While about a third of the IndyCar field has been in the sport since the late 1990s or early to mid-2000s, the next wave of talent is truly starting to emerge on the scene.
One of the questions heading into 2015 though is whether any of the drivers that have come into IndyCar over the last four to five years will begin to make their mark from a regular winning or title-contending standpoint.
Looking back at the last 10 years, only three teams – Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams and Andretti Autosport – have captured series championships.
They’ve done so with an array of veteran drivers. Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya have all won titles with those three teams.
Meanwhile Helio Castroneves is widely regarded as IndyCar’s best to have never won a title; Sebastien Bourdais won four straight Champ Car titles with the now defunct Newman/Haas Racing but hasn’t yet mounted a return title charge since coming back to the U.S.
If those seven are the “established” drivers who’ve consistently emerged as regular race winners and title contenders, it becomes a question of who in IndyCar’s next generation can take it to them.
The most likely candidate is Simon Pagenaud, who’s now 30, and entering his fifth full season in IndyCar (fourth consecutive) with a move to Team Penske as its fourth driver. He already has four career wins, two apiece the last two years, and should add to that number this year.
Others who have been around a while but not sustained a full title challenge include Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, sons of legends who now enter their 10th and ninth seasons, respectively. They’re only at two and one win, apiece.
Ganassi has its pair of young chargers with Charlie Kimball entering his fifth season and Sage Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, who moves up into the team’s fourth car.
Andretti has two drivers in search of their first wins, in 2014 top rookie Carlos Munoz and Simona de Silvestro, the fan favorite for St. Pete.
Others such as James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Jack Hawksworth, Luca Filippi, Gabby Chaves and Stefano Coletti could well emerge as contenders depending on how well their Schmidt Peterson, CFH, Foyt, Herta and KV Racing teams adjust to the new aero kits.
Newgarden, who at 24 is widely regarded as the top American prospect in the championship, felt weird sitting alongside rookies Karam and Chaves at IndyCar’s media day last month in Indianapolis as he heads into his fourth season.
“First off, I think it’s awesome that I can still pass for the young generation,” Newgarden said. “I’m going on my fourth year, which I can’t believe.
“But these are the young guns now. Sage and Gabby are such bright stars for the future. We have many more in the pipeline. The Mazda Road to Indy has done a good job at cultivating young talent. Have to keep getting young guys like Gabby and Sage into the system.”
The Mazda Road to Indy has produced results in IndyCar, in particular the Indy Lights series. Half of the 24 drivers scheduled to race in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg have past series experience.
Chaves, who narrowly lost the 2013 Indy Lights title to Karam before he won it himself last year, explained how well the ladder system prepares drivers for IndyCar.
“I think it’s the right series. You’re preparing yourself by racing with the most competitive guys there is at that level,” said Chaves, who will be a rookie with the single-car Bryan Herta Autosport team.
“You’re racing at all the tracks you’re going to be racing if you get to IndyCar. It’s definitely where you want to be to take that next step.”
Karam, who just turned 20 earlier this month, is a perfect driver to describe the generational change since the mid-1990s, which is still hailed by some as the “glory days” of IndyCar.
“I remember the first pass I made in practice was (Jacques) Villeneuve,” said Karam. “He won the year I was born. That was pretty cool to be out there racing with guys like that.
“Then I’m out there in the race driving with like Montoya and stuff, running inches away from people like that. It was amazing.”
One of the challenges the younger drivers have in IndyCar is adjusting to racing with the veterans, and making sure they earn respect from their peers.
It’s apparent Karam has from his education in Ganassi’s team; he’s working with three trusted teammates and has Dario Franchitti, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and four-time series champion as his driver coach.
Munoz adapted nicely to Andretti Autosport last year and could be well positioned to become a first-time race winner this year. The Colombian is making no excuses heading into his second full-time season.
“That’s the goal for me for sure, also for both of my teammates, is to win the 500,” he said. “It would be great. It will be my third year after doing it, after two good performances, second and fourth place.
“I’m not the rookie anymore. Again, maybe I will have a little bit more of a good pressure on that, but looking forward to start the season.”
It’s important for IndyCar’s sake that any of the drivers who have entered in the last five or six years ago start winning, and start winning regularly.
Drivers like Castroneves, Montoya and Kanaan will all be 40 by the end of the year and are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning.
It might be harder to project when that will be, given the established “big three” teams should be able to get their heads around the new cars sooner than the rest, at least initially.
But one of IndyCar’s top selling points the last three years has been the level of competition and level of parity, with double-digit race winners in each of the last two years.
Newer drivers winning provides another selling point to go along with the established veterans, and could help IndyCar set the scene for the next five to 10 years.
Watching the generational battle remains a fascinating element of the show, and it’s a storyline I hope will be a big one throughout the season.