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The proof is not in the passport

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Is Ryan Briscoe less compelling because he's not American?
Is Ryan Briscoe less compelling because he's not American?

Paul Tracy never has been at a loss for words.

I'm not sure he always thinks about what those words are, but that doesn't stop him from sharing them with everyone.

The "Thrill from West Hill" started a Twitter ruckus today by posting this to his feed:

4 drivers from this continent at the first test . i think there is 3 wins for all of them put together . as guys like rahal , rice and me

get to stay home and watch . if thats what you fans want ... enjoy

Now, I appreciate Paul's passion. I appreciate his outspokenness. But he's really criticizing the wrong people if he's laying this at the feet of the fans.

Tracy and Oriol Servia followed up on the first volley by tweeting to their followers that they need to write to new IRL CEO Randy Bernard to express their preference for North American drivers. In and of itself, the suggestion is a good one and one that Bernard himself has made repeatedly, even though he doesn't even move into his position until March 1st.

But Tracy and Servia have missed the mark in this case. Because if there is one thing the fans have not been silent on regardless of everything else that has happened in IndyCar racing, it is the dearth of American drivers in the series.

In fact, the fan voices have been boisterously loud about this topic - almost too loud, given that some of them have cast aspersions onto those drivers who they don't believe deserve their seats simply because of their passports. Nonetheless, the push for American drivers in an American-based racing series is one based on the theory that it's easier to cheer for people who are more like yourself.

There seems to be an inconsistency, though, as to what constitutes, as Tracy put it, "guys that a fan base to build on" - in other words, how similar does a driver have to be to the fans in order to qualify? Tracy is including himself in the list as well as his pal Servia, neither of which are Americans (Tracy is Canadian, while Servia is Spanish). Drivers like Alex Tagliani and Patrick Carpentier are French-Canadian, but their accents are harsher than some of the Brazilian drivers in the series such as Vitor Meira and Helio Castroneves (or, for that matter, Takuma Sato from Japan).

Common sense dictates that a driver can be a foundation piece of a fanbase if his or her performance is compelling and personality inviting. Fans can feel connected to drivers for a myriad of reasons - nationality or heritage is only one of them. Who is to say, therefore, that drivers like Mario Romancini or Takuma Sato will not be able to connect with fans and engage them, simply because they are "ride buyers"?

Beyond what makes a driver "connectible," however, is the brutal truth that fans have virtually no say in who gets to sit in each IndyCar seat. Nor does Randy Bernard, although he can be involved in the process of finding sponsorship for so-called "deserving" drivers. No, the people who decide who drives IndyCars are the team owners themselves. And while every team owner in the paddock will give at least lip service to the concept of hiring American drivers, their record for actually doing so is not a good one for a simple reason: economics.

It costs a lot to field an IndyCar team. Perhaps in 2012 it will be far cheaper, and if that happens there might be more opportunity for a meritocracy in the driver ranks instead of finding out who has the biggest wallet. But for now, team owners have to have financial support in order to put the car on the track, and sadly many of the drivers who are rideless - including Tracy, Servia, and others - do not have the capability to furnish that support. No amount of fan petitioning will change that.

But there's a question out there that some fans and advocates of American drivers haven't answered - perhaps because it's one they don't want to acknowledge. What if some of these despicable "ride buyers" end up being as personable, compelling and praiseworthy as a Jonathan Summerton or J.R. Hildebrand or Paul Tracy? Or, heaven forbid, moreso? Are fans even willing to give the new drivers a chance?

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the IndyCar fan community has a history of looking backwards instead of forwards. The DeltaWing controversy is a prime example of this. There is a large faction of folks who have a hard time thinking outside of the very high-walled box that has been built around IndyCar racing in the past couple of decades. The names Tracy, Servia and Rice resonate with them, whereas Beatriz, de Silvestro, Sato, Saavedra and Romancini are shadowed in uncertainty - both because their names and heritage are unfamiliar as well as their newness to the series. Given a choice, the fans will gravitate towards those they know instead of those they don't, no matter how much promise the latter group might possess.

While I understand the reasoning behind it - and while I sympathize with the idea that young domestic talent lacks opportunity because of finances - I still think that dismissing this new crop of drivers on such weak grounds would be a mistake.

Look at E.J. Viso, arguably one of IndyCar's more popular drivers. Only a couple of years ago, Viso was in the same boat as Mario Romancini - an unknown quantity from a foreign nation who many fans thought got his opportunity based on his checkbook instead of his merit. Today, fans are thrilled that he was able to secure a ride for this season. So what changed? Viso had a chance to prove himself in the paddock and on the track, and his story went from uninteresting to compelling.

I guess my point is that nationalism is a good thing, even healthy - so long as it is not taken to an extreme. And it would be wonderful to see good guys like Oriol Servia, J.R. Hildebrand, Phil Giebler and - yes - even Paul Tracy get IndyCar rides. But if they are not able to do so, what is stopping people from giving the new drivers a chance? That's all they're asking for, really.

After all, even Mario Andretti started his career as an unknown Italian.