The Next Changing Of The Guard

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Besides being considered the “Glory Days” of CART, the early to mid-nineties are recognized for something that may have contributed to the relative obscurity that the IndyCar Series is facing today. That is the star-vacuum that was created with the retirement of most of the big-named drivers that the American public had grown up with.

Take a look at the starting grid of the 1992 Indianapolis 500. It is a virtual who’s who in American open-wheel racing. The names of AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva and Gary Bettenhausen jump out at you. Keep in mind that Johnny Rutherford also attempted to qualify, but did not make the race.

All of those names, besides Sneva, dated back to the sixties, except for Foyt who went all the way back to the fifties. That’s like having several drivers today dating back to the eighties and even the seventies. It’s unheard of. Today’s most senior driver’s, Alex Taglianai, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan began their driving careers in the late nineties. That was a while back, but their careers don’t span generations like those stars in 1992 did.

There were ten former Indianapolis 500 winners in that 1992 race. For comparison’s sake; this year’s race had four – Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Buddy Lazier.

Within two years of the 1992 Indianapolis 500, all of those famous names from that race had retired. By the end of the 1996 season, you could add the legendary names of Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi to that list. Two years later, Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal announced his retirement.

Suddenly, the CART Series was devoid of much star-power. Add in the fact that most of the sports biggest stars were not even racing in the Indianapolis 500 in the late nineties, and there was a giant hole to fill. I will choose not to rehash the ins and outs of “the split”, but it is worth mentioning that the few recognizable names left were no longer found at the place that made stars out of drivers.

This lack of star-power was not limited to open-wheel racing. NASCAR went through a similar loss of name drivers in the nineties with the retirements of champions Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip and crowd favorites Buddy Baker and Harry Gant. They also suffered from the untimely deaths of Alan Kulwiki and Davey Allison. Of course, the loss of Dale Earnhardt at the beginning of the 2001 season created a void that was unimaginable.

The early part of this millennium saw new stars created in open-wheel racing. Scott Dixon is on the verge of winning his third IndyCar championship by the age of thirty-three, with one Indianapolis 500 win already in the bank. Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan have already secured their legacies. If they were all to announce their retirements today, their place in IndyCar Racing is intact forever.

But beyond those stars that began their driving careers in the late nineties (save for Dixon, who didn’t start driving in CART until 2001); what stars can the IndyCar Series point to when the forty-somethings (or soon to be’s) decide to hang up their helmet? Franchitti’s terrifying crash and his long upcoming rehab notwithstanding, chances are; Franchitti (40), Castroneves (38) Tagliani (40 on Friday), Kanaan (38), Oriol Servia (39), Townsend Bell (38) and Juan Montoya (38) will all probably decide to step out of the IndyCar cockpit for good within a few years. Who will be the new stars at the next big changing of the guard?

With all of the woes that people like to point out about the IndyCar Series, I believe the series is much better equipped to handle this upcoming changing of the guard than they were the last one in the mid-nineties.

Two decades ago, the series that banked on the names of Foyt, Unser, Andretti & Mears had to learn to settle for names like Luyendyk, de Ferran, Zanardi, Tracy and Montoya. That’s not being disrespectful to any of those fine drivers – far from it. Gil de Ferran ranks as one of my all-time favorites, but his career was brief (1995-2003) compared to the likes of AJ Foyt (1958-1992), Mario Andretti (1965-1994), Al Unser (1965-1993) or Johnny Rutherford (1963-1988).

Drivers no longer drive for twenty-five, thirty or thirty-five years. Nowadays, fifteen years behind the wheel makes you an old-timer. Among today’s full-time drivers, Dario Franchitti is the grizzled veteran, having made his CART debut in 1997. Castroneves and Kanaan followed suit in 1998. Servia and Tagliani joined CART in 2000, but those two have made only limited appearances this season and have not run regularly in the past decade.

