American Exceptionalism

In this piece from RJ O’Connell, he comments about the conflicting nature of being an American Motorsports fan as Haas F1 team made audacious comments regarding the state of its driving talent.

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Read time: 5 mins

In some respects, Haas F1 Team sporting director Günther Steiner, the man who leads the day-to-day on-track activities at the team that’s affectionately referred to as “America’s F1 Team”, might have a point.

No, not by saying that there isn’t an American driver that’s “ready” for Formula 1, because that’s simply an untruth.

What Steiner says that precedes this quote that has quite a few people riled up is actually quite reasonable. It’s not as inflammatory, so of course it doesn’t get the reaction that saying “No American is ready for F1” does.

“But then maybe, if there is a really good (American driver), would they come to (Formula 1)?”

There was a point in my life where I genuinely believed that the only thing worth counting for a racing driver was success or failure in Formula 1, and if they never even made it, it’s just cause they weren’t good enough.

There was also a point in my life where I’d engage in one-upsmanship in crass, sophomoric, hateful “humour” breeded out of *chan culture. Be glad you didn’t know me in college, folks.

From just the Verizon IndyCar Series alone, I can count three championship-caliber drivers born and raised in the United States who would, if asked, be productive in the self-proclaimed Pinnacle Of Motorsport™.

One of them’s already done this song and dance before, and the idea that Alexander Rossi was using IndyCar as a stop gap to get back to Formula 1 is as much of a sham as the Juicero.

Because when you’ve scored two wins – one at the Indianapolis 500 upon debut – and 16 top-ten finishes in the 33 races since arriving, going back to the days of treating a possibility of maybe having enough attrition and lucky breaks to come close to almost finishing tenth place as a victory, as was the case at Manor Racing in Formula 1 at the end of 2015, isn’t gonna cut it.

Not when you’ve got a genuine title sponsor, not when you’re going to be a genuine title contender in 2018, and a reality TV star over the winter months, and you’re still just going to turn 27 this September.

This is coming from someone who was mighty ticked off when Rossi lost his seat at Manor, the perennial and distant backmarkers of Formula 1 during their last years on the circuit – really if only because of how hard and long he worked to get there only to get just a proverbial “cup of coffee and a handshake”.

One of the other drivers I was thinking of was also ticked off about what was said a few days ago.

Graham Rahal is outspoken to a fault even when “keeping it real” isn’t really necessary, to the point of being abrasive.

But after three winning seasons and top-six championship finishes in IndyCar, he’s got a claim to a Formula 1 drive on the merit of his accomplishments alone. You could make the argument that he’s done more for Honda in top-level single seater racing since 2015 than any of the company’s F1 involvement in the same timeframe.

The third is Josef Newgarden, the reigning series champion, who represents everything that IndyCar really needs out of a top star for the next 10-15 years. He’s ridiculously fast, has an actual personality and a likeable one at that, and he’s also no novice to the European racing circuits.

In a situation where a team like Williams Racing can’t find a teammate for Lance Stroll, Newgarden is probably the best available talent that they could roll the dice on.

The trouble is, again, would it be worth Josef Newgarden giving up the potential to win multiple Indianapolis 500s and Astor Cups as the cornerstone of Team Penske to maybe be the savior of Williams – if he’s even lucky enough to have a good enough car around him?

Jeff Gordon has the right idea.

Jeff Gordon has experience with something like this, by the way.

British American Racing really wanted him and Jacques Villeneuve to be the cornerstones of their new F1 teams. They were willing to break the bank for Gordon, so long as Gordon agreed to use two years of CART as a stop-gap to get there – if he produced the results.

That’s too much of a damn gamble. Gordon did the smart thing and signed a lifetime deal with Hendrick Motorsports to become one of NASCAR’s greatest-ever drivers instead. Be sensible like Jeff Gordon.

Mario Andretti, Formula 1’s only living World Champion from the US, put it more succinctly:

Mario also saw his son Michael, at the peak of his powers, get chewed up and spit out by Formula 1 after less than one season at McLaren.

To be fair, Michael also had an antiquated mindset that involved refusing to relocate to Europe “because dad didn’t need to either.” But it was also gonna be a losing proposition after Honda left, and Ayrton Senna had arguably the best year of his career after sixteen rolling one-race contracts, wheeling a car with a year-old customer Ford engine to victories it had no business taking.

In between Michael Andretti and Alexander Rossi was Scott Speed, who seemingly did everything the right way in terms of a career game plan for F1. Moved to Europe, hooked up with Red Bull, had the perfect given name – the only thing he seemingly lacked was anything close to the right attitude in that point in his life.

I joke about this often on the podcast, but I have a complicated relationship with the country I live in.

But in America’s presence in international sport, and in particular international motorsport, I feel something resembling the mass-marketed concept of All-American Pride within me – especially when confronted with assumptions that my nationality restricts my knowledge of racing to “turning left for 500 laps”.

Especially when that historically hasn’t been true in the least.

I truly, genuinely want to see another American driver racing in Formula 1 to give me something resembling even a shred of pride in a country that was founded ugly and remains ugly, but more importantly, I want to see another American driver win races and achieve meaningful results in Formula 1.

I got to wait a while for that. Maybe for Colton Herta. Maybe for Neil Verhagen. Maybe for Logan Sargeant. Maybe even long enough that I have to wait for John Dekka and for Formula 1 to be run with anti-gravity hovercraft that use ballistic weapons to overtake. None of this is guaranteed.

Günther Steiner is bitterly wrong about whether or not an American driver is ready for Formula 1 from a talent and marketability standpoint.

It’s just that none of the Americans they should look to will want to give up a good thing they’ve already got going.

And I don’t blame them.

About the Author:

RJ O'Connell

RJ O’Connell is one of the co-hosts of the Motorsport 101 podcast, who also has contributed to Dailysportscar and previously

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