Young drivers give IndyCar solid foundation

Updated: May 22, 2013, 12:42 PM ET
Associated Press

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By MICHAEL MAROT

AP Sports writer

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 twentysomethings.

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 t mid '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 split IndyCar-CART 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 IndyCars 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 five 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 abundance of 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 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 on the three-car, 11-row grid.

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 coveted front row since Montoya, also a Colombian, did it in 2000. Montoya went on to win the race at age 24.

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, age 24, wowed Indy fans with her courageous 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, who will become IndyCar's new head of competition following Sunday's race. "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 like the Al and Bobby Unsers and the Mario (Andrettis) of the past."

Since opening the series to new engine manufacturers and giving the old cars a new look last year, the racing has never seemed closer or better. Drivers throughout Gasoline Alley insist Brazil was the best road or street course race they've even been a part of.

New faces are now challenging the grizzled vets -- Helio Castroneves, Franchitti and Tony Kanaan among them -- and it's given the series a new look.

"It's a cycle isn't it?" Franchitti said. "It was the same way when Mario and A.J. were transitioning out. This group is no different. That's what happens."

But those same drivers understand that if this sport is going to grow, there's more work to do. Most IndyCar races are now shown on NBC Sports Network and while ratings have shown some improvement, overall viewership remains a fraction of the Cup ratings.

Drivers such as Castroneves, who won "Dancing With The Stars," or Franchitti, who was married to actress Ashley Judd, have appeal outside the racing world. The others, outside of Andretti and Rahal, are hardly household names.

"We've tried a lot of things, double-file restarts, different cities and street courses, and those are the things I think are right," Castroneves said. "One thing I don't believe is right is a little bit of the marketing. We have a great product and while we don't have guys that go out and punch guys, what we do have are fast cars that can do a lot of things. Fans, when they come to the tracks, they love it, but they don't know where to watch it. I believe if they you know where to watch it, then I believe the interest will increase."

Most, if not all of today's new drivers, are regulars on social media and that helps. The bigger change may be what Andretti, Rahal and the other twentysomethings can provide going forward -- entertaining races, compelling personalities, and, yes, some of the old rivalries that have been lacking in IndyCars for two decades.

"I don't feel the pressure to do it, but I have a desire to help to help IndyCar because it's my passion," Rahal said. "I just want to help the series grow whatever way I can because it's a great product."


Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press

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