Buddy Lazier is still trying to go at it. He made the Indianapolis 500 on a shoestring budget this year, but has expressed interest in running the full series again. He first attempted to qualify for Indianapolis as far back as 1989, but didn’t make the field until 1991. He has not driven an IndyCar on a track other than Indianapolis since 2006. He will be forty-six before the start of next season. I admire his tenacity, but as mentioned earlier – this is now a younger man’s game.

When Mario Andretti was thirty-eight like Kanaan and Castroneves, he won the Formula One World Driving Championship. He still had sixteen more years of IndyCar racing, nineteen IndyCar wins and another IndyCar championship in front of him. Now at thirty-eight, Castroneves and Kanaan are considered in the twilight of their careers.

But when the likes of Kanaan, Castroneves, Franchitti, etc decide they’ve had enough; there are many qualified drivers ready to take their place, both in and out of the cockpit.

With three wins this season, James Hinchcliffe is already a star. He has proven talent in the car and an uncanny likeability outside the car. Any company looking to get involved with IndyCar should start with the Mayor of Hinchtown at the top of their list. I believe Josef Newgarden is just behind Hinchcliffe in becoming the series next star – and not just because he is a Nashville native. He has a face, voice and demeanor that is made for the TV camera – and the guy can drive. He does not have the same level of team behind him that Hinchcliffe does, but considering where Sarah Fisher’s road course program was before Newgarden’s arrival – I’d say he has already made his mark. Look for great things from Josef Newgarden in the coming years, assuming he sticks around in the series.

Rookie driver Carlos Muñoz turned more than a few heads at this year’s Indianapolis 500 by first being consistently fast in practice, then running up front all day before finishing second. Had the yellow not come out for Franchitti’s crash and the race finished under green, we may well have had the second Columbian rookie winner since Montoya in 2000, instead of Kanaan’s popular win. It is all but official that Michael Andretti has signed Muñoz for next season.

Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have been tabbed to be the next stars of the future but neither has fully lived up to expectations. But both are still very young. I fully expect both of them to live up to their famous names and consistently display the talent they have both shown brief glimpses of.

When Rahal moved to Ganassi in 2011, everyone thought he would shine. Instead, it has been his former Ganassi teammate, Charlie Kimball, that has had a break-out season this year. The likeable twenty-eight year-old has steadily improved in his three years with Ganassi and has proven he has the personality as well as the talent to be a star in this series for years to come.

Simona de Silvestro has been inconsistent through her short IndyCar career, but that has not been entirely her fault. At twenty-five, she is still young. She was with the under-funded HVM for her first three IndyCar seasons. Then she moved to what I consider to be a very dysfunctional KV Racing Technology for this season. This season, she has shown well some weekends and been completely invisible on others. Last week at Houston, she earned her first podium – with a second place finish in Saturday’s race. I believe given the right situation and her extreme likeability, Simona has the potential to someday be a star in the IndyCar Series.

Simon Pagenaud came on strong at the end of last season and has already won two races this year. At twenty-nine, the personable Frenchman appears headed for stardom.

Assuming Conor Daly chooses to join the series, I think he would be looking at stardom. He has proven talent and the personality to make him a star.

Among the above-thirty crowd, there are already well-established stars as well as some potential future stars. If Scott Dixon were to retire today at the young age of thirty-three, he would still be a star. Will Power and Ryan Briscoe have yet to win championships, but both have proven to be extremely quick on-track and very likeable and personable off-track. They have won a lot of races and are already stars in this series.

Ryan Hunter-Reay has already won a championship and I see no reason that he couldn’t win another. I would also put him on a short list of most likely to win the Indianapolis 500 within the next few years. On camera, he is good-looking and likeable. The same can be said for his wife, Beccy, who is seen on camera with him frequently.

While he has not had the same success in IndyCar as he did in Champ Car, Sébastien Bourdais is still a star in the series. He does not have a scintillating personality, but he has a large following and has demonstrated uncanny talent in getting a lot out of under-funded rides. He fits into that category of “If only he were in a Penske or Ganassi car…”

Although she has had limited opportunities for reults, I think Pippa Mann has stardom in her future if things were to fall into place. With only five IndyCar starts, the thirty year-old has proven she has talent. Her last race was a fifteenth place finish at Pocono. She returns to the cockpit this weekend at Fontana for Dale Coyne. Pippa is already a star with fans. She has mastered social media and tirelessly communicates with IndyCar fans constantly. Pippa’s popularity is a rarity for a driver with only five starts. If she could find a full-time ride, she would become a star due to her likeability out of the car and worthiness in it.

