Race Weekend Central

Upon Further Review: What Does an IndyCar Villain Look Like?

The tribality of sports has a tendency to take what would be seemingly normal, ordinary people and give them a part of their personality that makes the seemingly outrageous seem almost normal to them.

For example, former Ohio State University football coach Woody Hayes once went into a tirade while on a recruitment trip in Michigan, boasting that he would not buy a single drop of gasoline in Michigan and would rather push his car back into Ohio than give any money to a business in Michigan.

Harvey Updyke’s rabid Alabama fandom led him to poisoning the iconic Toomer’s Corner trees at Auburn University after Auburn’s 24-point comeback victory in the 2010 Iron Bowl.

For Hayes and Updyke, their intense hatred of a rival was a cornerstone of their personalities, and that brings us to motorsport. Around the world, rivalries have helped motorsport generate headlines, TV coverage and column inches all in the pursuit of victory for one driver over their most hated rival.

Formula 1 went completely box office in the late 1980s/early 1990s when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost squared off for the world championship. A decade later, Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen became the next duo to fight for titles. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton‘s 2021 title fight, when combined with the Netflix series Drive to Survive and excellent social media utilization, helped take F1 to new modern heights.

NASCAR’s history is filled with rivalries. Ford and Chevrolet have been forcing fans to take sides almost since the series’ founding. Richard Petty raced hardest against David Pearson. Cale Yarborough literally fought the Allison brothers. Darrell Waltrip in a top tier ride shook up NASCAR’s old guard. Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine had a movie-defining rivalry before Earnhardt had various run-ins with Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon and whoever typed the closed captions always had questions for Ward Burton.

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IndyCar has also had rivalries throughout its history. A. J. Foyt‘s fiercest rival was Mario Andretti. Andretti also maintained a rivalry with the Unser brothers who both wanted to beat Andretti as badly as they wanted to beat each other. When the next generation of open wheel racers reached the grid, Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti both had their on-track skirmishes. After Paul Tracy started winning at Team Penske, it’s probably easier to start naming drivers and team owners he didn’t piss off, but more on that later.

Having a rivalry in a sport isn’t just having someone to root for as much as it’s having someone to root against – somebody to despise. While rivalries aren’t the sole reason for several sports having high TV ratings, it might help explain why the 2023 Michigan-Ohio State college football game had over 19 million people watching, the most of any regular season college football game that season and second most in their rivalry’s history , other than when 2006 had over 21 million viewers.

Which leads us back to IndyCar. IndyCar’s on-track product has a lot of wheel-to-wheel action, but the series was 25,000 viewers short of breaking the million-viewer mark for the season-opening race at St. Petersburg that aired on NBC. NASCAR regularly gets triple and sometimes quadruple that audience on Fox.

There is some good news that the recent race in Detroit had just over 600,000 viewers on USA network, making it the fifth-most watched IndyCar race on cable in the last five years. That viewership number might have been helped given what happened that weekend, so let’s maintain our focus on conflict.

Over the last few seasons, IndyCar has (mostly) lacked someone to be the antagonist of the rest of the field. Tracy had his moments in the spotlight, but those were many years ago.

Most notably, Tracy had a multi-season rivalry with Sebastien Bourdais.

Yeah. The mid-2000s were a wild time in American open-wheel racing.

The only thing close to that on the IRL side of the split was A. J. Foyt’s slapping of Arie Luyendyk at Texas in 1997, Sam Hornish Sr. bum rushing Tony Kanaan at Watkins Glen in 2007 and Milka Duno throwing a towel at Danica Patrick at Mid-Ohio in 2008 after the reunification.

Rivalries and heels generate content, clicks, viewership and interest. If potential viewers can find a common enemy to root against, they’ll happily watch almost any competition if there’s a large enough chance that their villain will fail.

Which brings us to Santino Ferrucci. Anybody with a rudimentary knowledge on how to use a search engine can find any number of things tied to the Connecticut native that will instantly cast him as a hero for some or a villain for many, mostly from the 2018 Silverstone Formula 2 weekend that went very wrong in a very public fashion.

Ferrucci has done himself little favors in 2024. He’s had multiple run-ins with Romain Grosjean at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and oval and then there were the practice skirmishes at Detroit.

Colton Herta called Ferrucci a ‘head case’ in his interview and said in a post-qualifying press conference that he only had a problem with one person at A.J. Foyt Racing. Kyle Kirkwood said that the move was unnecessary after confronting Ferrucci while Ferrucci used the term “his little boyfriend teammate over there” referring to Herta.

