DUESSELDORF GERMANY - NOVEMBER 27: Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher of Germany waves to fans during to the first day of the race of champions event at the Esprit Arena on November 27 2010 in Duesseldorf Germany. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)
During every NASCAR race broadcast, you will inevitably hear a reference to "the 43 greatest drivers in the world" in reference to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers.
You will also hear this same sentiment expressed on Formula 1 broadcasts, IZOD IndyCar Series broadcasts, and even NHRA, Formula D, and World of Outlaws broadcasts (although the latter three usually are kind enough to include a qualifier, such as "best drag racers in the world").
These claims are made by promoters, marketers, PR personnel, and die-hard fans of each of these series, and who knows - maybe some of those folks even believe it.
But let's be frank here. It's not true. In fact, many of the best drivers in the world are still stuck driving around a local track somewhere in their off-hours after they get home from a day job, destined never to know the fame and glory that the superstars enjoy.
And deep down in their heart of hearts, the superstars themselves know that all too well.
There is a short but very meaningful segment in the exceptional movie Senna where the late, great Formula 1 champion reminisced about his greatest rival. While the interviewer expected Senna to mention Alain Prost or Michael Schumacher, Senna instead spoke of a competitor from his earliest karting days.
If you ask any of the drivers currently competing at the top level of their sport, you are virtually guaranteed of having a similar experience. More likely than not, Jeff Gordon, Sebastien Vettel, Dario Franchitti, or Steve Kinser will mention someone you have never heard of as somebody they believe was one of the most gifted at their chosen disciplines.
See, one thing major-league racers know is that the road to stardom in racing is rarely blazed by pure talent. It is instead a witch's brew of money, opportunity, timing, and even sheer dumb luck that accompanies talent and effort that elevates one driver or another to the big time.
Even with the specialization and diversification of motorsports, there are still only a handful of spots at the top of the sport open for the taking. Those who grab those spots are unquestionably skilled, but unlike other sports where only the cream of the crop are able to ascend to the highest heights, racing's best opportunities fall to those for whom the planets align at the right time.
What this means in short is that the ranks of any particular racing series are filled not only with great drivers but also fast talkers, good salesmen, big wallets, and yes, even skin flashers. Even then, the caliber of team with which these diverse types of driver competes factors significantly into whether the driver will ultimately succeed.
In some years, a less-skilled driver could luck into a world-beating race tire or a "gray-area exploit" in the motor that catapults him to wins or even championships. The smart racers realize that their success is due to a myriad of factors and admit it - the dumber ones believe that it is their skill alone, and thus when they fail to reproduce that success they are stymied.
In our modern era, there isn't even a way to grab the top drivers from a variety of series and put them together to judge which is the best of the best. Why? Because the conditions of the test are never fair. Inevitably, the format will artificially benefit one type of driver over another.
The long and short of it is that the serendipity that results in a driver making it to the top rung of any motorsports ladder is so rare and reliant upon so many disparate elements that, inevitably, many of the most skilled practitioners of the high-speed arts hit a wall several rungs before the top.
But the most honest superstars, in their unguarded, non-spin-doctoring moments, will get a wistful stare as they recall a time back in the foggy mists of the past when they raced against a prodigy. Someone with breathtaking aptitude, someone who made even the hardest accomplishments look easy. And more often than not, they will tell you, "Man, if that guy had just gotten one break..." Then they will trail off, remembering in perfect clarity in that moment how very fortunate they are to be where they are. That realization is usually the end of the interview.
So the next time you hear someone using the phrase "the best drivers in the world," remember that they really mean the "luckiest."