INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - 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.