A Question Of Character

Thank you, A.J. Foyt. For a couple of weeks, I was afraid I would have to go cold turkey on Robby Gordon.

Gordon is one of those people that everybody has a strong opinion on. Some say he has character; others say he is a character. It really doesn't matter. Gordon, who lost his Winston Cup ride last month, needed to be racing.

For all of us, Gordon needed to be racing. And Foyt is giving him a chance, signing him up to spend May trying to win the Indianapolis 500.

"Characters" like Gordon make the sport in many ways, but there's a dwindling number of them. Motorsports can't afford for a personality like Gordon to be idle.

Oh, the cupboard's not bare. Most circuits seem to have at least one go-to guy. Tony Stewart, for example, juices up NASCAR pretty well. The Pennzoil World of Outlaws not only have their cornerstones, Sammy Swindell and Steve Kinser, but they've also got Stewart protégé Danny Lasoski. And Funny Car driver and team owner John Force is so dynamic that not just drag racing, but all of motorsports will be spicy for as long as he is around.

But the problem is that racing just doesn't have the character it did even five years ago. High-dollar sponsorship has led to polished salesmen, not hard-boiled and driven athletes. An additional emphasis on consistency, a necessary ingredient for a championship in the new millennium, has put a premium on stable, even-keeled drivers.

Several other factors are involved.

The new generation of drivers just hasn't been as colorful as the old. Guys like Joe Amato and Don "The Snake" Prudhomme are no longer driving, but they are still involved in drag racing as owners. They've got some excellent drivers in their stable, but these youngsters don't have a chance at replacing their bosses in the character category.

Also, several drivers that provided heat in the past are simmering underneath the radar of the average fan, unnoticed and unseen. These drivers still have the same personality, but their performance has cooled them off to lukewarm.

Even masters like Jimmy Spencer and Randy Lajoie don't help much if they can't make it to center stage. There's not much showmanship in running around in circles in the back of the pack.

The death of Dale Earnhardt dramatically lowered NASCAR's character quotient. Earnhardt was a great driver with numerous records and a well-earned spot in history, but he was also much more than that. He was also a wild card and you could never tell what he might be up to next: spinning Terry Labonte out of the way for a win, giving a young Jeff Gordon grief about celebrating with a glass of milk, spawning a son with enough talent and soul to drive the sport for another generation.

Earnhardt also had a skill that is becoming almost extinct among drivers. He could complain about something without making it sound like he was whining. This inability, so prevalent among current stars, might seem like a little thing, but it is one of the biggest problems facing racing today.

The biggest void of character in racing might be in open-wheel racing, where just a couple of years ago the rivalry between CART and the IRL showed great promise. The biggest obstacle for both of these circuits is the character of foreign drivers often get lost in the translation for all of us North Americans. Many of these wonderful personalities just don't play well on the streets of the United States, much less the road courses and ovals, as they do in their native lands.

Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy can be fun, and mixed together they can be as explosive as an open flame around a highly combustible fuel. The fact that both are pseudo-teammates in CART this year could make for some great storylines, but so far they have just sizzled. If these two can challenge for victories, you can be guaranteed some great story lines.

The IRL has some promise, but everybody just seems so young, patient and polished. You can almost see the drivers trying not to rock the boat, knowing that they have a young and still developing league that they must nurture.

Just a few years removed from a brawl between Foyt and Arie Luyendyk after a race, the fight seems to have gone out of the IRL.

That brings us back to Robby Gordon, also known as "Brash Gordon" for his attitude and driving style. If everybody just looked at his skills and disregarded his personality, Gordon would already be behind the wheel of new ride.

Gordon has a more diverse background than practically anybody driving a car today, having spent time off-road and in Indy-style cars before moving to Winston Cup. Sure, Gordon needs the right kind of owner or crew chief to provide the control he needs to be a constant winner, but he could legitimately contend for a title in just about any form of racing where they run laps.

Of course, some would say his diversity comes from the fact that his personality won't allow him to keep a long-term ride. Gordon is such a powder keg with a short fuse that he practically fired himself last year after fielding his own Winston Cup team in 2000.

But Gordon should be a perfect addition to the IRL, a series on the move but without his kind of spark. Even a temporary ride, which is what Gordon has so far with Foyt, would make for some fun times. A one-race deal where Gordon is on a short leash and has to prove himself seems perfect. Ideally, Gordon could get a permanent ride where he could win, letting his character fully develop for all of us to share and all of the IRL to deal with.

Don’t be surprised if that’s exactly what Foyt, once the world’s greatest driver and now a car owner, is already thinking. Foyt, you see, ran pretty well on a variety of circuits and showed off his personality every now and then.

When it comes to character, it looks like it might take one to hire one. Thanks again, A.J.

Race Center

Auto Club 500

@ Auto Club Speedway
Saturday, October 19, 2013
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