As Formula 1 expands, Motorsport News wants to know who your favourite American racing driver of all time is.
Uncle Sam is paying more and more attention to global motorsport, particularly the top-flight of single-seaters.
While online streaming services might be responsible for a significant part of that, three grands prix in the country in 2023 means that Formula 1 will have not had such representation in the States since 1982.
The driver market is starting to wake up too. Williams driver Logan Sargeant will be the first full-time American incumbent of a grand prix ride in 2023 since 2006, when Scott Speed lined up with the Toro Rosso team (now AlphaTauri).
Here, we pick out 10 of the best from the land of opportunity, and we’d love for you to tell us who your favourite American racing driver is. Simply check out our selections below and click on your favourite to make your voice heard. The results will be printed in Motorsport News at the beginning of February, so get thinking.
Be sure to check out Fast Car’s top 10 American muscle cars of all time.
Who are your favourite American racing drivers? Meet the contenders
There isn’t anyone else who has taken part in three World championship grands prix at the Brickyard between 1958 and 1960 and also taken part in his last Indy 500 an incredible 34 years later, but AJ Foyt has.
The now 87-year-old quickly adopted a hard-as-nails driving style, which was maybe a reflection on a tough upbringing, but his natty race attire of a silk shirt and white trousers led to him becoming known as ‘Fancy Pants’. He had an attitude learned on the no-nonsense short ovals and it stood him in good stead.
Foyt combined single-seater racing with tin-tops and quickly became adept at both. His performances in the forerunner to what is now IndyCar, USAC, were simply sensational. He took his fourth USAC title in 1964, the same season he claimed his first NASCAR victory. He would go on to claim four Indy 500 wins between 1961 and 1977, the Daytona 500 in 1972 – oh yes, and he also took time out to win Le Mans in 1967 alongside Dan Gurney in one of the factory Ford GT40s.
Following his career behind the wheel, the Texan went on to form his own team, AJ Foyt Enterprises, which continues to make its mark in the frontline of Indycar racing to this day. He is an ever-present in the paddocks and has a keen eye on history. Foyt is one of a kind.
For the American audience to crown its own King is a worthy accolade in its own right. But the seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty was one of the first outwardly facing racers who knew the value of his own persona and of getting the fans to go on the journey with him.
The son of three-time NASCAR champion Lee, Richard, after finishing second three times, finally claimed the title spoils for himself in 1964. That was the start of a golden period and the driver, so often associated with STP sponsorship (after promising his mother he would not accept alcohol backing), went on to claim seven crowns.
The last was in 1979 and he is still tied with Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson as the driver with the most NASCAR titles under his belt. Petty took part in nearly 1200 NASCAR races and won the Daytona 500 seven times. He took part in an unbeaten 513 consecutive race starts. But it was his Stetson-wearing wearing, dark-glasses sporting brand that made him one of the most recognisable men not only on the grid, but in the general public’s psyche as a whole. Is Richard your favourite American racing driver?
There was something so endearing about Mario Andretti’s ambition to win Le Mans. The 1979 Formula 1 World champion was still competing in the French classic through to 2000 in his quest to add that accolade to success in World Sportscar Championship rounds, the Indy 500 and NASCAR.
Ultimately, he failed in his mission to claim success at La Sarthe, but his repeated attempts to conquer La Sarthe shows the competitive spirit within the man and his undiluted joy of racing cars.
He was another to start on the short ovals alongside his bother Aldo, but Mario’s star would shine the brightest. The Italian immigrant took his first USAC title in 1965 and went on to claim four in total, with the last coming in 1984. Oh yes, and there was a Daytona 500 NASCAR win to add to that in 1967 too.
But perhaps Andretti’s most significant achievement was being the US’s best export in racing terms. His first F1 outing came with Lotus in 1968 and he went on to drive for Ferrari, but a reunion with Lotus in 1977 saw him hit the global stage. Winning the World title in 1978 was the crowning glory, although many pointed to a ground-effect car advantage. That was to underplay the achievements of the man himself.
Rick Mears certainly took his chances when they came. Penske picked up the Sprint racer early on in his career. He was given a chance to deputise for its regular driver, Mario Andretti, when Andretti was away racing in Europe or around the world.
Part of Mears’s deal included the Indy 500, and the Kansas driver stuck the machine on the front row for the showpiece race on his debut in 1978. While that race did not prove a success, he won on the series’ return visit 12 months later. It was the first of his four victories at the Brickyard with his last coming in 1988 and he is a driver so readily associated with Pennzoil sponsorship.
He scored three CART championship victories between 1979 and 1982 and was racing competitively at the Indy 500 up to 10 years later, although some sizeable accidents had begun to creep in. Mears’ major successes all came at the wheel of cars run by Roger Penske, and he helped the team owner establish his own reputation as big player in motorsport.
I once had the privilege of interviewing Dale Earnhardt Sr. It was in the Great Room of the Grosvenor House Hotel at the Autosport Awards in 1996.
I was an interloper because I was from Motoring News, but it was my entire evening’s mission. I just had to get in front of him and ask some questions. It took a good three hours of door-stepping his every move, but I finally got there. There he sat, in this darkened room but with his trademark shades on. As a junior journo, I had my questions prepared.
