When Do IndyCar Drivers Get Old?

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As the latest chapter of the Brett Favre saga unfolded on Tuesday, Favre explained that his body is no longer up to it. Ultimately, Favre said in so many words, that he has gotten too old. This got me to wondering about today’s IndyCar driver. When does an IndyCar driver get too old and what is it that makes them age?

First of all, without getting into an age-old debate, I completely believe that racecar drivers are athletes. Period. That being said, I fully recognize that what is considered old for an NFL player, may be the age that an IndyCar driver enters his or her prime. But the term “old” has changed in the last fifteen or so years in IndyCars. In the 1992 Indianapolis 500, there were five starters over the age of fifty and seven more drivers over the age of forty. That is more than one third of the field that was older than forty at Indy that year.

Fast forward to this year’s Indy 500, where we found no driver in their fifties and only five in their forties – with Davey Hamilton being the oldest at age forty-six. Even more extreme was 2005 when only two drivers were over the forty threshold.

When did forty become too old to drive? Al Unser won his fourth Indianapolis 500 at age forty-seven. Emerson Fittipaldi was still winning races as he approached forty-nine. Michael Andretti won as he was nearing forty and Mario Andretti won his last race at age fifty-three. Of course, what did all of these drivers have in common? They were all driving for first-rate teams in top-flight equipment. Unser and Fittipaldi won their last races driving for Roger Penske; Michael won his last race driving for Team Green while Mario was driving for Newman-Haas when he won at age fifty-three.

So many times we see drivers who are competitive and still want to race, yet they are relegated to lower level rides because they are getting long in the tooth. Team owners are reluctant to keep older drivers around when there are young guns eager to prove themselves no matter what price. That is why we saw sad examples of great drivers such as Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock wrapping up their careers in inferior equipment. Could Rutherford have made the 1992 field in a Newman-Haas prepared car rather than the second Derrick Walker car he failed to qualify in? No one knows for certain. But his chances would have been much greater in a top-level ride.

What is it that makes a driver age? Obviously if one stays fit, they can stand the rigors of an eighteen race season, provided they can still squeeze into the car. Is there a discernable drop-off in reflexes? At my ripe old age, I honestly cannot tell that my reflexes have slowed down a bit – then again, I’m not driving a four-wheeled missile down a straightaway at 230 mph. That may make a slight difference.

My thinking is that it may be a natural maturation process. As a driver gets older, his priorities naturally shift. Chip Ganassi, the compassionate soul that he is, has been quoted as saying that a driver suddenly slows down when he has children. That’s why he was none too thrilled when Dixon and Emma announced they were expecting.

It is only natural to question how hard you should push the car, when you have a full household to go to after the race. The visions of Alex Zanardi, who lost both legs in 2001; or Paul Dana, who lost his life in 2006, are probably still present in most driver’s minds. When you are twenty-four, single and trying to make a name for yourself – you take that chance to see how over the edge you can take the car. When you are thirty-four and married with a couple of young children, you tend to think twice if it’s really worth going over the edge to gain that extra tenth of a second.

I have slowed down in my passenger car just in the last five years or so. I used to have a pretty heavy foot and had the speeding tickets to prove it. I still get a thrill out of going fast, but I’ve finally figured out that the thrill is not worth the fines and increases in insurance. Now if I need a thrill, I go to Disney World.

Certain drivers have become new fathers recently, and I question if we’ll ever see some of them win another race. Even if Sam Hornish comes back to IndyCars, I’m not sure he has the edge anymore. The same goes for Dan Wheldon. Tony Kanaan’s crew won’t give him the opportunity to see if he still has the edge. They seem more intent on keeping him ablaze all the time. The biggest risk he takes these days is climbing into an AGR car. It still remains to be seen what fatherhood will do to Scott Dixon’s lap times. Dario Franchitti is thirty-six but still fast. He also has no kids.

So what gives? Children didn’t used to slow drivers down. How do you explain the drivers of my childhood having success into their forties and sometimes their fifties, while the drivers of today slow down shortly past age thirty? Do today’s drivers put more emphasis on fatherhood than those of twenty and thirty years ago? I don’t have the answer, but it is something to think about.

Today’s drivers are more fit than any others in history. Their fitness should keep them driving well into their forties and fifties. Obviously, the aging process has no effect there. It’s what is going on between the ears that is aging the drivers of today.

George Phillips

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4 Responses to “When Do IndyCar Drivers Get Old?”

  1. Clearly, Mike Schumacher is going to prove that 40’s isn’t to old to keep driving.

    I watched a tape of the 1987 Indy 500 the other day (thank you, youtube) and was shocked at the number of drivers in their 40’s and OVER 50! So, being a younger fan, I also wonder when 33 became the age when you start thinking of retirement. Similarly, Tracy is fast as ever (as he keeps proving) yet everyone today thinks he’s far too old? why?

  2. Being in the flying business I can tell you that a certain point weakened physical and cognitive abilities trump experience. You just get older and slower. Don’t ever grow old, but know when you should let go and encourage the young bucks to take the mantle and press on!

    • Jim in Wilmington Says:

      Different people respond to the rigors of aging quite differently. Chuck Yeager was still flying high performance fighters in his ’80s and some people shouldn’t be driving in their ’30s

      I think one thing that has been overlooked in this discussion is the affect of having a viable feeder sytem. Pror to the rear engine revolution in the mid ’60s, most drivers found their way to an Indy Car ride from the ranks of sprint cars and midgets. Once the rear engined car became the norm, most car owners weren’t eager to put some hot shoe from a midget into a totally different kind of car than the fellow had ever driven before because when it did happen, the results weren’t pretty. The drivers that came into Indy Cars fin the late ’60s and ’70s frequently came from Can-Am or some other sports car series where they were more familiar with road racing and rear engined cars. Things began to change in the late ’70s with the advent of some lower tier open wheel series like Formula Vee, Formula Junior and others. Today there are plenty of feeder series as well as the Fireston Indy Lights which offer many paths to Indy Cars.

      Could it be that the reason that so many of these guys raced well into middle age is that there just weren’t that many young bucks clamoring to take their place.

      Just a thought.

      Jim

  3. Travis R Says:

    I don’t watch NASCAR anymore, but I understand that Mark Martin has been doing well this year. Of course, he’s in very good equipment.

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