In the years after World War II, the newly-minted United States Air Force set up shop on the edge of Rogers Lake on the border of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties to wring out their hottest new aircraft.
Muroc Field - later to become Edwards Air Force Base - was the name of the facility, and a more godforsaken out-of-the-way spot in the middle of nowhere was hard to imagine. The Air Force chose it because the dry lake was the perfect testing ground for new equipment, with miles of absolutely flat, hard earth serving as generous runways for the best test pilots in the world to use.
Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Florida, shares several elements with Muroc Field. It was once an Air Force base, and it shares about the same connection with civilization, which is to say it might as well be set up in the Egyptian desert with the pyramids. And while it is not absolutely flat - actually, it is so bumpy that you can lose fillings just driving around the racing surface, and that's probably the best case scenario given the rather firm nature of the track's walls - it is the location where many different categories of American motorsport descend to test their newest and hottest equipment.
Muroc and Sebring share another quality, in that except in rare instances the testing that goes on there goes unheralded and is mostly workmanlike in nature. But there are instances when these gritty, remote locations become the flashpoint of an explosion of interest. In Muroc's case, it became a pop culture landmark during the space race, when the Air Force tested its staggering array of X-planes and destroyed speed and altitude records in the process.
For Sebring, the flashpoint happened over the past two days, when Formula 1 star Rubens Barrichello joined his "brother from another mother" Tony Kanaan to test the new Dallara DW12 IndyCar for KV Racing.
By now you've read in a dozen different outlets the story of why Barrichello decided to accept Kanaan's invitation to wring out the new Dallara-Chevrolet. It's a familiar story - a veteran driver loses a driving opportunity to a younger driver with a fatter wallet. It is somewhat ironic that when Barrichello was just coming up into F1, it was Ayrton Senna who was the dominant driver; now, he finds himself without a ride because of the late superstar's nephew Bruno.
Friendship is a strong motivator, and Barrichello and Kanaan could not be closer friends unless they were actually kin by blood. So Rubens flew to Sebring with his helmet bag and spent a couple of days putting the new turbo-powered IndyCar through its paces.
There was not a lot that Barrichello could have been surprised about in terms of the race car. What had to have been a shock, though, was the full-court press from the media, IndyCar fans, and even the CEO of IndyCar himself, Randy Bernard, who took it upon himself to be there in person to gladhand the affable 39-year-old Brazilian.
Why? There are a multitude of reasons, but if one were to distill it down to the barest essentials, the reason was because a potential marriage between Rubens Barrichello and IndyCar represents opportunity.
There is no way on this planet that the IZOD IndyCar Series in and of itself could be seen as a good career move for an 11-time Grand Prix winner when placed against a career in Formula 1. More people follow Barrichello on Twitter than the total audience of a typical IndyCar race on television. Comparing F1 and IndyCar budgets is like putting Warren Buffet next to a local pawn shop owner. If it's fame Barrichello wants, he is not going to find it in IndyCar.
There are three reasons why Barrichello might be tempted to sign a deal to race in IndyCar. There's the Indianapolis 500, still one of the world's biggest and most prestigious motorsports events. There's the chance he has to race with his "brother" Tony Kanaan - and after years of teammate politics in F1, having that kind of fun, warm relationship to lean on has to be an attractive thing. But most importantly, it is the chance not just to race, but to win and compete for a championship.
In this latter sense, the opportunity in IndyCar is far more enticing than Formula 1. The best Barrichello can hope for in F1 at this point is a drive with a mid-tier team, probably as the number two driver - which means race weekends spent straining to score at least a single championship or manufacturer point. In IndyCar, however, the slate has been wiped clean with a new car and new engine formula. The notebooks for the 2012 season are being written on the fly, which puts everyone in the paddock on the most equal footing the series has seen in over a decade. The teams which will prosper will be the teams with experienced drivers who can offer the best feedback - and Barrichello, fresh from the F1 ranks, would be among the best candidates available for that task.
For the IZOD IndyCar Series, the rewards are incredibly obvious. Barrichello's international fame makes Danica Patrick look like a B-list celebrity. The series is already considering a second race in Brazil, and having one of the country's favorite racing sons on the driver roster would be a significant coup. But perhaps most important is the legitimacy that Barrichello represents.
Let us not mince any words here - during the Split and in the years since unification, IndyCar has been desperate to recapture a level of stature in the motorsports community. It has been known for years as "the Danica Racing League" because of how tenaciously Patrick was propped up as the face of the series. IndyCar was trying to ride to pop culture prominence, not on Danica's coattails but on her swimsuit bikini top. Then too were the abortive attempts to absorb by osmosis the reflected glory of other "celebrities" like Gene Simmons and Donald Trump - both moves which backfired embarrassingly and only served to deepen the ditch in which the series found itself.
Bringing Barrichello aboard would be a different story. If it is not quite on par with Nigel Mansell's defection in the early 1990s, it is at least similar. Yes, it is a cheap way to immediately add an audience and international exposure - but this time it would be for the right reasons, because it would be as a consequence of Barrichello's prestige as a race car driver, not as a reality TV star or a pop culture pinup doll. Barrichello as IndyCar driver is a concept that screams endorsement from a demographic that has been largely indifferent to IndyCar for the past few years - the "serious" motorsports community.
There are purists, of course, who say that courting a 39-year-old F1 "castoff," as they phrase it, is not a worthy pursuit, particularly when there is such promising talent in the IndyCar junior ranks. To be sure, the Josef Newgardens, James Hinchcliffes, Gustavo Yacamans, and JR Hildebrands are appealing prospects for the future. But they still need seasoning before they can aspire to become star drivers in IndyCars, and while in a purist's sense the best course of action would be to give them that time to mature, let's be frank - purity in racing is a concept best left to fans' imaginations. And who's to say that the best way to develop as a race car driver is not to prove oneself against a driver of Rubens Barrichello's stature, experience, and skill?
Let's boil this down to its essence: the math works here for everyone involved. Everyone seems to realize this, which is why there is so much intense interest right now about the situation. But that doesn't mean it will happen, as logical as it might seem to most people. The biggest roadblock would be the simple matter of overcoming Barrichello's comfort level. In 39 years, a man develops a certain tendency to appreciate routine. It may be that he decides that running mid-pack at Monaco is preferable to leading at the Milwaukee Mile.
As IndyCar fans, we can only hope that the competitive instincts that put him atop the podium eleven times in Grand Prix racing will overcome Barrichello's lifestyle inertia. In other words, he must decide if he is a driver or a racer. The racer would take the chance to race in IndyCar, because when you strip away the flashbulbs, the headlines, the money, and the fame, there is only one thing that can slake the thirst of a racer - and that is victory.
If Rubens Barrichello decides that victory is the goal best pursued at this stage of his life, we will all win.