Australia has one of the most illustrious sporting trophy cabinets in the world – of that there is no untruth. Our fellow countrymen and women have attained and continue to add to a collection of global accolades that reads impressively against that of any country in the world, and when considered relative to our population against Northern Hemisphere giants, stands tall over so many others.
Two of the world’s great accolades that have continued to evade a home-grown Australian champion however are the IndyCar Series Championship, largely contested in the United States, and the Indianapolis 500, although not from lack of trying in both cases.
As the sun prepares to rise on the 2014 IndyCar Series’ showcase event, the Indianapolis 500, two largely unassuming Australians, with varying degrees of local and international notoriety who have travelled different paths, developed and plied their craft to reach the top but yet whose careers exude amazing parallels, will this year find themselves in the best positions possible to claim these two elusive titles for themselves and a cheering country alike.
Will Power this year lines up for his fifth full season as a part of one of the IndyCar Series’ most successful and enduring outfits, Team Penske. Power’s is a classic story of dancing with what brought him and little more, turning up every time and putting in every bit of effort and energy, more often than not against rivals with the comfort of corporate backing and seemingly bottomless pits of cash.
In that time, he has finished runner-up in the overall Drivers’ Championship in three straight years, twice defeated in the final race of the year by open-wheel veteran Dario Franchitti after a series of unfortunate, heartbreaking and in one case, tragic circumstances.
For Power, the road travelled to reach these heights has been long and often painful, emotionally, mentally and physically. Rising through the Australian junior formulae, Power showed an untameable fire to succeed and trod the well-worn path to Europe to continue his journey. Two seasons in British Formula Ford yielded a number of podium finishes but in terms of notice from the big leagues, little more than a Formula 1 test drive courtesy of green-and-gold-blooded patriotic countryman Paul Stoddart, who owned the Minardi F1 team at the time.
Reaching his proverbial crossroads and feeling a little stymied with a lack of progress, the Queenslander jumped at the chance to race in front of his home crowd again at a major event when shrewd Gold Coast businessman Craig Gore helped fund an entry – for Champ Car team owner Derrick Walker’s Team Australia outfit no less – in the 2005 Lexmark Indy 300 on the streets of Surfers Paradise. Whether overwhelming expectation of the home crowd played a part or not, Power failed to finish but impressed enough to be signed full-time for the team for the next two years, during which time he delivered two wins, four more podium finishes and an ultimate fourth place finish in the Drivers’ Championship in 2007. Power had now well and truly arrived on the scene.
After the long-awaited reunification of two competing American open-wheel operations in early 2008, Power joined KV Racing Technology – a midfield team owned by champion racer Jimmy Vasser and yet another Aussie in Kevin Kalkhoven – but struggled to adapt to the primarily oval-racing nature of the Indy Racing League (as it was known at the time). The only real highlight of 2008 came from winning the final ever event under standalone Champ Car sanctioning at Long Beach, California, prior to the two series’ becoming one.
It was enough, however, to attract the attention of team owner Roger Penske for the following year, a man whose imposing, universally respected and admired figure over 40 years in the sport has earned him the somewhat intimidating nickname ‘The Captain’. But while Power’s ship had seemingly come in, a massive crash at Sonoma in the Napa Valley late in the 2009 season resulted in a broken back and just like that, Power’s career was seemingly on the ropes. Demonstrating his true Aussie grit and fighting spirit, Power battled through immense pain and rehabilitation over the northern winter and was miraculously ready to get back in the car for the 2010 season.
From his return, Power’s renewed lease on life, combined with the benefit of being in a front-running car, saw him work to become fully established as one of the regular front-runners. On eighteen occasions since, Power has stood on the top step of the podium as a race-winner for Roger Penske’s team. The IndyCar series is one of the most competitive open-wheel motorsports championships in the world, and despite several crushing disappointments and falls at the final hurdle, fans will never hear a word from Power’s mouth seeking pity or sympathy, only an insatiable desire to avenge all losses and redeem himself at the next attempt.
Motorsport is literally in Power’s genes, with father Bob an accomplished open-wheel racer in his own right. Fast forward to today, and Power is now in the best mental frame of mind to launch his most committed and focused campaign for the Indy 500 and Drivers’ Championship double this season. And after a little more disappointment last season than in his three oh-so-close championship efforts before that, Power will be more motivated than ever to get the job done this year.