Unfortunately, having a full-time ride does not grant a driver stardom. Not everyone can be a star. The series needs evergreens also. (Evergreen definition – they never blossom, but their needles never fall off, either.) A driver may stay in the series for several years and never become a star. They can be very accomplished inside the car, but not have the personality or charisma to carry it off outside of it. You can’t develop charisma or star-power. You either have it or you don’t Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay have it. EJ Viso, James Jakes and Ana Beatriz do not. That is no reflection on their abilities or charactar – but so far as star-power, they are lacking.

So, when you look at the last major changing of the guard – the IndyCar Series seems to have a lot more potential star-power in the pipeline than what they had in the mid-nineties. Plus, there is no divisive split looming on the horizon.

Now, about those TV numbers…

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “The Next Changing Of The Guard”

  1. Steve Jarzombek Says:

    I’m not entirely sure that roughly 16,300 followers on twitter constitutes mastery of social media.

  2. Oilpressure Says:

    Considering that Scott Dixon, a. twelve year driver who may win his third championship next week, has 45K followers…I’d say 16.5K is pretty good for a driver with five starts and never a full-time ride.

  3. The biggest star in Indycar today drives for Tony Stewart in Nascar. The second biggest star in Indycar drives the two-seater. Indycar drivers toil in obscurity. Outside of the compact Indycar universe, no one knows them. I don’t know how to promote them better, but I think interest in drivers would drive ratings and vice-versa.

  4. I’m not worried about the “changing of the guard” because the pipeline has a lot of talent. Hinch, RHR, Marco and Josef Newgarden, to name a few, are extremely fast with a great deal of upside for the future of the sport.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    It’s almost impossible to overstate how devastating the combination of the dearth of new stars in the 1970′s and the beginning of sub-20 year careers were for Indycar racing in regards to producing new stars.

    Drivers who began their careers in the 1970′s won only 55 races. Compare this to the generations that bracket it: The 1958/Foyt-1969 generation (the “greatest” generation, if you will) won 319 races, the 1980′s generation won 176. Rick Mears and Tom Sneva, the only two especially successful stars produced in the 70′s, combined for 42 of those 55 race wins.
    As you point out George, these drivers left the sport within a few years of the legends of the 60′s and most of the stars born in the 80′s left a few years after that. It was as if no one was left to hand the torch to the 1990′s generation. This plus the split really hurt the top drivers of that generation, they really only became stars within the sport and its community of fans.

    Going into this season, I was becoming concerned for the sport’s post-split generation. Mike Conway had been the only race-winner to begin his career post-split, a lone victory in 5 total reunified seasons. The 1970′s generation saw a similar struggle, winning only a single race in their first 7 seasons. This year has been a breath of fresh air, though, with several first time victors and 6 wins for the post-split generation. As far as talent goes (on and off the track), I’m feeling much better about the sport’s young drivers.

  6. I’ve come to contend that the ‘glory days’ of the 1980s in Indycar were the anomaly and not the norm. Decades prior and following show this. The driver retirements from ’92-’94 left a massive hole in Indycar has yet to recovered from, if ever.

    Not to outlink from your site, but I listed those retirements and their correlated career stats in this blog entry for your reference:

    http://groundedeffects.blogspot.com/2011/10/missing-character.html

    I think there will not be another generation that cast such a large shadow on the Indycar racing landscape like we saw from ’60-’94.

    FWIW, I consider the 1992 race ‘the best ever’ due to the number of legends involved and the wildly dramatic nature of that entire race month.