I hit him with my first one: “So, Dale, how does it feel to have the nickname ‘The Intimidator’? Is it fair?”
He took forever to reply. There was an intake of breath, a chew on the obligatory cigar, and an answer in a very slow southern drawl. “Well, boy, I guess you better ask the others who call me about that, not me…”
The seven-time NASCAR title-winner finally took his one and only Daytona 500 win a few months after I had spoken to him. It was the crowning highlight of his 76 NASCAR wins. But Earnhardt was a high-water mark in NASCAR. He was either loved or hated by NASCAR fans, but the Man in Black didn’t care. He did things his own way. Is Dale your favourite American racing driver?
There is no doubt that Phil Hill bucked the trend. Most post-war early buccaneers of grand prix racing were hard as nails drivers, brought up on a diet or derring-do and bravado. Hill was a quiet, placid California-raised man with a keen eye on all that was good about life and a dedication to becoming the best he could.
Hill left the USA early to follow his dream. He came to Europe as a mechanic, working for Lotus while racing at the same time. Ferrari took notice of his ability behind the wheel and signed him to its sportscar programme in the mid-1950s before being transferred to the F1 attack full time for the first time in 1960 after picking up a couple of second place finishes during his programme the year before. His main rival for the championship in 1961 was team-mate Wolfgang von Trips but when the German was killed in a crash in the Italian Grand Prix, Hill was assured of the crown on a day tinged with sadness.
Hill went on to win at Daytona in 1964, Sebring (three times) and Le Mans (three times) but the urgency had gone out of his desire to compete following the tragic way in which he claimed the World title.
When his family moved to Riverside in California when he was a teenager, the results would have an impact on the rest of Dan Gurney’s life. He found kindred spirits at the nearby racetrack and it fed his passion for engineering alongside his interest in racing cars.
Success in domestic sportscar events at the track brought him to the attention of the North American Racing Team, which took him to Le Mans in 1958. A crash by his co-driver meant he failed to finish, however, he had made the right impression and was offered a test by the official factory Ferrari team. He started his first Formula 1 race with the Scuderia in 1959. He went on to take Porsche’s maiden World championship grand prix victory in 1962.
Teaming up with Carroll Shelby to create the All American Racers -Anglo American Racers when it appeared in F1 – Gurney made history when he took the US-based Eagle to success in the Belgian GP in 1967. His partnership with Shebly also led to a famous victory at Le Mans in that same season alongside AJ Foyt in the GT40 Mk IV.
Alongside his sportscar and F1 success, Gurney was a winner in the British Saloon Car Championship, NASCAR and the USAC single-seater series too. His All American Racing team went on to huge success, and he was, in part, responsible for the creation of the CART set of single-seater regulations for the US scene in 1979.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Jeff Gordon changed the face of NASCAR racing when he burst onto the scene in the early 1990s. The young upstart was not from the regular pool of Good Ole Boys which had dominated the discipline for so long, and he was viewed with suspicion by the regular pack.
After an early career on the short ovals and in Sprint Cars, Gordon spent two full years in the second tier Busch series in 1991 and 1992 before moving into the main Winston Cup series in 1993. His win at all costs attitude still continued to upset the regulars, with Darrell Waltrip stating that Gordon “hit everything but the pace car” in his early races, even though he picked up the Rookie of the Year awards.
His first of what would go on to be an eye-watering 93 NASCAR Cup Series wins in Charlotte in 1994 and it was a winning streak that would take him to four titles between 1995 and 2001. He took his last win in 2015, one year before he stepped away from the series for good. Is Jeff your favourite American racing driver?
Al Unser Sr
Another to graduate through Sprint Cars, Al Unser’s father and his two brothers also tackled motorsport.
Both of Al’s brothers, Jerry and Bobby, raced at Indy (an event Bobby won in 1968). Al nearly beat him to glory in Indiana with a second place in 1967, two laps down on winner AJ Foyt.
It was only another four years before Unser took the first of his four victories at the Brickyard when he drove for Parnelli Jones Racing.
It was the first of four wins at the track, with the final one coming in a last-minute deal with Penske to take over from an injured Danny Ongias.
Despite having tackled sportscar racing NASCAR and the International Race of Champions, it was the USA’s top-flight single-seater series where he enjoyed the majority of his notoriety and that was heightened when his son Al Junior, who would go on to become a two-time title and Indy 500 winner, joined him on the grid in 1982.
The Jimmie Johnson story might not be quite finished yet. The Californian is one of three men to have won the NASCAR title on seven occasions but, despite switching to race in IndyCar for the last couple of seasons, the 47-year-old has now stepped back from a full-time ride.
Instead, the 83-time NASCAR race winner will cherry-pick some of the highest profile races for 2023 while also turning has hand to team ownership for the first time. For example, he has targeted the Indy 500 and the NASCAR race at Charlotte on the same day.
Jeff Gordon spotted Johnson’s talen, who persuaded team boss Rick Hendrick to give him a chance in 2002. Johnson was runner up in just his second full campaign and took his first title in 2006. It was to begin a period of domination for the number 48 machine.
His switch to single-seater racing in 2021 brought many headlines and while he didn’t win a round, his pace was admirable. He has unfinished business at the Brickyard. Is Jimmie your favourite American racing driver? Vote now!