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Published: 7/29/2006

Americans emerging as top competitors in IndyCar series

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. - The Yanks aren't coming - they are here.

The rub against open-wheeled racing for a long time was that the sport did not feature enough American-born drivers, and therefore could not establish a strong connection with fans here in the United States.

Heading into tomorrow's Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Speedway, seven of the top 15 positions in the

IndyCar Series points race belong to Americans. Sam Hornish Jr. leads the competition for the season championship, while fellow American drivers Marco Andretti (eighth), Danica Patrick (ninth) and Bryan Herta (10th) are all in the top 10.

"That's always been out there - that the series doesn't have enough Americans, but with Danica, Sam, Marco and the others, there are a lot of American drivers to cheer for," said Helio Castroneves, Hornish's Marlboro Team Penske teammate.

Hornish won the biggest race of the season, the Indy 500, while young Andretti was a very close second after getting passed in the final seconds. Patrick took fourth in the race last year, her rookie season, after leading with fewer than 10 laps to go.

That trio of young Americans certainly carries the most marketing appeal, and the Indy Racing League has been quick to take advantage of their success.

Add to that the incredible racing pedigree owned by Andretti, the grandson of racing legend Mario Andretti and the son of

IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti, the gender equity earned by Patrick, who put her car on the pole three times last season, and the fact that Hornish is generally recognized as the greatest oval racer of his generation.

"There's a lot for racing fans to get excited about, no matter where they are from," Castroneves said.

HISTORY REPEATS: Back in the fall of 1968, Ronnie Bucknum won the first event at Michigan International Speedway when he took the 250-mile USAC-sanctioned open wheel race, finishing a lap ahead of Mario Andretti. Tomorrow at MIS, Andretti's grandson Marco will be in the field for the Fire-stone Indy 400. Jeff Bucknum, the son of Ronnie, is expected to be in the starting field, driving for A.J. Foyt Racing. Bucknum replaced Felipe Giaffone in the No. 14 ABC Supply Dallara/Honda and made his debut on July 15 at Nashville Superspeedway. "I don't have a lack of confidence when it comes to ovals, but I'm smart enough to know I need someone to tell me the things that I don't know because of my lack of experience," said Bucknum. "A.J. Foyt is one of the best when it comes to the oval tracks and teaching drivers to run the ovals. This is the best opportunity I could ask for."

DOUBLE DUTY: Only six times has a driver won the Indianapolis 500 and the open-wheel event at MIS in the same season. In 2004, Buddy Rice became the latest to master the double. He joined a club that includes Johnny Rutherford in 1980, Gordon Johncock in 1982, Bobby Rahal in 1986, Rick Mears in 1991 and Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000. Northwest Ohio native Sam Hornish Jr., the reigning Indy 500 champ, has a shot at pulling it off this year.



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