in road racing and you need multiple skills to be a good F1 driver. But as a champion used to winning, unless you're going to have a ride in one of the top three teams, nothing else will provide you with a winning situation and most people don't want to do it.

"Look at poor Cristiano da Matta," he adds. "He had this one opportunity with Toyota and basically it's killing his career. You don't have the opportunity to really shine and that makes it really difficult. That's what makes it so tough to get a really good American driver over there. The U.S., like no other country, has other disciplines at a high level to offer where you can make a career without leaving. It's very difficult to make that decision and maybe it's not even your decision to make. You're either going to be called or not."

Even if a champion from American racing does get the call from one of the top F1 teams, there is still no guarantee of success. For every Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya, there is an Alex Zanardi or Michael Andretti.

"You saw what happened to Michael," Mario says. "A year before, McLaren would have been a dream team to go to. The transition for the team was the worst possible time and the press made mincemeat out of him because he became the scapegoat for all of their problems. It's a tough situation for drivers. If you are accustomed to winning here, unless you feel you have the same opportunity there, you're not going to go. Your career could be in jeopardy so where do you go from there?"

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.