The New Golden Age
When dissecting open-wheel racing’s fall from grace in the eye of the American public over the past quarter-century, many cite the retirement of so many of the sports stars and legends in a very short period. I don’t know that I necessarily agree with the assessment that the disappearance of so many drivers from the sport spelled doom and gloom; but it certainly didn’t help.
But think about it – in a two-year span, we saw the disappearance of names like AJ Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Gordon Johncock, Al Unser and Tom Sneva. Those seven drivers alone represent seventeen Indianapolis 500 wins, eighteen open-wheel championships and one Formula One world championship. These drivers were all representative of what many nostalgically refer to as the “Golden Age” of open-wheel racing.
After the retirement of Bobby Rahal a few years later, it seemed drivers kept getting younger and younger. Perhaps the infamous split of 1996 had something to do with that, or else it was just the way things worked out. But drivers didn’t hang around American open-wheel racing for very long. Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. were among the last holdovers from the golden age that carried over into the new millennium
Don’t look now, but we may be sitting squarely in another golden age. Dario Franchitti reluctantly retired after the 2013 season at the age of forty, following a horrifying crash that left him with a broken body and a serious concussion. Before he retired after sixteen years of top open-wheel competition, he had amassed three Indianapolis 500 wins along with four IndyCar championships and a CART season that saw him tied for points with the eventual champion.
We have already seen fan favorites and former Indianapolis 500 winners Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves celebrate their fortieth birthday. Although, he has taken a circuitous route, former CART champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Montoya will do the same in September. It’s hard to believe, but IndyCar champions and Indianapolis 500 winners Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay will both turn thirty-five this year and defending IndyCar champion Will Power will follow suit next spring.
The leading drivers right now are all roughly the same age. It is not a stretch to suggest that every one of the aforementioned current drivers could join Franchitti in retirement within the next five years.
Don’t discount this current group of top drivers. In twenty years, we may look back on these drivers and realize how fortunate we were to watch them race in their prime. While the group of seven that retired in the early nineties were all legends, this current group of seven has some pretty lofty credentials as well. Between Franchitti, Kanaan, Castroneves, Montoya, Dixon, Hunter-Reay and Power; we find eleven Indianapolis 500 wins and eleven open-wheel championships. Except for Franchitti – they are all still going and adding to their collection of stats.
Kanaan and Castroneves are both currently in their eighteenth season of top open-wheel competition. Counting CART, Formula One and IndyCar; Montoya is in his tenth season following seven full seasons in NASCAR. Dixon is in his fifteenth season, while Hunter-Reay and Power are in their twelfth and eleventh seasons respectively. Counting Franchitti’s sixteen seasons in open-wheel competition, that’s exactly one-hundred years of experience between those seven drivers.
As it was a quarter-century ago, there will be quite a void when the members of the new golden age retire. Fortunately, there are good up-and-coming drivers on the horizon and no looming split. The mid-to-late nineties saw the coming of age of drivers like Buddy Lazier, Jimmy Vasser, Gil de Ferran, Alex Zanardi and Kenny Bräck along with Franchitti, Castroneves and Kanaan. They needed them to offset the losses of names like Foyt, Unser, Mears and Andretti.
When this group of seven retires in a few years; there will be names like Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Josef Newgarden and Carlos Muñoz; who are all former race winners and appear to have very bright futures in front of them. Future race winners may someday include promising young stars like Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves, Jack Hawksworth, Conor Daly, Tristan Vautier and JR Hildebrand.
When the original group of seven retired, the 1995 season had only a smattering of promising rookies. Christian Fittipaldi and future great Gil de Ferran highlighted a rookie class that also consisted of Carlos Guerrero, Eliseo Salizar and Andre Ribeiro along with relative newcomers Alessandro Zampedri and Mauricio Gugelmin.
I’m not worried about the talent level of the next generation of future stars. Hildebrand has proven that he deserves another full-time shot, this time with a good team. His time will come; as will Conor Daly’s, who is making the most of his opportunities. He’s still young, but Josef Newgarden has shown that he’s legitimate.
While it will be a shock to the system if the remaining six drivers from the new group of seven retire within just a couple of years of each other; I’m confident that there will be several future fifteen-year veterans among the next group. This next group of young drivers looks just as promising as the previous group in their formative years. I just wish there were enough rides to go around for the next golden age.