The roster of IndyCar Series drivers reads like a United Nations roll call.
Italy and Japan. Great Britain and Brazil. Australia and Monaco. Canada, Colombia and Switzerland. France.
Oh, and the United States.
Next to the Olympics, this premier level of open wheel racing might be the most diverse sport on American soil, from Castroneves, de Silvestro and Munoz to Sato, Hinchcliffe and Andretti.
Legions of domestic fans follow their exploits from the United States, where many of the drivers reside, while even more track their favorite homegrown talent from continents away via social media and media reports. Many will follow events this weekend in New Orleans, culminating with Sunday’s inaugural Verizon Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale.
No wonder it takes a village to race in IndyCar.
Maybe even a translator.
“That’s what is special about Indy,” said Sebastien Bourdais, a French-born driver with KVSH Racing who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“Although we’re an American series, we mostly race in the U.S., we’re still a series that’s very much international because drivers are coming from a lot of different cultures. That’s why it’s really growing. For me, that’s why I really like the series.
No matter the flag they fly under, the U.S. supports IndyCar stars, said Helio Castroneves, the biggest name in the sport thanks to his two seasons on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” In 2007, he teamed with professional dancer Julianne Hough to win season five of the American dance competition.
“It’s great to see the American spirit so open minded to other nationalities,” said France’s Simon Pagenaud, one of Castroneves’ Team Penske teammates. “It just makes the sport very open to talent, whether you’re Japanese or American, or French — if you have talent, you have a right to race in this series. It’s incredible. You don’t get to see that everywhere.”
The mixture of foreign and homegrown flavor includes Simona de Silvestro (Switzerland), the lone female driver in Sunday’s race.
While there is debate among drivers over the international impact on the track, Pagenaud believes drivers from varying countries showcase different skill sets; although over time, racing styles merge and morph, the same way a post player in basketball develops an outside shot later in his career or a boxer known for grappling adds a jab to his ring regime.
“We all know Takuma Sato (A.J. Foyt Racing) is pretty aggressive on the race track. Is that what every Japanese person is like?” Pagenaud said. “I don’t know. But that’s a question that comes to your mind … There’s definitely a style to the South American drivers — Brazilian and Colombian — a little bit more emotional. And you can see that in the way they drive.”
Foreign-born drivers aren’t just racing in America.
During the past decade, Sam Hornish (2006) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2012) are the lone American drivers to win or tie for the series championship.
Australia’s Will Power won last season’s championship, which followed New Zealand’s Scott Dixon’s title in 2013.
International drivers, Power said, hail from racing backgrounds that place less emphasis on ovals, the dominant U.S. track styles. Instead, 10 of the 16 venues on the 2015 circuit are street or road courses.
“There’s not many open-wheel series in the world that are a high level where you get paid (well),” Power said. “There’s Formula One and IndyCar, basically. Stock cars are not that big in Europe and South America. Open wheel racing is big there, and young kids aspire to be open wheel drivers.”
On Sunday, seven American drivers, including Gabby Chavez, who has dual citizenship (Colombia, U.S.) will travel around the 2.74-mile, 13-turn road course for 75 laps.
“I think it’s great, no,” Andretti Autosport driver Carlos Munoz said in his Colombian accent. “You need Americans to help IndyCar grow in America, but it’s also great to have all these different kinds of drivers. I think it’s good for the series, and it’s allowing it to grow worldwide.”
IndyCar’s lone 2015 stop outside the U.S. is June 14 in Toronto. The rest of the series stops in Florida and Indianapolis, Detroit and California, Ohio and Birmingham.
While IndyCar wants to optimize worldwide opportunities for growth, its master plan is based around its origin as an American tour. Connel J. O’Donnell, who leads the marketing, communications and social media for IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said the series’ future goal is to add two to three international sites to the schedule every season, starting in February.
IndyCar planned to travel to Brazil this season, but the race was cancelled.
O’Donnell added that IndyCar is in discussions with several potential hosts, but declined to name them.
“IndyCar is going through changes — at one point, 40 percent of the races were outside North America,” Dixon said. “I see it getting a little diverse in the next two or three years. We’ll get more international races.”
Their fans in the U.S., as well as overseas, will be waiting.