While this terminology shouldn’t be tolerated during any other time of the year as it’s mainly childish bullying and homophobia, the fact that it was said on the first day of June, a month that has become synonymous with Pride and the LGBTQ+ community puts it under that much more of a microscope.

Ferrucci eventually apologized for his comments, but only after social media pressure and a conversation with IndyCar leadership preceded the apology. Without those, it’s highly unlikely that the 2019 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year would have apologized, which almost begs the question to be asked if this is how Ferrucci normally thinks of those in the LGBTQ+ community.

His remarks weren’t on the scale of former Houston Mayor Louie Welch (Google what he said back in 1985 when you have a minute), but it is concerning that Ferrucci didn’t have a better sense of what to say given the various media trainings he’s undoubtedly gone through in each category of racing he’s been in.

Or maybe Ferrucci didn’t care. It’s certainly possible.

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There’s a right way to be the villain. For all of Tracy’s baggage since retiring, he knew how to play up the villain character while he was racing. After the two accidents featured earlier, Tracy donned wrestling attire while riding around the track in the pre-race parade at Montreal in 2006, playing up his villainy to the crowd.

But Tracy’s antics were in the past, and Ferrucci’s antics were before the race in Detroit. After Detroit finished up, the powder keg got closer and closer to ignition.

Theo Pourchaire scored his first top-10 finish in IndyCar competition. On the Lap 60 restart, the Frenchman locked up heading to turn 3 and hit Agustin Canapino‘s car pretty heavily.

That led to some rather colorful language on the radio between Canapino and team co-owner Ricardo Juncos on a video that has since been deleted but whose translation is still alive on social media.

Canapino: “This idiot messed up my entire car.”

Juncos: “I know, stupid, the son of a b****, a******, he jumped from 400 meters, stupid.”

What Pourchaire did on track was an accident. Yes, he made a mistake and was penalized for that mistake. However, the response to that mistake has been way out of proportion.

The defending FIA Formula 2 champion has received death threats on social media from a very vocal minority of Canapino fans. This is the third time in the last 15 months that this has happened, following incidents with Canapino and former teammate Callum Ilott at Long Beach and Laguna Seca in 2023 that caused similar outrage.

Juncos Hollinger Racing (JHR) issued a joint statement with Arrow McLaren about not tolerating online abuse, the third statement that JHR has had to issue for such abuse.

After Pourchaire made his statement, Canapino made a statement of his own. The 34-year old says that he rejects the online harassment Pourchaire has faced, but at the same time said that the 20-year-old should just ignore it.
It’s pretty difficult for someone to “choose to ignore it” when that person receiving the abuse is fresh from adolescence and trying to find his place in one of the most cutthroat and competitive sports.

Canapino says that he is against abuse and hate in the very first paragraph of his statement. However, actions speak louder than words, and Canapino’s likes on his Twitter account suggest otherwise.

Canapino’s account also liked three tweets mockingly dismissing the abuse directed at Pourchaire after the Detroit weekend.

For someone that is speaking out against abuse, he seems to imply that Pourchaire never received these messages, and the jab about Ilott is another reference to the events from 2023.

There is a right way to be a villain. Juncos Hollinger Racing’s previous statements have done little to nothing to curtail the violent messages. The fact that Juncos himself has not said anything yet as of Tuesday night is even more damning.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve said on numerous occasions that Juncos is perhaps one of the hardest working people in racing, especially with how much he’s done to build up his racing empire after coming to the U.S. with only $300 back in the early 2000s. However, a lot of the goodwill that he has built up in the IndyCar paddock is quickly eroding by not being more firm on this issue.

Five years ago, Juncos’s organization were the darlings of the racing world, knocking McLaren and Fernando Alonso out of the Indianapolis 500 after an incredible sequence of events over the previous 48 hours.

Now the team runs the risk of being outcasts in the paddock because of the worst fringe elements of a very popular driver’s fanbase. Just like any other driver, the vast majority of Canapino fans are rational, logical people that don’t let the tribality of sport affect their online habits.

But the extremely vocal minority have given a bad name to the rest, and given how long Juncos has been advocating for a race in Argentina, legitimate safety concerns begin to rise about whether any driver that has an incident with Canapino would be safe until they departed the country.

Wild speculation? Sure, but as we all have seen over the last several years, people have become more and more unhinged.

That unhinged, unfiltered, unrestrained anger is where sports tribality goes wrong.

About the author

Christopher DeHarde has covered IndyCar racing and the Road to Indy for various outlets since 2014. In addition to open wheel racing, DeHarde has also covered IMSA and various short track racing events around Indiana. Originally from New Orleans, DeHarde moved to the Indianapolis area in 2017 to further pursue a career as a motorsports writer.

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