Will young guns buck veteran-dominated trend in Indy 500?

2 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS – The names Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya are probably first and foremost among the “old guard” in modern day Indianapolis 500 competition.

Each made their maiden appearance on the North American open-wheel scene (all began in CART prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series) between 1998 and 2001, with their Indianapolis 500 debuts coming between 2000 and 2003. Dixon, Kanaan and Castroneves raced in Indy Lights as well, with the first two winning championships.

They’re not Mears, Unser, Foyt, Rutherford or Andretti.

But they’re the modern day veteran heroes that resonate most on the minds of the American public – either to the large number of Indianapolis 500 event-only fans, or the smaller volume of hardcore fans that still follow the series on a week-to-week basis.

They’re also four of the five previous winners starting Sunday’s race, and chances are good that any of them could add to their tally. Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay is the fifth former winner in this year’s race.

Kanaan and Hunter-Reay have made it back-to-back first-time winners. The previous run of first-time winners occurred annually from 2003 to 2008, when Gil de Ferran, Buddy Rice, the late Dan Wheldon, Sam Hornish Jr., Franchitti and Dixon all bagged their first career ‘500 win.

There’s really three tiers of drivers this year, in terms of experience levels:

  • The ‘500 veterans (10-plus starts): Dixon (13th start Sunday), Kanaan (14), Castroneves (15), Marco Andretti (10), Ed Carpenter (13) and Ryan Briscoe (10)
  • More experienced veterans (6-9 starts): Will Power (8), Justin Wilson (8), Oriol Servia (7), Hunter-Reay (8), Graham Rahal (8), Alex Tagliani (7), Townsend Bell (9) and Takuma Sato (6)
  • Generally younger competitors (1-5 starts): Simon Pagenaud (4), Sebastien Bourdais (5), JR Hildebrand (5), Carlos Munoz (3), Charlie Kimball (5), Montoya (3), Simona de Silvestro (5), James Jakes (3), Sage Karam (2), Conor Daly (2), Pippa Mann (4), Gabby Chaves (rookie), Sebastian Saavedra (5), Jack Hawksworth (2), Stefano Coletti (rookie), Bryan Clauson (2), Tristan Vautier (2) and James Davison (2)

Looking at the field that way, there’s six drivers in that first group, eight in the second and 19 in the third.

Save for Bourdais and Montoya, past ‘500 winners who don’t have as many ‘500 starts due to their other diverging career paths (Formula 1, sports cars and NASCAR), that third group boasts the highest number of drivers who are largely unknown to the American populace outside of the hardcore, full-time series followers.

Through most of this year on the road and street courses, the older, more veteran drivers have seemed to adapt better to the new challenge of the new manufacturer aero kits. The younger drivers – Newgarden at age 24 and Rahal at age 26 excepted – generally have not posed as big of a threat this year.

Of IndyCar’s “next generation,” as you were, Newgarden or Rahal would likely make for a popular winner. Both have the potential to become stars, launched onto the national stage, even more than they have now.

It’s hard to believe this will be Andretti’s 10th Indianapolis 500 start, since making his debut as a then 19-year-old who came within mere feet of winning as a rookie in 2006. He’s traditionally good at Indy and has the name to do it, but does he have the car underneath him this year?

That second group – the “more experienced veterans” list – includes a number of drivers who are decently well-known but not to the same level as that 10-plus start crowd.

It’s unlikely that one of the drivers from the “generally younger competitor” tier is going to win. In many respects those drivers will be biding their time, looking to gain laps and experience throughout the day.

In some respects, it would behoove the race to have a fresher face win the race. The veterans aren’t getting any younger and we generally know them; this is the best chance for any IndyCar driver all year to get noticed beyond the hardcores.

But it’s harder to pick a fresher, younger face – not because they can’t complete it, but it generally takes a perfect set of circumstances to happen.

It also hasn’t happened recently.

A then-27-year-old Dixon, in 2008, is the last driver under age 30 to win the Indianapolis 500. Save for Rahal and Andretti (26 and 28, respectively), all of the two veteran driver tiers mentioned are 30 or older.

There’s a reason the legends at the Speedway are legends: they’re known quantities.

And seeing a younger lion buck that trend isn’t something that happens easily.