Growing up in Columbus, Ohio the closest race track to my home was Mid-Ohio. I spent most of my summers attending both my father’s races and IndyCar races. As a result I developed a love for road course racing and became a diehard fan of the drivers that were the best at turning left and right. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a road course elitist, it was just what I was exposed to and what I enjoyed. It wasn’t until I attended my first Pole Day at Indianapolis in 1988 that I realized how incredible oval racing can be.
As most people my age who were/are race fans, growing up there was only one driver who kept my attention at every race. Al Unser Jr. He was always quick at Mid-Ohio and everywhere else for that matter. As a youngster you don’t really realize the driving prowess of some of these guys… it’s more like cheering for a team, you pick your driver, he’s your favorite for whatever reason, and very few things can change that.
Al was super friendly with his fans. I have multiple autographs and pictures with ‘Little Al’ from my days of running around the paddock. It was only at a later age that I started to realize what a true racer little Al was and is. The guy was quick… EVERYWHERE… and he drove every lap as hard as ever.
In 1993 a new driver entered the picture. Nigel Mansel. I’m not sure what drew my attention to Nigel when I was a kid. It could have been that he was the reigning Formula 1 champion, it could have been that I loved the Texaco Havoline cars, or maybe it was his helmet design. One thing was for sure, despite my Dad’s wishes, I was a Nigel Mansel fan. To this day it’s the only racing shirt from my childhood that only has ONE autograph on it… Nigel’s. I have a Bobby Rahal Kraco shirt that’s riddled with autographs, some of which I don’t even recognize, but Nigels was reserved for him alone. One of the stories I’ve heard over and over about Nigel’s first days in an IndyCar is in regards to his famed test at Firebird International Raceway where he broke the track record his first time in the car. Apparently, Nigel had a special test he liked to perform on new race cars. The test allowed him to see how the car would handle when he drove it on (and sometimes over) the ragged edge. Today, I miraculously discovered this famous first test in an IndyCar as well as footage of the famed “Spin Test.” The entire video is pretty awesome but fast forward to the 5:00 mark if you’d like to skip straight to the “Spin Test.”
In 1997 Dario Franchitti came on the scene and would quickly become my favorite for the foreseeable future. Dario had his fair share of shunts that season but the very next year he really put it together. He managed to string together a series of races late in the season (1st, 1st, 4th, 1st, and 2nd) to finish an impressive 3rd in just his second season in an IndyCar. Quite the improvement from his 22nd place finish in his first season. Dario may not be the flashiest of drivers but he’s one thing above all else… consistent. Consistent enough that in 1999 he finished 2nd in series standings after he and Juan Pablo Montoya tied in the championship standings. (Juan was awarded the championship with his 7 wins compared to Dario’s 3 wins.) Pretty impressive. He only finished outside the top 10 in 4 races out of the 20 race schedule that year. In 2007 Dario continued to show his consistency with his first championship. Dario only finished outside the top 10 ONCE in 2007 as well as only finishing outside the top 5 four times in 20 races. The guy is calm, cool, and calculated… and it’s awarded him three championships as a result. He’s a legend on street courses and as good as anyone on ovals. A two time Indy 500 winner and to this day, my favorite driver…