INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Graham Rahal senses IndyCar is undergoing a change. After spending a decade chasing and watching other young drivers try to get a breakthrough victory, the 28-year-old Ohio native believes it’s about to finally happen.
“I think it is time or we’re at least very close,” Rahal said. “At the same time, we still have a lot of legends in the sport still doing their thing. But this young crop of talent is only going to get better.”
They’ll get hungrier, less patient and more outspoken, too. And the new generation is full of something the series hasn’t had in a while — young, talented American drivers. If Rahal or another of the other young drivers wins Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, it could speed up the transition already in motion.
The new wave includes Rahal, the son of the 1986 race winner, and 30-year-old Marco Andretti, the son of one racing icon and the grandson of another. Both work for their fathers.
There’s Josef Newgarden, a 26-year-old rising star who signed with Team Penske during the offseason, and 25-year-old Alexander Rossi, a teammate of Andretti’s and the defending 500 champ. Another win would vault him into rare territory.
Behind them are even younger hopefuls such as 22-year-old Sage Karam, who hails from the same Pennsylvania town as Andretti; Spencer Pigot, who is making his second Indy start at age 23; and 22-year-old rookie Zach Veach. Those three are hoping they can find full-time rides when the older guys step aside.
All are young, marketable and ready to put an imprint on this series.
“I think you’re seeing a shift, maybe we’re in mid-shift right now,” Newgarden said. “Maybe it will happen next year, maybe it will happen five years from now, I don’t know.”
When many older stars — A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Al and Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford — left the sport in the early 1990s, the series struggled to find replacements.
Two of open-wheel racing’s brightest stars, Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr., stayed with CART after Tony George formed his own series. Jacques Villeneuve, another big name, took off for Formula One after winning the 500 in 1995.
While there were some success stories from the early IndyCar days, most notably the rise of Tony Stewart, it left a damaging hole until many of the CART teams returned in the early 2000s with a group of young, playful, foreign-born drivers such as Brazil’s Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, Scotland’s Dario Franchitti and New Zealand’s Scott Dixon. They danced their way into the hearts of IndyCar fans and dominated the series for more than a decade.
But now, for the first time in 21 years, George’s vision of running races largely on American ovals and featuring primarily American drivers may finally be about to bear fruit.
“I think they’re as fun as we were in the past,” Kanaan said. “And they’re really, really fast. This new generation of kids is unbelievable, and I think the future of this series is in good shape.”
It’s clear things are changing.
“I think this is the most Americans we’ve had in the championship in a while and they’re all competitive,” Rossi said.
Andretti’s resume exemplifies just how close this contingent has been to breaking through. As a rookie in 2006, he finished as the 500 runner-up. This season, he’s been derailed by a series of mechanical problems.
But a win Sunday wouldn’t just end the family curse after nearly 50 years, it could help the next generation of American drivers prove they’re ready to step in.
“I think I’ve had eight legitimate shots at winning this race, and it just hasn’t worked out so far,” Andretti said Thursday. “Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and everything will work out.”
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