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IMS Writers’ Roundtable: Volume 2

The 2021 racing season is underway. NASCAR star Kyle Larson won the Chili Bowl Nationals last weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma, INDYCAR teams participated in a private test Monday and Tuesday at Sebring, Florida, and the Roar Before the Rolex 24 this weekend at Daytona International Speedway will set the stage for the Rolex 24 on Jan. 30-31 at the same track.

So, it’s time to continue a new roundtable discussion series for IMS.com. The three panelists have different perspectives but share a passion for Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its events. They’ll discuss and analyze topics throughout the year.

Curt Cavin has worked every Indianapolis 500 since 1988 and covered each of the Formula One and MotoGP events, plus the first 23 NASCAR events, held at the iconic track during his reporting days at The Indianapolis Star. Paul Kelly’s motorsports experience is even more diverse, having worked in editorial and public relations in Indy cars, sports cars and drag racing since 1993. He also covered NASCAR, short-track and motorcycle racing as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York in the late 80s and early 90s and is the Speedway’s resident MotoGP and Isle of Man TT freak. Zach Horrall is clearly the newbie of this group, but his love for the sport is deeply rooted, growing from a childhood passion to a reporting job in college at The Indianapolis Star, covering the Indianapolis 500, NASCAR and drag racing before joining IMS in 2019.

Today’s question: There were reports in recent weeks that 2009 Formula One World Champion Jenson Button hoped to race in the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES, including the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, before the COVID-19 pandemic halted those plans. Which driver from any series and any era without an Indianapolis 500 start would you have most enjoyed seeing compete in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?”

Curt Cain: Michael Schumacher gets my vote, although Jeff Gordon would be my sentimental choice and Alex Zanardi deserved a chance to run the “500.” Schumacher was the most dominant driver of my generation (91 wins and 68 poles in F1), and he had a unique affinity for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and the United States as a whole. In spite of his immense Ferrari status and global star power, I found him unbelievably available to the U.S. media, and he was a terrific one-on-one interview, insightful as well as grounded. History records Schumacher with five F1 wins on the IMS road course – he gave the 2002 race to teammate Rubens Barrichello in exchange for the Brazilian pulling over per team orders to give him the Austrian Grand Prix earlier that season. If you thought Nigel Mansell’s arrival at IMS in 1993 was a big deal, Schumacher’s would have been all of that and more. Given all of this, I am confident Schumacher would have tried an NTT INDYCAR SERIES road race or two had he not had his tragic skiing accident in 2013, but he never would have committed to an oval race like the “500.”

Zach Horrall: I have to piggyback off Curt here and give my nod to Jeff Gordon. The adopted Hoosier is one of the best drivers I’ve experienced with 93 wins, four championships and 60 percent of his finishes coming in the top 10, and that’s just in NASCAR. Prior to that, he tore up the Indiana short track scene by grabbing the USAC National Midget Championship in 1989 and the USAC Silver Crown Series title in 1990, and he won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2017. I point these out for two reasons: One, because as a young driver he took a career path that many Indy 500 legends took (let’s not forget, he toyed with the idea of Indy car racing in the early 90’s!) Secondly, it proves that Gordon’s success didn’t just come in a stock car. The guy was a natural, and I have no doubt he would have been stellar in the Indy 500. Unfortunately, Gordon raced in an era of NASCAR when you simply dedicated yourself to one form of racing, and we never got to see what he could have done. But it’s fun to wonder “what if?”

Paul Kelly: Curt and Zach nailed it with their picks, two of the greatest legends ever to touch a race car’s steering wheel. But my choice is a guy who came closer to running in the “500” than either Schumacher or Gordon – Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian god already had won three Formula One World Championships and was acknowledged as one of the greatest drivers ever when he participated in a test with Team Penske at the invitation of countryman and fellow F1 World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi, a Penske driver at the time. McLaren F1 driver Senna was frustrated by the all-conquering 1992 FW14B car of rival team Williams, which dominated the World Championship that season. He initially just shook down Penske’s Indy car at Firebird International Raceway in December 1992 but then stood on it for a few laps and was every bit the measure of INDYCAR superstar Fittipaldi. Senna reportedly loved the amount of control and input the driver had in an Indy car compared to the F1 cars of that era, which featured more driver aids and technological gizmos than at any other time in the sport’s history. Fittipaldi said in an F1 podcast interview last year Penske wanted to enter a car for Senna in the 1993 Indy 500 but McLaren boss Ron Dennis quickly prohibited Senna from racing at Indy. Still, the thought of Senna – who could handle a car with a silky touch or by the scruff of its carbon-fiber neck – racing on the 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis against the stacked field of that era gives me goose bumps.

 

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