A little further down the pit lane will be Power’s good friend off the track but fierce rival on it, Ryan Briscoe, who returned to Chip Ganassi Racing for his first full year with the team since 2005, and his first full season in the series overall since departing from his own ride as Power’s Penske teammate in 2012.
Sydney-born Briscoe is seven months younger than Power but began his career several years earlier, carving his path through traditional karting championships before also moving to Europe, where he progressed to near-touching distance of Formula 1 as the team’s official Toyota test and reserve driver. A seat at the team’s race table didn’t appear to be forthcoming at the time, and when the lure of competing regularly at the top level beckoned in America, Briscoe answered and was signed then by Chip Ganassi Racing.
Like Power, Briscoe’s maiden year was difficult as he learned to adapt to the intimidating oval format so popular with the series’ core American audience (and largely performed by the NASCAR series). The year was capped off in the worst possible way through a sickening crash at Chicagoland Speedway: his car was launched off the back of a rival, sailed into the catch fencing and practically disintegrated in a horrendous fireball. Briscoe was left with multiple injuries, but survived and convalesced over the winter with an aim to be ready again for the next season. Unfortunately Ganassi had opted to go in a different direction with his driver choice for the next season, meaning Briscoe had to settle for some irregular starts over the next two years to rebuild his career stock. Always an astute spotter of talent, Briscoe was eventually picked up by Roger Penske himself, where alongside Power as a team-mate, he too challenged for the IndyCar Drivers’ Championship a number of times before his form faded in a less impressive year in 2012, leading to his departure and a search for fresh pastures.
His experience and exposure to the ways of Formula One helped him develop an extraordinary prowess for setting up a car, from feeling out a circuit’s characteristics, understanding its downforce requirements, gear ratios and fuel strategies, formed a skill that is one of Briscoe’s many highly employable attributes. He also enjoys the honour of being the only Australian driver to qualify on pole position for the Indy 500, a feat he accomplished in 2012. Now back with Ganassi full-time, the bragging rights of being the first Australian winner of America’s greatest prize in motorsports – the Borg-Warner trophy – will continue to drive Briscoe and Power to reach for that ultimate brass ring this season.
Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have been, for the better part of the last two decades, the two dominant powerhouses of American open-wheel racing. Penske’s dominance goes back even further, with patriarch Roger Penske having been involved in the sport since the late 1950’s, even participating in two Formula One races himself before opting for the comfort of the boardroom over the cockpit.
Ganassi was also an active competitor in his youth and pursued a driving career himself before a huge accident nearly cost him his life and curtailed a burgeoning in-car career. In the late 1980’s, Ganassi bought a stake in a team owned by another long-serving US motor racing figure – Pat Patrick – before splitting off and forming his own team in 1990 with the backing of American department store giant Target, a sponsorship partnership which still holds strong today.
The list of drivers who have suited up for both teams reads like the ultimate who’s who to have enjoyed success in the sport. Over their time waging war against each other on the track, Penske and Ganassi enjoy a close, albeit guarded friendship and mutual respect off it, even if they have also spent time arguing in each other’s faces from time to time. Both command professionalism and fair, honest but aggressive competition, and have together achieved all there is in the US motorsport landscape.
Season 2014 will be the 103rd year of American open-wheel racing under one governance or another, and although not as popular both within the US and internationally as it once was thanks to years of splintering due to internal politics, among other things, the IndyCar Series is trying to rebuild to levels it has enjoyed in years gone by, and an Aussie champion will certainly do it no harm for its profile Down Under.
Power and Briscoe mark the best chance in history for an Australian driver to win the Indy 500 and claim the IndyCar Series championship. But to do so, they will not only try to beat each other on the track, but a whole field of some of the world’s fastest and most accomplished drivers the world has ever seen. Whilst not necessarily household names here in Australia, the series contains the likes of former Indy 500 winners Hélio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya – all from South America and New Zealander Scott Dixon, who is also the defending series champion this season. In addition, former champions in Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sébastien Bourdais, not to mention rising stars in the form of James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud and former Formula One drivers Justin Wilson and Takuma Sato, all out for their own success and all imposing hurdles for Power and Briscoe to try to get past.
If Australia was to claim either or both accolades this year, Power and Briscoe will have defeated a fine crop of accomplished and fiercely competitive drivers and will go down as the true international stars they have worked so hard to become.
Images via Motorsport.com