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.

George Phillips

13 Responses to “The New Golden Age”

  1. Br!an McKay Says:

    Thanks, George.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    It is always hard to compare stars from different eras in any sport. A relative of mine is in the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame. He played defensive end at 245 lbs. back in the day, much like Fred Dryer. Today most linebackers weigh more than that.

    If there is one thing that differentiates most of the IndyCar stars of today from the likes of A.J. and others of his era, it is that many of the stars of the so-called Golden Era drove-and were successful- in other series, in different types of race cars, at places like Le Mans and Daytona, and spent their early years on dirt. That seldom happens anymore for a variety of reasons and is not likely to happen again. I think that exposure to different audiences has perhaps more than anything added to their lasting star power.

    It is also true that drivers from the Golden Era did not have every aspect of their lives dissected by the media of those days. For example, if Graham Rahal drove then he would only have been judged or compared by what he did on the track and not over some grumpy twitter remark.

    I would add Sebastian Bourdais to George’s list of current drivers with lofty credentials.

    I hope I live long enough to see some children of today’s drivers gettin’ racy in an IndyCar.

  3. It seems it is always difficult to see current potential future stars when they are standing right in front of us.

    If you are looking for topics George, I would be interested to hear your take on Honda’s future involvement in the IndyCar series after 2016. After the qualifying debacle this year, it would not surprise me if Honda seriously considers an exit, and how that would impact the IndyCar series. That , coupled with the inconsistencies of Race Control should make every die hard fan worry about IndyCar’s future.

  4. We as Indy car fans like to compare the drivers from different eras. And we do. We are familiar with them.

    But none of the drivers in Indy car today come close to the fame, or perhaps the visibility, to the average American than the drivers of 30 or more years ago. A very few of the drivers in Nascar might have that recognition, but I’m not sure any of the current Indy car drivers do.

    There are a number of reasons for this, which have been discussed many times. I would not call todays drivers a ‘golden age’ from the standpoint of how history will record it. And the future is uncertain.

    The retirements in the early/mid 1990’s did affect the sport, because the timing could not have been worse. But it did not cause the issues Indy car has suffered since. The sport had been changing and the problems were already there. By the late 1980’s the seeds of what would come were already there. The split did not cause the problems. The split was a result of the problems.

    A future golden age of drivers? No way to know, as we don’t really know for sure what direction the sport of Indycar racing will take.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      It really made my day to hear someone acknowledge that the split was the result of the problems and not the cause of the problems. I agree with you. Thanks.

  5. Yannick Says:

    “Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. were among the last holdovers from the golden age that carried over into the new millennium”

    I’d like to add Paul Tracy to this list who is now on NBCSN’s IndyCar race commentary team.

    “Between Franchitti, Kanaan, Castroneves, Montoya, Dixon, Hunter-Reay and Power; we find eleven Indianapolis 500 wins and eleven open-wheel championships.”

    Add Sebastien Bourdais and you’re up to 15 open-wheel championships. He may not have a Newman/Haas car at his disposal anymore but he still has got what it takes to win, as he has shown impressively at the most recent race even.
    It’s been a ‘Group of 8’ before Franchitti retired. Only since then, they are down to just 7.

    It’s fairly odd why the Series or the TV stations don’t promote / repeat the fact that so many champions are racing in this series today. Instead, the advertising breaks and the commentary on the IMS Radio Network are full of big names from the past.

    As a young TV viewer of F1 races in the early 90s, I was bored every time Fangio and Ascari were mentioned. Not so with Prost, Senna, Piquet and Mansell. So they should give the young fans something to be interested in by reminding their audience more of the achievements of the currently running champions.

  6. Carburetor Says:

    This is an interesting post and this group of drivers will be definitely missed when they retire. I agree that there seems to be quality talent coming up. I think a more interesting question however, is what will happen to the series when Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi decide they have had enough and thus retire. Other than AA, I don’t see any other team owners with the same resources and racing team acumen as those two……

  7. madtad1 Says:

    It is hard to compare with the exploits of Foyt, Mario, et al, but TK, Dixon, and some of the others have raced and won in IMSA at the Rolex 24 hours at Daytona. Also, while they may retire from IndyCar, I think Dixon and Kanaan might have seats available to them on the Target cars in the IMSA league, based on how well they have done there. TK jumped in a car in the race at Indy two years back at the last minute for Chip and raced the wheels off of it with virtually no experience in the car or series.

    While I agree that none of the current drivers have raced and won in F1, plus NASCAR, plus Dirt tracking, etc, TK is the first, and to my knowledge, only driver in any Motorsport to complete every lap in a season. I think that was the year he was also the IndyCar champion. He also currently has the record for most consecutive starts in IndyCar and, if he keeps driving for another few years, may set a record that may never be beaten.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    For kicks and grins, I track Indycar winners by “generation”, defined by the year their career began. These generations are somewhat arbitrary; the lengths of time that they cover are not equal, but most are defined by a significant event or the debut of legendary drivers.
    The generations relevant to the series now are:
    – Early Split (1996-2002, when CART had the better teams)
    – Late Split (2003-2007, when the IRL had the better teams)
    – Post Split (2008-present, name self-explanatory)

    The ability to create new stars is critical to the success of any sports or entertainment endeavor (music, movies, books, etc.), but new stars are generally created by having some success at the expense of old ones. The longevity of the “Greatest” generation (1958-1969 in my tracking) was in no way a bad thing for Indycar, but it did challenge the sport greatly when these legends began to retire because relatively few younger stars were created while the drivers who defined the 1960s simply kept winning.

    What is a bit concerning about the current “Post-Split” generation is that they only won their first race in their 4th season, 2011 (Mike Conway), and have not yet been able to win a championship, or even the most races in a season among the active generations. In their 8th year, their winningest driver is James Hinchcliffe with 4 of their 13 victories. The previous two generations found success much more quickly. I’m not totally down on them, but the time for them to contend for wins and championships is now, because sports stars are defined by who they beat nearly as much as they are by how often they win.

    • Yannick Says:

      Well, the next generation after your Post Split, that of Newgarden and Munoz, has already started winning races this year.

      This series won’t run out of winners.

  9. I have no problem placing the current IndyCar drivers alongside those of the past. I think I have seen the sport up close since the mid-sixties and the only dip in talent, in my opinion was 1996 to about 2002. Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan, Helio, RHR and Will Power are as good as anyone and would have been just as competitive in any generation. I am also impressed with Hinch, Muñoz, Sage Karam, Hawksworth and Conor Daly. By the way, I like that Ed is an owner. He is terrific for the series and I enjoy pulling for him at the oval races.

  10. I was thinking this past weekend, who was the last young phenom to come to the sport and own it? Dixon? Hornish? There hasn’t been a guy (or girl) since I started watching again after reunification.

    • Yannick Says:

      The closest to these was Carlos Munoz coming 2nd in his debut at the 97th running of the Indy 500 2 years ago.

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