INDIANAPOLIS – Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have all the ingredients the IndyCar Series has been craving. They have famous family names, have reached Victory Lane, and seem to enjoy playing up their growing rivalry.
The bold, budding stars represent a whole new kind of IndyCar driver – the guys and gals who could finally become this series’ cornerstone fixtures for a generation to come.
“This is a pretty young group,” Rahal said. “There are a lot of young people here who you could see at this track for the next 20 years. I think that’s a great thing and we hope that’s the case.”
It’s not the first time IndyCar has pinned its future hopes on a bunch of twenty-somethings.
Those young fresh faces in the 1960s carried names such as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt and Al and Bobby Unser. They emerged as the foundation for IndyCar’s glory days, and when they left in the late ’80s or early ’90s, there weren’t enough young up-and-comers to replace them.
Drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who developed their skills in the open-wheel feeder systems, wound up finding better opportunities and more money with NASCAR. Juan Pablo Montoya left for Formula One during the IndyCar-CART split and eventually wound up in Cup, too. The emigration eventually took established open-wheel stars such as Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and Danica Patrick, though Franchitti returned to IndyCar after one failed season in NASCAR.
Now things could be changing.
These young open-wheel drivers are getting chances to prove themselves, and they seem committed to hanging around for a while.
Rahal, now 24, broke Andretti’s record as the youngest winner in IndyCar history 5 years ago and finished second at Long Beach after making the switch to another new team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. His father, Bobby, is one of the co-owners and the 1986 Indy winner. The younger Rahal will start 26th in Sunday’s race.
Andretti, 26, also drives for his father, Michael, has had four straight top-10 finishes, all on the road and street courses that had caused him so much grief over the years. And during the offseason, Andretti redoubled his efforts to win a championship by seeking advice from a driving coach to help with the non-ovals.
The young talent runs far deeper than just the big names.
Two years ago, JR Hildebrand was one corner away from becoming the first American rookie to win the 500 since Louis Meyer in 1928. He’s had five top-fives in his last 36 races and just missed making Indy’s pole shootout last weekend. The 25-year-old Panther Racing driver will start 10th Sunday, the inside of Row 4.
The flamboyant Josef Newgarden, a 22-year-old Tennessee kid, reached last year’s pole shootout and, after failing to record a top-10 during his rookie season in 2012, he already has two top-10s in his first four races this year. He’ll start 25th for Sarah Fisher’s team.
At 21, Conor Daly became the youngest American rookie to qualify for the 500 since Rahal in 2008. His father, Derek, is a former Formula One driver who started six times at Indy, and he’s running for A.J. Foyt. He’ll start on the inside of Row 11.
Colombian rookie Carlos Munoz has been turning heads all month at the famous 2.5-mile oval. The 21-year-old Firestone Indy Lights points leader has started every race this season, regardless of series, on the front row. He will do that again Sunday after qualifying second. He’s the first rookie to put his car on Indy’s front row since Montoya in 2000; he went on to win the race.
James Hinchcliffe, the 2011 IndyCar rookie of the year, has won twice already this year and could emerge as a championship contender if he can become more consistent. And the 26-year-old Canadian has become a huge part of selling the sport, engaging fans at the track and on social media, coaching drivers, even agreeing to those mind-numbing interviews when nobody else wants to. He’ll start ninth for the Andretti team.
Swiss driver Simona de Silvestro, 24, wowed fans with her qualifying run in 2011. She is currently ninth in the points, and qualified 24th with KV Racing Technology.
“Who can’t see the future?” said Derrick Walker, IndyCar’s new head of competition. “We need more of them. We need to make sure that when they come up through the ranks, there’s a future for them. It takes a lot to get in the sport, to stay in the sport, and we need to make sure they’re with us.”
Graham Rahal, 24 – son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal is youngest winner in IndyCar history
Marco Andretti, 26 – son of Michael Andretti and grandson of 1969 Indy 500 winer Mario Andretti had 4 straight top-10 finishes
JR Hildenbrand, 25 –top-5 finishes in each of his last 36 races
Josef Newgarden, 22 – 2 top-10s in 4 races this year
Conor Daly, 21 – youngest American rookie to qualify for Indy 500 since Graham Rahal in 2008
Carlos Munoz, 21 – Indy Lights series points leader
James Hinchcliffe, 26 – won Rookie of the Year in 2011 & already has 2 wins this year
Simona de Silvestro, 24 – 9th in points this year