  7. Savage Henry Says:

    I feel pretty good about the 20-somethings coming up in the series. They are good drivers, many of them are American, and those who aren’t have good personalities. I’m just not sure any of them have enough star power to haul themselves out of obscurity because racing has become so corporatized. I know that everything revolves are sponsorship and money, so saying and doing the right things are important for a driver. However the scripted talking points get very old. I’d love to see an old-school huge personality – a more balls than brains kind of guy – make his mark on the Indycar series. We need someone with some crossover appeal. Where’s our maverick, our playboy, or win or crash guy?

    Maybe we can extract some DNA and start growing another James Hunt in a test tube.

    • The retirement of all those drivers in the early 90′s really hurt the sport. But this sport had been in decline for a number of years before that (although usually the blame is put on the split, the split was a reaction to that decline).

      CART was determined to become F1 Lite. And it led to bankruptcy. The powers that be in Indycar today are of the same mind, and it just is not working. The appeal of road/street racing of the kind we see today is very limited in the US. and is one reason why they keep talking about foreign races. Which would be a debacle of its own.

      The drivers do not catch on for the most part because they are road racers that came up on that ladder in foreign countries. But what are you going to do if your emphasis is on road/street courses. While many of us are fans of some of these drivers, in the country as a whole they hardly make the radar. I know some fans immediately will take offense at this, but its true. The ride buying has also hurt the legitimacy of Indycar racing. Indy has been the one thing that has held the whole thing together, and now with the changes to the month of May, they are even messing that up.

      The increase in American drivers, while limited, is definitely a positive. But losing a guy like Kyle Larson still hurts a lot, and just underlines this problem. I was never a Nascar fan until I followed Jeff Gordon into that league. These two examples highlight this problem and show us that, for the most part, Indycar has learned nothing.

      • How do you explain the fact that career road racers have been more successful than career oval racers on the ovals? In the IRL, Tony Stewart was the only grassroots/sprint car driver to truly succeed (I don’t think Billy Boat or Davey Hamilton really count). All the other major stars in the early years of the IRL besides Stewart were career road racers (Buddy Lazier, Eddie Cheever, Scott Sharp, Greg Ray) even if most of them were better oval drivers (Sam Hornish, Scott Goodyear, Arie Luyendyk, Kenny Brack). The sprint/midget drivers, with the exception of Stewart, were much worse in the IRL than any of these drivers. J.J. Yeley, Jimmy Kite, Jason Leffler, Jack Hewitt, and Steve Kinser all made starts but showed very little speed, while Michele Alboreto, Kenny Brack, and Vincenzo Sospiri (3rd on the front row at Indy!) were much faster with no oval experience. You can say that the sprint car racers had worse cars and that’s probably correct, but none of them even seemed to show the potential in the IRL that the Greg Rays and Sam Hornishes and Sam Schmidts did to be promoted to stronger rides in the first place. Sprint car racing was no more effective a feeder for the IRL than it was for CART. Tony Stewart is a transcendent talent who has shown that he can race and win in anything, and there aren’t many of them.

        One more recent example: Josef Newgarden (career road racer who wasn’t exactly championship-caliber in the F1 feeder series) and Bryan Clauson (one of USAC’s recent greats) competed as teammates in Indy Lights. Newgarden beat Clauson in every race ON THE OVALS. Clauson’s Indy 500 appearance in 2012 was one of the worst overall performances in years. I wanted Clauson to do well. Truly I did. I wanted to see that pipeline open up again myself, but he crashed in qualifying on Pole Day, was almost as slow as the Lotuses on Bump Day (because he was being incredibly conservative after his first crash), and spun out very early in the race itself. It’s been quite some time since I remember that bad a performance, and there’s a reason USAC drivers haven’t been at Indy lately. It’s better preparation for NASCAR especially considering the rear engine/front engine divide. Really for most of CART’s history the road racers (Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan) were better on the ovals. And I don’t think it’s just the equipment difference. Even before the formation of CART, the big stars emerging came from non-traditional backgrounds (Rick Mears, Danny Ongais).

        I’d love to see more grassroots drivers too, but there hasn’t been a major grassroots talent in IndyCar emerge besides Tony Stewart really since before the formation of CART…

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