INDIANAPOLIS -- Whatever happened to the number "1" in car racing?
The question came up Wednesday when newly crowned Izod IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay was asked whether he would run No. 1 in 2013 as opposed to the No. 28 he's carried for the past two years.
RHR's first number at Andretti Autosport was 37, but he switched to 28 when his ride was confirmed as full time at the start of the 2011 season. No. 28 fit in sequence with AA's traditional 26 and 27, and represents the 28 million people fighting cancer. Hunter-Reay's mother died of colon cancer in 2009.
"I would like to keep it," Hunter-Reay said of his championship-winning number. "But I just don't know yet. I think the sponsors might like the new number (1)."
Most recent Indy car champions have eschewed the use of No. 1, probably because teams believe that consistency with car numbers helps with fan and sponsor recognition. In NASCAR, the No. 1 has nothing to do with the championship driver; since 1975, Donnie Allison, Rick Mast, Dale Jarrett, John Andretti, Steve Park, Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray have carried the significant numeral, usually with little success.
NASCAR not only solidified the practice of associating numbers with drivers -- Richard Petty with 43, Dale Earnhardt with 3, Dale Jr. with 8 and 88, and on down the line -- but also made famous the fonts that display the digits.
Formula One is the only series where the current series champion carries the prestigious numero uno, but it wasn't always that way. The F1 world champion only began carrying No. 1 on a permanent basis beginning in 1973, when '72 titlist Emerson Fittipaldi proudly took it on.
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesRyan Hunter-Reay won his title driving the No. 28.
Before that, the defending champion of a given Grand Prix was usually assigned the No. 1 for the same race the next year.
Since 1973, the world champion driver has failed to carry No. 1 on only a few occasions; 1973 constructor's champion Lotus drivers Ronnie Peterson and Jacky Ickx ran 1 and 2 for the 1974 season after Jackie Stewart won the '73 driver's championship for Tyrrell, then retired.
When Nigel Mansell won the F1 title in 1992 and then switched to the CART-sanctioned Indy car series in America, the Williams team chose to campaign his replacement, Damon Hill, in car No. 0. Alain Prost then won the 1993 F1 crown for Williams in car No. 2, but when he retired at the end of the season, the team retained Nos. 0 (Hill) and 2 (Ayrton Senna) for the 1994 season.
On six occasions, the world championship winning driver switched teams immediately after winning the title; Nelson Piquet, Prost, Michael Schumacher, Hill, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button all took the coveted No. 1 to new teams to defend their championships.
In Indy car racing, Sebastien Bourdais was the last driver to run No. 1 as the defending champion in the Champ Car World Series from 2005-07.
In the IndyCar Series, Scott Dixon followed up his 2003 championship by running No. 1 in 2004, but he had a terrible campaign. That may have contributed to Dixon's decision to maintain No. 9 in 2009, the year after he won his second IndyCar title. Ganassi's Dario Franchitti has kept No. 10 the past couple of years instead of running No. 1, though his car carried the No. 50 at Indianapolis this year honoring the 50th anniversary of sponsor Target Stores.
Ganassi's previous Indy car champions -- Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya -- all carried No. 1 the year after winning the championship. After Zanardi won the 1998 CART title using No. 1, the team reverted to No. 4 for his replacement Montoya in 1999. Montoya chose No. 1 in 2000 after he won the '99 CART championship as a rookie.
At Penske Racing, after winning the championship in 2006, Sam Hornish Jr. continued with car No. 6 in 2007. That marked a change from the last time Penske won an Indy car title, when Gil de Ferran did run No. 1 in 2001 after winning the 2000 CART crown. De Ferran repeated as CART champion in '01, but Penske quit the series and moved to the IRL-sanctioned Indy car series in 2002, with de Ferran adopting No. 6.
For whatever reason, it seems the No. 1 has fallen out of vogue in auto racing. But I get the feeling that Hunter-Reay is going to bring it back.