IndyCar

IndyCar’s young drivers could became new faces of series

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Twenty-three-year-old Zach Veach looks like the perfect guy for IndyCar’s youth movement.

He has a solid resume. He has a full-time ride with one of the series’ top teams, stable sponsorship and what appears to be a bright future. He understands the art of doing business and, in his first full-time season, he already sounds like a veteran.

If Veach succeeds, he could emerge as a cornerstone for the next generation of stars in the open-wheel series.

“It’s exciting to be part of something like this,” Veach said. “It’s humbling, too, because you can be the front-runner in Indy Lights and you come over here and you have to learn some things.”

Veach finished 19th at Barber and 26th at Indianapolis in his only two starts last season. This year, he finished 16th at the first two races, posted a career-best fourth at Long Beach and was 23rd in Saturday’s 24-car field at the IndyCar Grand Prix.

Series officials don’t necessarily need Veach to jump to the forefront just yet. They’re not going all in on one guy, either.

It’s possible more than 20 percent of this year’s Indianapolis 500 starters could be, like Veach, younger than 25. The class is rich in diversity and talent:

– Gabby Chaves, a 24-year–old Colombian, fended off Veach to claim the 2014 Indy Lights title. He competes with upstart Harding Racing.

– Ed Jones, the 23-year-old from Dubai, was last year’s rookie of the year driver for powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing.

– Kyle Kaiser, a 22-year-old Californian, was hired by Juncos Racing after winning last year’s Indy Lights title.

– Matheus Leist, a 19-year-old Brazilian, won last year’s Freedom 100 at Indy and now is being mentored by 2014 series champion Tony Kanaan at A.J. Foyt Racing.

– Pietro Fittipaldi, a 21-year-old Brazilian, will miss the Indy 500 after breaking his left leg and right ankle during qualifying for the World Endurance Championship. On Saturday, Dale Coyne Racing used 20-year-old Zachary Claman De Melo as the replacement.

– American Sage Karam, 23 and the 2013 Indy Lights winner, has shown promise in a variety of series but still hasn’t secured a full-time ride in IndyCar. He is attempting to make his fifth 500 start with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

Veterans of the series believe this young group has a better chance of making an impact together than previously-hyped classes.

“We’ve got good, quality guys under 25 and now they’re driving for owners who hopefully will stick with them because that’s how I think that’s what develops them,” Ganassi Racing executive director Mike Hull said. “I think the crop you’re talking about is the crop we’ve needed for a long, long time but we didn’t have the stability to do that. Now, we do.”

Jay Frye, IndyCar president of competition and operations, is a big believer in the young guys. He called this group “advanced” in terms of their experience and business savvy.

The problem, of course, becomes marketing.

In a sport where winning matters, big names rule, and sponsorship money is increasingly more difficult to find and keep, the biggest challenge might be finding teams and companies that are patient enough to stick with a young guy long enough to reap the rewards.

Hull estimates it takes about three years for most drivers to become consistently competitive in IndyCar.

“I’m not expecting to come in and win races right off the bat with a new car and a new team,” Kaiser said. “It just takes time and experience. Nothing trumps experience.”

Except actually winning.

The driver with the most at stake this month may be Karam, whose only scheduled race this season is the May 27 Indianapolis 500. Practice begins Tuesday with qualifying scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

“The hardest part is when you’re not a full-time driver and you don’t have a resume to show sponsors you can do well,” Karam said. “So this is what everyone sees. If I win, it would be a game-changer and you’d see a lot more of me.”

Perhaps the greatest asset in this young class is their determination to deliver on the promise.

“We all root for the young guys because we know hard it is to get here and how hard it is to stay here,” Veach said. “The business side has to be taken very seriously. When you’re young, you have to find a way to present yourself in a mature way to get the meetings you need to get. It’s not the ’90s any more where you can rely on talent.”

Podcast: James Hinchcliffe might find a silver lining in disguise at Indy after ‘an emotional roller coaster’

Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway
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INDIANAPOLIS – No one could blame James Hinchcliffe for going incognito at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and he might do exactly that on the eve of the Indianapolis 500.

