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Column: The Dakar Rally just isn’t the same without Robby Gordon

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Where have you gone, Robby Gordon? America needs you back – and in a big way.

Gordon, who was the most high-profile competitor from the U.S. in the Dakar Rally for more than a decade, has not competed since finishing 19th overall in the 2016 event.

Now, as the 40th Dakar Rally rolls to a close on Saturday in Cordoba, Argentina, the U.S. could definitely use the likes of a Gordon once again.

Because short of a miracle in the final three stages between Thursday and Saturday’s final round, the U.S. will be a virtual non-entity when it comes to being around at the end and in contention for a championship in any of the Rally’s five classes.

Of the 545 competitors originally entered in this year’s Rally, only nine are from the U.S.: one driver, three co-drivers (of which two are sharing driving duties with a lead driver from another country) and five motorcycle riders.

Here’s the breakdown:

Drivers: Bryce Menzies (Cars class)

Co-drivers: Peter Mortensen (co-driver for Menzies), Izhar Harmony (co-driver for Israeli Truck pilot Aviv Kadshai) and Jeff Sunderland (co-driver for France’s Ignacio Villegas in the Trucks class).

Motorcycle riders: Ricky Brabec, Andrew Short, Mari Samuels, Shane Esposito and Bill Conger.

What’s more, there are no U.S. competitors in two of the five classes – Quads and UTVs – and there are no U.S. mechanics in any class.

Right now, only the two-wheel riding Brabec seems to have a chance of a podium finish when the Rally concludes. The other four U.S. riders are looking at a likely finish perhaps in the top 20 to 50.

Meanwhile, Menzies, in just his second Rally this year, was considered one of the best U.S. hopes for a possible victory or podium finish.

But that all went up in smoke in Stage 2 more than a week ago when he wrecked his car and it was unable to be repaired.

As I have reported on the Rally over the past week-and-a-half plus, Gordon’s name and face keeps popping into my head. For so long, when I thought about the Rally over so many years, I also thought of Gordon at the same time.

To me, Gordon WAS the Dakar Rally, not to mention the best and most versatile U.S. talent on four wheels. And I’m sure I was not alone in my thoughts. Robby had a large contingent of fans from the U.S., and around the world for that matter, that followed his progress in every stage.

It was exciting to read wire dispatches from the Rally when it was in Africa or when it moved to South America a decade ago and to see how Gordon was doing.

Invariably, the Southern California native was near the front in several editions of the Rally, and won over 10 stages throughout his tenure in the event over several years of competition, but never came away with the big prize.

Still, as I said, to me Robby was the Rally. He made me proud to be an American and proud that he was representing our country.

But since he chose not to enter last year’s Rally to focus on his burgeoning Stadium Super Trucks Series, as well as other business ventures, not only wasn’t there an equally strong U.S. representative to replace Gordon, my hunch is that American fans have lost interest in the Rally with Robby not enrolled.

And it’s not a matter of age. Gordon turned 49 years old on January 2. There are several competitors in this year’s Rally that are in their late 40s and well into their 50s.

But that one fact still keeps coming back to me: Six drivers/riders and three co-drivers and that’s it as far as U.S. representatives – out of a field of 545 original entries.

This may shock you, but the numeric reality is that means the U.S. accounted for just 1.651 percent of the competitors in this year’s Rally.

1.651 percent. Think about how such a miniscule part that is in the overall field, not to mention the entire scheme of things.

Why aren’t there more Americans carrying the red, white and blue?

Where are the American manufacturers to offer support for its country’s drivers/riders?

Where is the interest of the more mainstream American media in the Rally, not to mention overall fan interest?

It’s nothing short of an embarrassment that there are so few U.S. representatives in this year’s Rally. This is the world’s greatest and most prestigious endurance race, covering roughly 5,600 miles in 15 days.

And yet the U.S., our country, only has six drivers/riders and three co-drivers (two of which are competing with non-U.S. teammates)?

As I was writing this column, a song kept popping into my head, with Gordon’s name in place of none other than Joe DiMaggio.

You know the song: “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel.

Here’s the version I was thinking of:

“Where have you gone, Robby Gordon, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, wu wu wu.”

That was never more true in this year’s Rally.

Let’s hope Robby decides to return next year because, boy, could we and the Rally ever use him again.

 

MRTI: Toronto digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Last year’s visit to the streets of Toronto for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires proved to be a pivotal point in the championship chase that year.

