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A Look Back at Some Unlikely Favorites

by Frank Santoroski    @seveng1967

Indy-500-flagAs a racing enthusiast, I am sometimes asked, “Who is your favorite driver?”

It seems like a simple enough question, but after watching for almost 40 years, and watching many different series, its not exactly an easy question to answer.

As a member of the Media, I hesitate to use the word favorite, particularity when discussing active drivers. But, yes, throughout the past I have had drivers that I paid more attention to than others.

In a stick-and-ball sport you can pick a favorite team and stick with them as the cast of characters changes over the years. Ask any sports fan who their favorite team is, and you will likely get an answer very quickly.  A football fan might find that the most beloved quarterback becomes the most-hated if he were to join the rival team.

You see something similar to this in Formula One with the Ferrari team. In American racing, however, race fans tend to attach their loyalty to the driver, rather than the team. That loyalty sticks as the driver may change teams. Look no farther than Dale Earnhardt Jr. for evidence of this.

Of course, the beauty of following auto racing is that it is perfectly acceptable to have more than one favorite.

Mario294So, the easy answer is, yes, I really do have a favorite driver that tops my list, and he has been retired for quite some time now.

The more complex answer is that I have followed many different drivers in different series’ over the years. Some of them were very successful, like Michael Andretti, Rusty Wallace, Emerson Fittipaldi, Dario Franchitti, Jimmy Vasser, Alan Kulwicki, Mark Martin, Alain Prost, Ricky Rudd, and Michael Schumacher to name a few.

Of course, for every Dale Earnhardt, there are a hundred Brett Bodines. Not everyone can be a winner, and over the years I have had a few of those so-called ‘favorite’ drivers that didn’t quite make the splash that I would have hoped.

SpencergeJust recently, I was telling a friend that I actually have a decent sized collection of Jimmy Spencer memorabilia. Well, he kind of laughed at me saying, “Why would you even tell anybody that?”

Well, why wouldn’t I?

Jimmy Spencer was loud, brash, and unapologetic. At the same time, he was exciting to watch on and off the track. Whether he was banging fenders for position, or getting into a fist fight in the garage, you cannot deny he was one of the most colorful characters in NASCAR, or in all of racing for that matter.

A product of a Pennsylvania racing family, Spencer spent his early years driving late models and modified cars on a regional and national level. He took back-to-back championships in the NASCAR Winston Modified Tour in 1986 and 1987.

maxresdefaultMoving up to the Cup series, Spencer was a regular in the series throughout the 1990s and into the early part of the 2000s. 478 starts in the Cup series yielded but two wins for Spencer, and those wins were just three weeks apart in 1994.

He also has twelve wins in the Busch / Nationwide Series and one in the Truck Series, making him one of the few drivers to win in all three of the NASCAR top Series.

His best finish in the Cup championship was 12th in 1993.  Still ‘Mr. Excitement’ ranks as one of my favorite drivers.

These days, Jimmy has a career in television where he remains as brash and outspoken as ever.

MorenoAnother driver I remember fondly is Roberto Moreno. Now, Moreno was the polar opposite of Jimmy Spencer. He was a technical and precise driver, and one of the best when it came to development of the car.

Out of the cockpit, he was one of the nicest, kindest, and most humble people you could ever hope to meet. The Brazilian had a long career that flip-flopped between Formula One and the CART Series.

For much of his career, he was a journeyman driver, and earned the nickname, “Super-sub,” as he often filled in for injured drivers in both Formula One and CART. He had a unique ability to get an unfamiliar car up to speed, particularity when it came to IndyCars, and often finished in the top-five.

The constant substituting eventually led to a full-time CART ride with the Pat Patrick Team in 2000. He was able to capitalize on this, having the finest season of his career at the age of 41. He took a tremendously popular win at Cleveland, and finished third in the season championship.

morenowinsMoreno would finish his career with 42 F-1 starts, no wins and a best result of 2nd place in Japan substituting for the injured Alessandro Nannini in 1990.

His 120 starts in CART/Champcar gave him two wins and eleven podium finishes in the record books. Between F-1 and CART he drove for 24 different teams, and was also the primary development driver for the Panoz DP-01 chassis for the ChampCar Series.

