Motorsport can sometimes be a cult of personality.
A sport is where an athlete participates for the purpose of melding fitness with ability to do something the average human being might not be able to do. Throwing a football in a perfect spiral for tens of yards to find its intended target is not exactly easy. Nor is pitching a 100MPH-plus fastball right in the strike zone at least 60 times in a game.
Consider the fitness and mental preparation in driving a light automobile at over 200MPH on a two-mile course for a few hours on a Sunday. Rather, the same skills needed to drive a couple of hours at a time over the duration of twelve to twenty-four hours on a sustained course – day and night.
It takes a personality to do these extraordinary tasks within the confines of a metal body-frame combination with an internal combustion engine on board. Over the course of motorsport history – we had some amazing personalities.
To do a Five Favorites is to not do justice to every race driver I admired throughout my life. The list is quite lengthy and touches almost every motorsport series imaginable.
To fulfill the format, I will list my Top Five – and name the rest below…
MARIO ANDRETTI: The Italian-born driver is perhaps remembered as one of the finest American drivers of any motorsport. Consider what he has accomplished – well, two of the most important accomplishments in my opinion. Andretti's win in the 1969 Indianapolis 500 cemented his legacy. One would argue that placed him above Phil Hill as our country’s finest race driver of the time. However, my favorite accomplishment of Andretti's was the 1978 Formula One driver's championship. He took Colin Chapman's aerodynamically advanced Lotus 79 with six wins and enough points to clinch at Monza. Sadly, he never was able to celebrate due to the crash and subsequent death of his teammate Ronnie Peterson. From that point, no matter the result – Andretti’s presence is felt on and off the track. His legacy continues through two generations of Andrettis on the track.
ALAIN PROST: Not many French race drivers have accomplished as much as him. Prost won four Formula One world driver's titles – including his final season in a Williams with Renault power. If one person leveraged a single team’s fortunes forever, his three titles with McLaren on the 1980s were proof of the kind of legacy he owns in F1. It's not a question of the number of wins he accumulated in the series. Nor was the fact that he enabled Ayrton Senna through their rivalry to become an even greater meteor amongst F1 racers. During the 1980s, my focus was on one man and his uncanny ability to dissect a track and everyone on it. No other French race driver has ever challenged his superiority in any open wheel racing series anywhere in the world.
ALLAN McNISH: In the world of endurance racing, no one could attempt to outrun or outthink this Scot. Every time he jumps into one of the Audi prototypes at Le Mans, Sebring or Spa, you may be watching a moving lesson on endurance racing. The beauty of McNish is mastery of a course – whether it is a difficult track or a new course. This is why I enjoy watching McNish as he finishes a race. Prime example – his win at Sebring, this year. He closed it out in one of the best Sebrings in a long time. However, McNish's 2008 win at Le Mans still ranks up there as one of his best drives in endurance racing. A class act, a tough fella and very dedicated to his craft.
RUBENS BARRICHELLO: Sometimes, it takes a superb driver to jump from Formula One to the Izod Indy Car series. The Brazilian was once considered the heir apparent to the legacy of Ayrton Senna. Partly, the burden of such a legacy was in due to being Michael Schumacher's second fiddle at Scuderia Ferrari during the early 2000s. He was the second best driver of that period. Being friends with IndyCar's Tony Kanaan planted an idea in his mind: If he is considered a good driver, why is he still playing in Formula One? This season, Barrichello is racing alongside his friend Kanaan for KV Racing Technology in the Indy Car circuit. This will make watching that circuit very interesting indeed.
DARIO FRANCHITTI: Jokingly, I call him "Mr. Ashley Judd" (which in fact is his wife). Franchitti remains a fan favorite and the soul of today's IndyCar – especially in the wake of the loss of Dan Wheldon. Next to Barrichello, I love watching Franchitti work in Indy Car. If there was one win at the Indianapolis 500 that captured my imagination in the past decade – it was the Scot's 2007 victory in the rain after the race was called on Lap 166. Even sweeter was Franchitti's 2010 win on a full 200 laps – a huge celebration for him and the car's owner, Chip Ganassi. No matter where you find him – in Indy car or another series, expect Franchitti to be in the thick of the action. After all, four IndyCar driver's championships are more than enough to watch.
THE REST: Jackie Stewart (Formula One), Tony Kanaan (IndyCar), Bill Elliott (NASCAR), Peter Brock (V8 Supercar), John Buffum (SCCA, Rallying), Colin McRae (WRC), Gilles Villenueve (Formula One), Sebastien Vettel (Formula One).