Kyle Kaiser swept both races in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and doing so gave him firm control over the championship, and he all but clinched it ahead of the season finale at Watkins Glen – Kaiser needed to only start that event to wrap up the title.

And in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while Parker Thompson swept the weekend, Oliver Askew was caught up in a crash in Race 2. Combine that with a second place finish from 2017 title rival Rinus VeeKay – VeeKay also finished third in Race 1 – and it kept the championship within reach of VeeKay, who took it all the way to the finale at The Glen.

The 2018 visit north of the border will likely be remembered for a similar impact on the MRTI championships, both in Indy Lights and USF2000 and, maybe most significantly, in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

A look at big stories to emerge from a wild weekend on the streets of Toronto is below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia scored a much needed win in Race 2 on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia’s championship hopes were teetering entering the weekend – he was 49 points out of the lead and had been vastly overshadowed by title combatants Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta for most of the season. But, his Race 2 victory combined with a second place in Race 1 to close him to within 40 points of O’Ward for the championship lead. He’s still a bit of a long shot, but his chances look much brighter leaving Toronto than they did entering.
  • More significantly, Colton Herta’s title hopes may have taken an enormous hit. After crashing in Race 1 qualifying, just after grabbing the pole as well, Herta suffered a thumb fracture that he aggravated again after crashing during Race 1. It forced the team to recommend Herta essentially sit out Race 2 – he pulled off after running only a couple laps and finished sixth – and he dropped to 18 points behind O’Ward, who won Race 1 and finished second in Race 2. The margin is hardly a commanding one for O’Ward, but with the next stop at the ultra-physical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Herta’s injured hand could remain a factor in the coming races and allow O’Ward to widen the margin.
  • One can’t help but feel bad for Victor Franzoni. Coming off the high of winning his first Indy Lights Race at Road America, Franzoni’s season took a turn for the worse. He crashed in Race 1 and then pulled off in Race 2 in order to conserve finances and resources – Franzoni detailed afterward that the budget is tight for him this year and crash damage from Race 1 does him no good. It would be a genuine shame if Franzoni’s season was derailed by funding issues, as the likeable Brazilian has made great progress all year and has the potential to make it as a Verizon IndyCar Series driver. He just needs the backing to get there.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay now trails Parker Thompson by only seven points in the Pro Mazda championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • No Mazda Road to Indy Championship was shaken up as much as Pro Mazda. Parker Thompson entered the weekend with a sizeable lead of 46 points over Rinus VeeKay. He exits the weekend only seven points ahead after finishes of eighth in both races – he was involved in a crash in Race 1 and made an unscheduled pit stop after thinking he suffered suspension damage in Race 2. Meanwhile, VeeKay dominated the weekend, winning from the pole in both races. It all means that what was once looking like a possible runaway has been all but reset. And we might see a genuine duel between them all the way to the season finale at Portland International Raceway.
  • There are few words to describe the relief everyone felt in seeing Harrison Scott walk away unhurt after his frightening airborne crash in Race 1. This was the first major crash test in a race for the Tatuus PM-18, and it aced it. And big kudos should also be given to the AMR Safety Team, who were already tending to Scott barely a few seconds after his car had come to a rest. Scott did start Race 2, but pulled off with a mechanical problem…which seems minor in comparison to what could have happened in Race 1.
  • Oliver Askew had his best race of the year in Race 2, finishing second to VeeKay for his second podium of the season. It’s been a tough year for Askew and Cape Motorsports after winning last year’s USF2000 title, and getting a podium under their belt could be just what they needed heading into the season’s stretch run.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood continued his USF2000 dominance on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • After another weekend sweep, Kyle Kirkwood has one hand on the USF2000 championship. He leads Kaylen Frederick by a staggering 131 points – that’s over four road course races worth of points. He may well leave Mid-Ohio as the USF2000 champion. And even if he doesn’t, it would take something unheard of to keep the championship from his grasp.
  • Kaylen Frederick sits second, only three points up on Igor Fraga. Fraga had his best race since Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg, when he finished second, and he nearly outdueled Kirkwood for the win in Race 2. Both he and Frederick have caught fire of late, and their battle for second is very evenly matched.
  • Don’t count out Rasmus Lindh in the battle for second in the championship either. The Swedish driver is seven points behind Frederick and scored his third podium of the year by finishing third in Race 2 at Toronto. Second is well within his reach.

The Mazda Road to Indy is off this weekend before heading to Mid-Ohio, where Indy Lights and USF2000 again have double headers, while Pro Mazda will enjoy a triple header.

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