It’s not just the new car or reintroduction of engine competition that mark a transitory time for the IZOD IndyCar Series. It also has a lot to do with the drivers.
In this century, we’ve seen a select group of drivers represent the pinnacle of IndyCar success. Among those must be counted Dario Franchitti, with three Indy 500 wins and four Series championships. Helio Castroneves, with 20 Series wins, including three Indy 500 victories. Tony Kanaan, with 14 wins, a Series championship, and popularity with the fans few can match. At ages 39, 37, and 37, respectively, they’re showing they still have everything needed to get it done on the track.
While these drivers are all in the Top 10 in points this season, they have some newer, younger company:
-James Hinchcliffe has followed up his 2011 Sunoco Rookie of the Year accolades by securing P5 in the championship fight so far. He’s rarely been anywhere but towards the front this year, and mechanical issues at Toronto were the only thing that seemed to stand between him and a great finish in front of an extremely partisan home crowd. It seems like Hinch has been hanging around INDYCAR or another for a good while now, but at age 25, his personality and on-track talent have him as one of IndyCar’s biggest young stars.
-Simon Pagenaud might be considered technically an IndyCar rookie, but his performance on track has been that of a seasoned pro. That makes sense, since at age 28 Pags already has an ALMS championship to complement his 2006 Champ Car Atlantic title. Only 71 points out of first, Simon drives with a rare combination of pure skill and unique style.
Just outside the Top 10, there’s Graham Rahal (at 23, already a 6–year major open wheel veteran), and sophomore Charlie Kimball, whose progress this season was marked by a brilliant P2 result at Toronto. JR Hildebrand sits just behind them, 24 years old, and already considered one of the smartest and intuitive racers in the field. Further down the standings, the intensity of 21 year-old Josef Newgarden’s luck and struggles this year is matched only by the potential of his driving and star power.
Of course, the law of averages suggests every driver listed here will not have a sterling career in IndyCar. Yet in looking at the talent they’ve shown on-track so far, and the sponsor savvy exemplified in Kimball and Hinchcliffe, there’s a very good chance this will be a strong nucleus for the next wave of IndyCar drivers.
Part of what makes it exciting is we’re seeing veterans still on top of their game mixing it up with great drivers starting the sunset of their careers, as well as the current class of rookies and sophomores. When you further consider top tier drivers such as Scott Dixon, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Justin Wilson are still in the prime of their careers, it bodes very well for the level of competition in the Series for the next few years to come.
Indeed, this year’s results seem to suggest that the old guard isn’t quite ready to give up the fight to the younger drivers. Helio Castroneves won the season opener at St. Pete, leads all drivers in laps completed, and is firmly in contention for the Series title. Dario Franchitti won his third Indianapolis 500 this past May. Tony Kanaan has been remarkably consistent, and could be primed for a championship run as well. The podiums have been spread out between drivers of all experience levels and ages, from the most veteran of drivers to the most recent arrivals to the Series.
Looking forward, one can only hope that current Mazda Road to Indy prospects such as Tristan Vautier, Jack Hawksworth, Connor De Phillippi, Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot, Peter Dempsey, and several other young open wheelers make it through to join the ranks of IndyCar in time. When they do arrive, however, they can expect to walk into some deep, talented fields.
Whatever the future holds, Dario, Helio, TK, and veterans in the mold of Alex Tagliani don’t seem likely to hang it up just yet. That’s great news for the fans, because what it means is that the new wave of IndyCar stars will get to learn and mix it up against some of the most accomplished drivers in recent open wheel history. The next big wave of IndyCar drivers is already here, but don’t expect anyone to go easy on them.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.