Along the way, he earned the adoration of many fans, and the respect of nearly everyone in the paddock.

Another driver on my list is John Andretti.  As a fan of Mario and Michael, you can imagine that I followed John Andretti as well.

1404582115000-AP-C08G1ABUST07-21P6-X-31-LINESAs a person, I really like John Andretti. He is warm, genuine and easy going.  John Andretti is the son of Aldo Andretti, Mario’s twin brother. Born in Pennsylvania, John was actually raised in the Mid-West, not far from Indianapolis.

Whereas cousin Michael’s road to Indy consisted of SCCA single-seater formula racing, John’s early racing career took a different path. A product of USAC sprint and midget racing, John Andretti gained early experience that would prove quite valuable in a later NASCAR career.

His first major ride was in the IMSA Sports Car Series, and he took a victory at the 1989 24 Hours of Daytona. His career also included a stint in CART that produced a 1991 win in Australia. A few seasons later, he turned his attention to racing stock cars full-time. He was a regular in the Cup Series for many years taking two wins along the way.

petty_indy_1_580And certainly, John Andretti keeps great company. Consider the fact that his uncle is Mario Andretti, his Godfather is A.J. Foyt, and he maintains a friendship with Richard Petty haven driven for The King in both NASCAR and at the Indianapolis 500.

His wins were few and far between, but he did win in three major series driving very different race cars making him one of the most versatile drivers in his era. He even tried his hand at racing a top-fuel dragster in the NHRA for a short time in 1993.

His true footnote in the history books will come from being the creator of Double-Duty Sunday.  In 1994, he became the first to compete at Indianapolis and Charlotte on the same day, paving the way for the others like Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon and Kurt Busch.

These days, John can be found on the USAC sprint and midget circuit once again, cheering on his son Jarrett.

2009_0801KYSpeedway20090093The fourth and final driver I would like to highlight in this article is Vitor Meira. The Brazilian IndyCar driver is actually my wife’s favorite driver.

Laura and I were still just dating in 2004 when I brought her along as I was covering the IRL at Nashville Superspeedway.

The sport was new to her at the time, and she had no idea who any of the drivers were. She met a number of drivers that day, but there was something about Meira that she gravitated toward, and he became her favorite.

On Sunday, when Vitor Meira grabbed the early lead and led the first 113 laps of that race, it cemented my interest in this young driver as well. In subsequent years, we always sought out Vitor at the race track, so Laura could wish him well.

Meira cut his teeth in European Formula racing before joining the IndyCar series in 2002 with a partial season ride with the Menard team. He took the pole position at Texas in only his fourth IndyCar start, paving the way for more seat time in 2003.

IMG_0183Over the course of the next several seasons he drove for the Rahal/Letterman Team and Panther Racing before ending up at A.J. Foyt Racing.

A few seasons earlier, these would have all been top-flight rides, but Meira entered the Series at a time that there was a paradigm shift in the Open Wheel split. The Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti teams had all defected from the CART Series changing the dynamic of the series.

Meira would amass fifteen podium finishes over his career, including two second-place finishes at the Indianapolis 500, but he never found victory lane.

His highest finish in the Championship was a fifth-place in 2006. His career stats make him, arguably, the best IndyCar driver to have never won a race.

Without a ride in the series for 2012, Meira returned to his native Brazil to run Stock cars. But, I often wonder, had he broken through with a win or two early on, might he have been signed with a top team?

The world will never know.

2 comments

  1. John, totally enjoy the trip down memory lane with reviewing of the drivers. Having lived in the Midwest most of my the A.J. Foyt rang home with me. I even had a brief hope for a young Salt Walther from Dayton until his horrific crash on the start of the Indy 500. That’s for a interesting article!

  2. Timothy Ford Malone

    This article summed it up. We are not, generally, team centric fans and we tend to stay with a driver, through thick or thin, until he (she) leaves the sport. Also, while we will have a ‘number one’ top favorite, we may/do have other favorites that are only slightly less favored than ‘number one’. The reasons for choosing a favorite are as varied as the type of beer we drink.

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