New wave of Indycar rac­ers is about to take over

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - MICHAEL MAROT

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 off-sea­son, 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.”


Gra­ham Ra­hal shows David Let­ter­man the blis­ters on his hand fol­low­ing the Grand Prix of In­di­anapo­lis IndyCar auto race.

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