News this week that Max Chilton has joined US powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing for an assault on the 2016 IndyCar Series got us thinking about the other British racers who made the move across the Atlantic in a bid to beat the Americans at their own game.
And it’s an impressive list. Just eight drivers have won races in the series in its USAC (1956-1979), CART (1979-2007) and IRL (1996-to date) guises. For the pedants among you, it’s nine if you include Italian-born but British-domiciled Dario Resta, winner of the 1916 Indianapolis 500.
Without wishing to decry in any way the efforts across the pond of Formula 1 heroes Jim Clark and Graham Hill, they only tackled a smattering of races across several seasons. Clark won at Milwaukee in 1963 and two years later became the first driver to win the Indy 500 in a rear-engined car, while the Scot’s F1 adversary and fellow world champion Hill took victory at The Brickyard in ’66.
So that leaves six IndyCar converts who tasted the champagne on US ovals, road courses and street tracks during full-time campaigns.
Everyone has their favourite of course, and it’s hard to rate them in any sort of order other than their success, so here, in ascending order of race wins, are the first three of our half dozen heroes.
6 Mark Blundell – 3 Cart wins
Blundell made the move to America after his F1 career came to an end with McLaren in 1995. He joined the PacWest squad for ’96, contesting 13 of the 16 races and finishing 16th in the final points, his best result a pair of fifths in the Reynard-Ford.
For 1997, the team switched to Mercedes power and Mark won, by a few inches, on the road course of Portland. He followed that up with wins on the streets of Toronto and the season finale at the California oval of Fontana.
He stayed with PacWest for three more seasons but there were no more wins, prompting a return to sportscar car racing for 2001.
5 Mike Conway – 4 IndyCar wins
Despite a stellar junior single-seater CV that included titles in Formula Renault UK and British F3, as well as race wins in GP2, Conway’s F1 aspirations reached their peak with testing contracts for Honda and Brawn.
Dovetailing behind-the-scenes outings for Brawn in 2009, he joined the unfancied Dreyer & Reinbold IndyCar team. He made an immediate impression by finishing on the podium at Sears Point. A part-time campaign in 2010 led to frustration and, for 2011, the chance to join Andretti. A win on his third outing at Long Beach proved he’d arrived in the US big-time, although he’d finish a lowly 17th in the end-of-season table.
American legend AJ Foyt persuaded Conway to join him for 2012 and the tie-up produced a single podium – third in Toronto. It meant a switch to a fourth different team in as many years for 2013, in the shape of plucky privateer Dale Coyne. Conway found that winning feeling again, with victory on the streets of Detroit, but it wasn’t enough to keep him under Coyne’s wing.
His final season in the series, 2014, allowed him to double his win tally, thanks to two victories for Ed Carpenter’s outfit. Contesting only 12 of the 18 races (he also had a ride with Toyota’s World Endurance Championship team) he won at Long Beach and Toronto.
And that was that for Mike Conway in IndyCar; for 2015 he committed to Toyota for a full-time WEC assault.
4 Nigel Mansell – 5 Cart wins
At the end of 1992, F1’s loss was Champ Car’s gain as world champion Mansell threw his toys out at Williams, after failing to agree terms with Sir Frank, and threw his towel in with top US team Newman/Haas for an attempt on the F1/Champ Car title double.
And a fantasy scenario began to play out immediately when Mansell turned up for the opening round on the streets of Surfers Paradise on Australia’s Gold Coast and stuck his Lola-Ford on pole position, ahead of Penske duo Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. Incredibly, he went on to win, vanquishing former champs such as Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan.
He came back down to earth with a back-crunching bang next time out after crashing in practice on the Phoenix oval, where Newman/Haas team-mate Andretti would score his final career win, but healed quickly to get his championship campaign back on track with third in Long Beach.
Thereafter Mansell seemed at one with the car and the circuits, taking third at Indy, winning on the ovals of Milwaukee, Michigan, New Hampshire and Nazareth, securing second at Portland and Road America, and third in Cleveland.
The fairytale double was his! And he stuck around for 1994, too, although it yielded no more wins and only eighth in the points. By then, though, he’d made friends with Williams again and was summoned to contest four Grands Prix in the FW16 and FW16B, famously winning the finale in Adelaide.
Read part two tomorrow…