But it won’t be because the SPM driver is bummed about missing the biggest race of the IndyCar season. Actually, it’s because the crushing disappointment of getting bumped from the field a week ago might have a silver lining.

“I’ve heard all these stories from way back when to the present day of what it’s like just outside the speedway on Saturday night before the race,” Hinchcliffe said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was recorded and released Saturday. “Up Georgetown (Road), in the Coke Lot, you hear all these crazy stories about all these crazy parties and the rest of it.

“And honestly, we’re always isolated in our little bubble inside the speedway in the drivers lot. Part of me is tempted to dress up in disguise and just venture out there and see what it’s all about. I’m very tempted to do that and maybe document some of the exploits out there.”

And if Hinchcliffe lingers well into the night? Well, it’s not as if he has a 500-mile race to worry about Sunday.

“I know the (track’s) cannon is going to go off at 6 a.m. (Sunday) and wake us up, but I have fewer responsibilities tomorrow than most of my colleagues,” the Canadian said with a laugh.

Of course, it still has been one of the longer weeks in the life of a 31-year-old who is ranked fifth in the points standing and seemed on track for a career season. Before Indy, Hinchcliffe’s average finish in the first five races was 5.8, including a third at Barber Motorsports Park.

But the momentum screeched to a halt when his No. 5 Dallara-Honda was knocked out of the field in the closing hour of the opening day of qualifying at the Brickyard last Saturday.

Hinchcliffe gamely accepted the outcome with a series of graceful interviews shortly afterward and has maintained a brave face during a week of promotional appearances

“It’s been an up and down week,” he said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The term good days and bad days doesn’t even apply. You have good hours and bad hours.

“The busier I’m keeping myself, the better I’m feeling. There were times you have that little driver tantrum in your head like, ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff because I’m in a bad mood! And blah, blah blah.’ But talking about it helps you get over it, and staying busy takes your mind off it a little bit.”

Still, there is no escaping the reality of when the green flag falls on the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“Sunday is probably going to suck,” he said. “There’s no way around that. The start of the race is really going to suck. Then when I see how hard it is out there, I might think it sucks a little less.”

It has been easier to swallow because of “fan support that has just been completely overwhelming,” and Hinchcliffe of course has a perspective about Indianapolis that few have after a near-fatal practice crash in 2015 (“(Missing the race) actually wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had at Indianapolis Motor Speedway”).

His comeback from the brush with death brought his team closer together, and he’s hoping the latest spate of adversity will do the same.

“One of the hardest parts was just being back with the crew right afterward, getting back to the garage and seeing a group of like 10 grown men literally brought to tears over what just happened,” said Hinchcliffe, whose team misjudged the amount of time left in the session after a tire vibration problem quickly ended what would be his final attempt. “It shows you how much this race means. If we had a really bad crash at Detroit on Saturday morning and couldn’t get the car fixed in time for Sunday. We’d all be like, ‘Man that really sucks. We’ll fix the car and come back next week.’

“But not getting to start Indy, man, is just such a gut punch for these guys and for all of us. But at the same time, it brought us closer as a group. There were mistakes made that we’re going to learn from. There’s no doubt that we come back as a stronger unit because of this. Emotionally, from a preparation point of view, from an execution point of view.”

There was a jolt of positivity from a second-place finish in a pit stop competition Friday. Hinchcliffe’s team, which has posted the fastest pit stop in two races this season, fell to Scott Dixon’s team in the final after pulling out a surprise victory over Will Power’s crew from the non-preferred right lane in the semifinals.

“Even if we beat Dixon in the finals, it wouldn’t have felt as good as that win did,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was such an awesome performance. The guys have been killing it in the pits. It’s definitely a point of pride for us.

“It was fun to get back in the car and do something for the fans and do something for the boys. We won a check at the end of the day. Add it to the beer fund and go have a fun Sunday night.”

Other topics discussed in the podcast:

–How and why he became a popular star by learning how to showcase his affable personality early in his career;

–Why the IndyCar Series needs a driver to play the villain role;

–An expanded explanation of why he believes the Indianapolis 500 should be separate from the championship;

To listen to the podcast, click here for Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or play the Art19 embed below: