The Golden Age of IndyCar?

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When it comes to the time when I was growing up as a racing fan, I consider myself very lucky. From 1965 through 1972, I missed only one Indianapolis 500 – and that was in 1966, when my father took my uncle and grandfather instead of us kids.

Looking back at some of the history I witnessed, I consider myself extremely fortunate. I can say that I saw roadsters actually race in the Indianapolis 500, instead of just watching them parade around for demonstration laps decades later. I have heard the sound of the Novi engine at full song. To this day, I can remember the unique sound when Bobby Unser went by in the 1965 race – until he fell out about a third of the way through.

I got to witness every turbine car that raced in the 500. Silent Sam was fascinating 1967, but the Lotus 56 turbine was absolutely gorgeous. I got see each turbine qualify and race. That eerie sound during qualifying is unforgettable to this day.

The list of names I saw race as a kid in the sixties and early seventies reads like a Who’s Who: AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Joe Leonard, Gordon Johncock, Bob Veith, Johnny Boyd, Don Branson, Johnny Rutherford, Jim Hurtubise, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Masten Gregory, Denny Hulme, Gary Bettenhausen, Jochen Rindt and Mark Donohue are just a few of the names that I watched race.

After the 1972 race, my father decided to give up his tickets for reasons I still will never fully understand. For whatever the reason, I went from 1972 without attending the Indianapolis 500 in person until I returned as a thirty-three year-old adult in 1992. Many of the names that were prominent from my childhood were still around when I returned as an adult.

Johnny Rutherford had failed to qualify for the 1992 race, but made an attempt in a Derrick Walker car. Other familiar names from my childhood that were in the field that day included Mario Andretti, Al Unser, AJ Foyt, Tony Bettenhausen and Gordon Johncock.

While in the stands on that cold day, I was talking with someone about this very subject and he said that we were currently in the Golden Age of IndyCar racing. Not only were we witnessing great names from the sixties, but great names from the eighties like Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, Tom Sneva, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser, Jr. and Michael Andretti were all in that race. That term, Golden Age has stuck with me ever since.

I will also add that I am luck enough that I saw the first and last career Indianapolis 500 starts for Mario Andretti and Al Unser.

Now I’m wondering if we are witnessing a new Golden Age. Of course, we are witnessing greatness as we watch Scott Dixon try to close in on a record-tying seventh championship. He is also just two wins away from tying Mario Andretti in the all-time wins list at fifty-two. I doubt he will ever eclipse AJ Foyt’s sixty-seven wins, but he has a good shot at least tie Foyt’s seven championships.

Since the early nineties, I never remember as many IndyCar drivers over the age of forty as we have right now. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened in thirty years, but without researching it – I cannot think of another time off of the top of my head. Five fulltime drivers are over forty, those being Sébastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Three more part-time drivers are now in their forties: Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Ed Carpenter.

Simon Pagenaud will be thirty-seven before this year’s Indianapolis 500. Charlie Kimball is now thirty-six and even James Hinchcliffe is a surprising thirty-four.

For all of the talk of the youth movement led by Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, Alex Palou and Rinus VeeKay, I’d say the graybeards outnumber the young guns. Of course, we have Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi to balance things out between the young drivers and the seasoned ones.

With Dixon, Kanaan and Castroneves all putting in more than twenty IndyCar seasons, I wonder how many young kids saw these drivers at the beginning of their careers, only to return as adults and find them still racing. I wonder how many of them will be sitting in the stands this May and think to themselves that they are watching the Golden Age of IndyCar?

George Phillips

4 Responses to “The Golden Age of IndyCar?”

  1. Kelly W Davidson Says:

    I was stuck watching the 70s and 80s from the tv. I still remember AJ Foyts last race and the great Rick Mears. We have only been going since 2014 in person, matter of fact I met you that year in Mufreesboro and discovered your blog.

  2. northeastvista Says:

    First race in 1962 and all but three or four ever since. During the seventies we attended both weekends of qualifying and the race. Those were great family and friends weekends. No matter where in the world friends relocated they always returned to the Terrace Grandstands for qualifying weekend(s) and Turn Three for the race. Wonderful memories. Still attending the race, but the qualifying trips are spotty. Hope to see you at RA. IndyCar is going to stuff all the action into just two days apparently.

  3. Speaking of Scott Dixon and the Indianapolis 500, it should not be overlooked that he is only 82 laps away from becoming the all time lap leader, surpassing Al Unser’s 644 laps led. We don’t know how much longer Scott will choose to hang around, but I think it likely he could break that record in the next 2-3 years if he chooses to do so.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    It is interesting to ponder what causes these “golden ages”. Certainly they tend to correspond with an influx of very talented young drivers to the sport over a short handful of years, but they also seem to be affected by other circumstances within the sport.

    The post-Foyt (1958) generation was undeniably talented, but they were also the first generation of drivers to drive rear-engine cars at a young age and the first to consistently contest schedules where a majority of tracks were paved. Drivers who began their careers post-1958 won the majority of races every single year of the 60s, and no driver who began their career before 1958 won a race after 1966, very few even still competed. So this generation moved the previous one aside and became stars quickly, and then stayed on top of the sport well into the 80s. Why?

    Well for one thing, they became the first generation of drivers where an overwhelming majority of them survived the sport. Numerous safety advancements and most top drivers giving up dangerous dirt track racing shortly after the dirt miles left the championship schedule kept the stars alive and healthy enough to race for much longer. They were also the first generation to reap the financial benefits of national TV exposure and the massive influx of money that came into the sport in the mid-60s, making driving race cars into their 40s and beyond a much more financially sound decision than in years past. So too did USAC’s staid and overwhelmingly paved oval schedules in the 70s keep the 60s stars up front. With the removal of the dirt tracks from the championship, USAC’s up-and-coming short track drivers had a harder time breaking into the sport (at least in good rides) than they previously did, and with few to no road races on the schedule, road course drivers were not yet flocking to the sport in masse (as they would in the 80s). The 70s ultimately introduced very little new talent into the sport, with only Rick Mears and Tom Sneva having stand out careers.

    The circumstances that factor in to the current “golden age” seem a little harder to pin down to me, but one can speculate nevertheless. Most of the series top older drivers came up when manufacturer money was still being tossed around and when testing time was more abundant, giving them significant seat time advantages over younger drivers. They also largely came to the sport during the split, which for all of its negatives did make a lot of additional seats available and thus provided more opportunities to discover and vet new talent than before or since. Of course, like the stars of the previous “golden age”, these drivers may well also be just that talented regardless of the circumstances.

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