(EDITOR'S NOTE: The views of this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of Speed51.com nor its parent company 51 Sports, LLC)
Bobby Santos, III shouldn’t be racing in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at Stafford Motor Speedway (CT) this Friday night.
The quiet and unassuming youngster from Franklin, Massachusetts would never tell you that. To him, there probably isn’t any type of racecar that he would consider to be “beneath” him. After all, he fits the term “racer” better than just about anyone who suits up at the track today. Santos probably wouldn’t turn down a Mini Stock ride if it was in a safe and competitive car. So to find a home in NASCAR’s oldest division and to earn a Modified championship, like he did last season, is a big deal to him – as well as it should be.
But as much as I love Modified racing, I know that there is an even bigger deal in the world of racing during the month of May and it is so obvious to me that Santos should be a part of it. I’m talking about the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – The Indianapolis 500.
Santos seems tailor-made to run the Indy 500. He’s proven himself in the open wheel ranks. He’s collected victories in Sprint Cars, Silver Crown cars, Supermodifieds, Midgets and on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. He’s won at the Copper World Classic, the Glen Niebel Classic and even the “Night Before the 500” at O’Reilly Raceway Park.
Those accomplishments would have easily earned Santos an Indianapolis 500 ride back in the days when A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Mario Andretti and Tom Sneva graduated from short track racing to victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Today…not so much. So while those men became Indy legends, with their faces carved on the iconic Borg-Warner trophy, Santos is still calling the short tracks of the Northeast his primary home.
Despite the promise of more chances for American drivers when the Indy Racing League got started in the mid 1990’s, Indycar opportunities still generally go to those with the biggest checkbooks or sponsors. Occasionally those drivers are from the United States. Often they are not. Most definitely, they are not from a racing family in New England where the racing budget might be small, but the talent handed down from the previous two generations are huge.
That’s a shame.
We all know that many of the most promising drivers from the open wheel ranks have steered their careers towards NASCAR over the past few decades. Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman should have ended up in the Indy 500 themselves while a number of drivers who have run in the IRL regularly - Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger, Robby Gordon and Sam Hornish eventually found a home in stock cars instead.
I have no doubt that Santos could make it in stock car racing. He’s qualified and run very well in a few limited-budget NASCAR Nationwide Series rides. He’s been appeared as a top 10 choice in the last several Speed51.com Short Track Drafts, so I know that there are other people who agree with me. But as much as I would love to see Santos make it in NASCAR, I just know so well that he would be perfect for an Indycar ride.
I’m not sure where I will spend next Sunday afternoon yet. About three hours from my house will be a great day of racing at Thunder Road Speedbowl (VT), where the Memorial Day Classic will take place using ACT Late Models. There is also a comfy leather coach in my house where I could curl up with an adult beverage and my dog to watch the Indy 500 on television. That has always been must-see TV for me since my age with in the single digits.
Unfortunately, Bobby Santos, III’s seat for the race might also be on a sofa at his house when it should be in a car owned by Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske instead. If that was the case, I know for sure where I’d be spending Sunday afternoon…and as much as I love Thunder Road in the springtime, it wouldn’t be there. Having someone to actually cheer for in the 500 would tip the scales to make watching the race a certain thing.
Maybe that is something that the management of the Indy Racing League should consider as they wonder how to bridge the popularity gap between their form of racing and NASCAR. American sports fans love to pull for their own homebred heroes. While I’m sure that British driver Pippa Mann, Belgian Bertrand Baguette or Venezuelan E.J. Viso have their own cheering sections at home, I don’t exactly see a groundswell of American fans jumping on their bandwagons and proclaiming them as the next big thing in American sports. I don’t’ expect any of those three to ever appear on a Wheaties box.
Maybe Bobby Santos, III could though…if he was only given the right opportunities. After all, just look at how many non-racing fans that you might know who were talking about Trevor Bayne on the day after the Daytona 500 this year. How many times did you have to explain who he was around the jobsite or office water cooler after his breakthrough victory? It’s not inconceivable to think that Santos could pull off the same kind of victory in the Indy 500.
But first, he’d need to be given the chance. So until he gets that opportunity, he’ll be the guy that we all get to watch on the short tracks while wondering how he’d stack up on the big stage. That means that while several thousand fans will get to watch him at Stafford this weekend, several million other fans will be shortchanged by not seeing him, or any other short track heroes, in the biggest motorsports event of them all.