Commentary

Crossing over is too hard now

Updated: April 5, 2012, 3:18 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

A.J. Foyt and Mario AndrettiGetty ImagesA.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti are the only drivers to win a Daytona 500 and an Indianapolis 500.

So why don't drivers "cross over" anymore, the way Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt did? A lot of you still wonder. Nearly all of you wish they would. So do I.

It's easy to wonder, when you read that Andretti won the Daytona 500 in 1967 and Foyt in '72 … that Formula One's Jim Clark and Graham Hill won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965 and '66 … that Foyt and Dan Gurney won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in '67 … that Andretti won the F1 world championship in '78 …

They came, they won, and then they all returned to the other disciplines whence they came.

Now when drivers move, it's for keeps. The transition process is too long, the learning curve too steep, the schedules too demanding, for a Tony Stewart, a Juan Pablo Montoya or a Danica Patrick to move back and forth. When we see Indy drivers in the Daytona 500, that's because they've moved full-time to NASCAR, not because they're on adventures like Andretti or Foyt.

[+] EnlargeMario Andretti
Bob Harmeyer/Getty ImagesMario Andretti was world driving superstar, competing in Formula One for years.

Wonderful as it would be for fans, we'll never see Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson in the Indy 500 as we saw Cale Yarborough, LeeRoy Yarbrough and Bobby and Donnie Allison … nor Sebastian Vettel or Lewis Hamilton as we saw Clark and Hill.

To understand why, you start with Biology 101. That's where we're taught that animal and vegetable life are fairly similar in their most primitive forms. The higher they evolve, the more complex the plant or animal, the farther apart they grow.

So it has been with race cars as they evolved.

When Clark and Hill won Indy, they brought the rear-engine concept from F1 so their adjustment wasn't radical. When Andretti and Foyt won Daytona, "aerodynamics" and "down force" weren't even terms used at the tracks. Now they're major issues in all forms of racing, and each achieves it in vastly different ways requiring vastly different driving skills.

The casual observer tends to lump open-wheel cars together, but this season, Rubens Barrichello is finding it at least as difficult to transition from F1 to IndyCar as Patrick is to adapt to NASCAR.

Beyond the cars lie even greater obstacles, money and politics. Teams and sponsors don't want their drivers risking injury on larks into other leagues. Governing bodies have made season championships more lucrative even than the greatest individual races, and that keeps drivers at home.

For the first International Race of Champions I covered, concluded at Daytona in February of 1975, the field was rich with international stars. Reigning world champion Emerson Fittipaldi led an F1 contingent that included Ronnie Peterson, Jody Scheckter and Hill. Indy 500 winners Foyt, Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford came to mix it up with Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough.

Unser won the IROC series championship, including the finale on the NASCAR boys' turf -- in the draft at Daytona -- and so Indy car fans had a legitimate claim that one of their drivers had beaten the best in the world in crossover competition.

Then that May at Indy, I interviewed an unhappy Andretti who'd had to qualify on the second weekend because he'd missed pole day to race F1 in Monaco. His complaint was that Indy no longer made any effort to be the Olympus of world motor racing. Indy officials, Andretti maintained, should work with the FIA to separate Indy and Monaco on the calendar.

Well, you know how far that went. If you don't, just look at the 2012 schedule. Indy and Monaco (and Charlotte), as in most years since Andretti's appeal, will be run on the same day, this time May 27.

Andretti, by the way, was the last reigning F1 champion to run the IROC, winning the series in 1979. And that was relatively easy for an American driver. James Hunt of England was the last world champion from overseas to run the IROC, in 1977.

After that, F1 teams and sponsors didn't want their drivers risking injury in the U.S., and soaring F1 salaries priced them beyond IROC's means. So the series lost much of its mystique, deteriorated into mainly a matter of Indy and NASCAR drivers, became less and less appealing to stars as a crossover matchup, and died out.

Now, the most annoying statement I hear -- and I've heard it from the Daytona 500 to the Indianapolis 500 to the Grand Prix of Monaco -- is, "These are the best drivers in the world."

That is inaccurate wherever it is said. There can be no proof of that. There isn't even an IROC anymore. So the best that can be said is, "These are the best drivers in the world IN THEIR PARTICULAR DISCIPLINE."

Driver training also has followed Biology 101.

Andretti, for example, first dreamed of F1, but his first race car was a stock Hudson on the dirt tracks of Pennsylvania. After he made it to Indy cars he jumped into an F1 car at Watkins Glen in 1968, and won the pole right off the bat, because of sheer desire and because the cars were similar enough at the time.

[+] EnlargeDan Gurney, A.J. Foyt
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesAmericans Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt were winners at Le Mans in June 1967.

When Gordon, on the other hand, was in his mid 20s and soaring in NASCAR, Jackie Stewart opined to me that Gordon would be the likeliest candidate to transition from NASCAR to F1. At the notion, Gordon smiled, perhaps a little wistfully, shook his head and said, "To do that, I should have been in a Formula Ford" on road courses, rather than sprint cars on ovals, by his teen years.

While the U.S. Grand Prix was being run at Indy, Michael Schumacher was asked if he had any interest in entering the 500. He smirked and chortled in dismissal of the very idea of running on an oval track, so constantly close to a concrete wall. Absurd.

Saddest of all, perhaps, is that there are no more individual races prestigious enough, or open enough, to be worth serious efforts from outsiders.

The Daytona 500, with restrictor plates and highly tailored rules that affect drafting, has become too much of a locked-in affair, solely for specialists.

The Indy 500 of course still bears the scars in esteem from the great split in American open-wheel racing from 1996-2008. A couple of years ago there was talk of perhaps a $20 million bonus for winning both Indy and Charlotte on the same day. That the Indy 500 would seek to link with any other race to get attention tells an awful lot. Even if the bonus ever became official, the odds would be too great of winning such different races for anyone to make a serious effort at it.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is but a faded memory of what it was in '67, when Henry Ford II, in his bitter rivalry with Enzo Ferrari, sent a fleet of seven Ford GT-40 Mark IV prototypes at enormous expense. Five of those fell out of the war of attrition before Foyt and Gurney won.

By 2011, Le Mans was down to two major factory prototype efforts, by Audi and Peugeot. After that race, Peugeot withdrew from competition.

So now world motor racing has evolved so far apart, technically, politically, financially, that the long-ago wisdom of Richard Petty now looks like prophecy. He never would consider driving in the Indy 500.

"There's baseball, football and basketball," Petty told me once on a visit to Indy, standing near Foyt's car in the pits. "They're all played with a ball. And there the similarity ends.

"This car and my car both have four wheels, an engine and a steering wheel. And there the similarity ends."

That was his philosophy then. It is fact in motor racing now.

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