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The ones who got away

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Ten years ago, a young driver in the Champ Car World Series ladder system was having a conversation with then-CEO Christopher Pook in the paddock at St. Petersburg, Florida.

Pook had made headlines for all the wrong reasons by publicly alleging that American race car drivers were inadequate against European-trained competition for Champ Car seats, and this young driver - an American - was incensed by Pook's casual dismissal.

Incredibly, Pook - the latest in a long line of "saviors" of Champ Car who would eventually almost single-handedly bankrupt the series - reiterated his comments to the driver's face.

"You're testing the wrong people," the driver retorted. "You give me ten laps, and I'll show you that you are absolutely wrong."

The driver never got that test, though, his bravado notwithstanding. Pook and the Champ Car powers-that-be passed him by, along with several other promising young American drivers in the ladder system.

In the present day, Joey Hand - the young driver told to his face that he was not good enough - is an established and successful sports car driver and factory driver for BMW. His career is thriving... but his dream of racing in the Indianapolis 500 and competing at the top level of open-wheel racing is long dead. And he is not alone.

A cursory glance at the entry list for the 50th Anniversary Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona held this past weekend shows an unsettlingly extensive roster of other former blue-chip prospects from the American open-wheel ladder system who, for lack of opportunity, found racing homes elsewhere.

It's hard for open-wheel fans who have any sense of history to read the names off of the Grand Am entry list - Allmendinger, Dalziel, Fogarty, Gurney, Gidley, Valiante, Bomarito, Lazzaro - and realize the lost opportunities represented by these names. It is a troubling reminder of the giant chasm in open-wheel racing that was created by the 15-year IndyCar/Champ Car split, a chasm still unbridged even years after unification ended the calamitous civil war.

The drivers of the "Red Dragon" for GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing, Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty, have been racing in Grand Am Prototypes for seven years. They came to sports cars from the Toyota Atlantic feeder series that featured a class of drivers that included Hand, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Ryan Dalziel, Buddy Rice, Michael Valiante, and Danica Patrick.

Gurney and Fogarty got their shot with Stallings after the team owner moved to Grand American from Atlantics. Gurney co-drove with Stallings in 2005, and then Fogarty - after multiple Atlantics championships failed to get him a ride in Champ Car - followed in 2006. The mathematics were not hard to figure out - for every sports car ride, there were at least two seats available per car. The formula, too, was more appealing than in either Champ Car or the Indy Racing League - for all the derision brought on by the "NASCARized" sports car formula, Grand Am gave its drivers a better shot to win than they might have in open-wheel, where one or two teams had a chokehold on the rest.

Any idea that their sports car careers were only a temporary stop before returning to open-wheel racing was dashed when the GAINSCO duo combined to win seven of fourteen events in 2007, cementing the team as perennial contenders in their category. But, in reality, the die was cast the moment they ran up against the glass ceiling that separated the open-wheel ladder from "the big time."

The harsh reality was that Fogarty and Gurney simply were not interested in open-wheel racing anymore. Fogarty, in particular, was wholly soured by his experience trying to break through in open-wheel. Even winning championships was not enough to make an impression. With nothing left to achieve in open-wheel cars, his decision to commit to sports car racing was easy. Why pursue the Indianapolis 500, he reasoned, when the Rolex 24 at Daytona has plenty of its own historical significance and the interest of so many big names in racing?

The vacuum created by the departure of so many top prospect racers from the open-wheel ranks ended up being filled with short-term ride buyers - in fact, of the stellar rookie classes from those "lost" years, only one driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, has a full-time open-wheel ride, and that came only after years of journeyman driving and uncertainty.

As IndyCar works to rebuild itself in the years following unification, a new generation of young talent is gradually making its way into the driver ranks. Young drivers like JR Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe, and Josef Newgarden are locked into full-time rides for the 2012 season; Newgarden, a highly-prized prospect driver, secured his full-time ride with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing immediately after winning the Indy Lights championship, a sign that the glass ceiling might be on the verge of cracking open.

But for all of the future promise and hope, it is impossible to forget the "lost generation" of American open-wheel racing and the painful realization of what might have been.