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All-American heroes 30 Jun 2006

Mario Andretti (USA) Lotus celebrates a popular home GP victory on the podium by having his trophy filled with champagne. United States Grand Prix (West), Rd 4, Long Beach, USA, 3 April 1977. World ©  Phipps/Sutton Dan Gurney (USA) Eagle T1G was beset with problems during his home Grand Prix, as a result qualifying only fourteenth and retiring after 13 laps with a broken clutch. United States Grand Prix, Watkins Glen, 2 October 1966. Eddie Cheever (USA) Talbot Ligier JS17B took his best ever result with second place in his home Grand Prix. United States Grand Prix, Detroit, 6 June. Mario Andretti (USA), Lotus Cosworth 49B, made his Formula One race debut at Watkins Glen. He scored pole position but retired on lap 32 with clutch failure. United States Grand Prix, Rd11, Watkins Glen, USA. 6 October 1968. Scott Speed (USA) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR01.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 9, Canadian Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Montreal, Canada, 24 June 2006

The history of home-grown success in the US Grand Prix

This weekend, in Indianapolis, Toro Rosso driver Scott Speed will compete in his first home Grand Prix. Any driver looks forward to wowing an expectant home crowd, but what makes Speed’s debut so momentous is that he will be the first American to race in a United States Grand Prix since Eddie Cheever back in 1989. Before Speed takes to the track, we take a look back and discover how American Formula One drivers have fared on home soil…

Although the US has produced two Formula One champions - Phil Hill and Mario Andretti - only three other Americans have won a Grand Prix and just one - Andretti - has ever clinched victory in a home race. In 1977 Andretti, an Italian-born immigrant, won the USA West Grand Prix in Long Beach from second on the grid for Lotus. The victory cemented Andretti’s growing Formula One reputation and he went on to win a further three races that year, ending the season third in the driver’s championship.

Andretti’s victory on home soil had been a long time coming. He had history of poor results at US Grands Prix and up until his victory in 1977 his best home result was a 6th place in 1972. Andretti’s first home event was in 1968 at the Watkins Glen circuit in New York State. He secured pole position during qualifying, but was forced to retire from the race on lap 32 following clutch problems. This inauspicious start would set the tone for further lost opportunities on home soil for the driver - a failed start (1971), disqualification (1974), and four retirements (1969, 1975, 1976 - both the west coast and east coast race). Even in 1978, the year he would clinch the world championship, Andretti was unable to repeat the success of the previous season following engine problems. However, he had at least mustered second place in the Long Beach Grand Prix held earlier in the year.

The United States’ first world champion, Phil Hill, took a career total of three Grand Prix wins, but victory in a home race would remain an unfulfilled ambition for the Californian. Hill seemed to be plagued by bad luck when he raced in America and despite competing in five US Grands Prix, he was forced to retire three times in 1959, 1963 and 1964, and failed to start the race in 1962. In fact Hill’s best position in America was in 1960 when he managed sixth place.

In 1961, the year he became world champion, Hill pulled out of the US Grand Prix following the death of his Ferrari team mate Wolfgang von Trips in the previous round at Monza. However Hill’s withdrawal didn’t completely rule out the Americans, as New Yorker Dan Gurney climbed from seventh on the grid to take second place in his Porsche. Gurney managed another US podium in 1965, taking second place again from eighth on the grid. Ritchie Ginther was another American driver who almost clinched victory in his home race in 1963, but he also had to settle for second place at Watkins Glen.

The most recent American success story remains Eddie Cheever. Despite entering 143 Grands Prix during his career, including 14 races in America, Cheever never won his home race. He did make the podium in 1982, when he was second in the west coast race - held in Detroit - and third in the east coast race - staged in Las Vegas. Then again in 1989, Cheever came third behind Riccardo Patrese and race winner Alain Prost.

All in all, Formula One success for American drivers on home soil seems to be a hard-won rarity. Several drivers have come close to victory, but Mario Andretti remains the last - and only - American to have lifted the winner’s trophy following a United States Grand Prix. Scott Speed will be hoping he’s the next.