Perhaps it was there and I was just too young to notice at the time. However, I think IndyCar racing of today is in a truly unique era.
Back in the early 1990s, there was a coming changing of the guard where long-established stars were beginning to see the last glimmers of daylight setting on their careers and a new crop of year drivers stood ready to fill in their gaps. Names like Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Mario Andretti had been on top of their games for many years, if not decades, and the time was quickly approaching when their careers had to wind down. Ready to shine were future stars like Jimmy Vasser, Jacques Villeneuve, and Paul Tracy who joined a group of experienced veterans and champions such as Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti, and Al Unser, Jr.
IndyCar racing of 2021 is in a very similar situation where many legends are likely to be stepping aside within the next two to three years and a new cohort of exciting young stars stand ready to fill their shoes. Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, Rinus Veekay, and Alex Palou are all under the age of 25 and all have already won races in the NTT IndyCar Series in 2021. And none of them were even born when IndyCar racing, and the Indianapolis 500, saw such a seismic reset of its stars.
Unlike any Indianapolis 500 that I can ever recall, this weekend’s 105th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will have three well-defined groups of drivers – based on age – who will be either looking to show the world they’ve arrived, remind the world they are still here, or remind the world why they are legends.
The biggest difference between the shift we are current experiencing and the shift of the 1990s is that the “young punks” of today are not merely trying to prove their worth to show car owners they are worthy of a top-level ride. These kids are already winners and ready, excited, and willing to go toe-to-toe with some of the greatest names IndyCar racing will ever know.
The Indianapolis 500 didn’t become the greatest race in the world by being easy to win. Rarely do rookies find their way into Victory Lane as only 10 first-time starters have won the race in its history (including Ray Harroun, who, along with everyone else, was considered a rookie in 1911) and only four times since 1929. The record for second-time starters isn’t significantly better. The last second-year driver I can recall winning the race was Jacques Villeneuve back in 1995 (excluding Helio Castroneves who won in both his first and second year at the Speedway). Before JV, you have to go back to Rick Mears in 1979 and then I honestly couldn’t tell you who the previous second-year driver to win the race would have been. The point is, it doesn’t happen very often. Usually it takes a driver at least three years to find real success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The 2.5-mile oval rewards experience. Though it seems theoretically simple with four identical corners connected by two identical long straightaways and two identical short straights, it is a unique layout that challenges even the greatest drivers in the world. To go fast at IMS is not particularly difficult (says the person writing this post from his couch). However, to master the many nuances of the track, especially in race conditions amongst 32 other drivers, is extremely difficult. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway changes more during the 3-3.5 hours of racing than any other track in the world. Wind, sun, and temperatures wreak havoc on even the most experiences teams and drivers, so those lacking experience are often far behind the curve.
So that’s a whole lot of words to set up my preview of this Sunday’s race, but it’s important when looking at who really has the best shot at putting his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Let’s start by looking at the old guard…
FULL DISCLOSURE: I started writing this post while back home in Savoy about three hours ago before I left to drive to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I’ve since had about three hours to think about it and decided I’m just going to give you my thoughts on what it will take to win and then list my top three tiers from which a winner is likely to come.
Key #1: See the above about rookies and experience. As noted, rookies have only won this race 10 times. And in the past 50 years, only two drivers have officially won in their second running – Jacques Villeneuve and Rick Mears. I say “officially” because while Kenny Brack qualified for the 1997 race, he was involved in the crash on the pace lap and didn’t actually take the green flag. Thus 1999 was truly only his second race to run. Nonetheless, my point still stands. Inexperienced drivers usually do not win this race.
Key #2: With the way the current aero package works, it is nearly impossible for a team and driver not starting near the front to set up a car to both get to the front and stay at the front. For this reason, it seems unlikely that a car starting much further back than the first few rows, certainly no further back than Alexander Rossi starting in the fourth row, to have a car good enough to work his way forward and still be trimmed enough to run at the front later in the race. Rossi showed in 2019 that he could get there, but when all the cards were on the table, he just didn’t have enough car to make the final pass and get past Simon Pagenaud. For that reason, I think Key #2, even more of a factor in my mind than Key #1, will dictate the winner coming from the first three rows.
Key #3: It’s not enough to simply run a perfect race. It’s not enough to simply get lucky and hope to win this race. To win the Indianapolis 500, a team and driver must execute every aspect of the race perfectly. The driver must place his car correctly for 800 left hand turns and be flawless getting onto and off of pit lane. The pit crews must execute a minimum of five perfect pit stops, more likely at least six. All these factors have to be done perfectly just to put a driver in position to take advantage of luck that must come his way to win the race. Many drivers over the years have driven perfect races only to have luck go against them. Dan Wheldon, Michael and Mario Andretti, Gary Bettenhausen, and Scott Dixon are just a few names that are famous for having done everything right for 200 laps and watched another pull into Victory Lane. Key #3 is certainly the X-factor that cannot be predicted and could throw every driver’s day into chaos.
So who do these factors favor? You obviously have to start with the experienced drivers with the top pit crews. You have to start with Scott Dixon. Any other article you read will justifiably have Dixon as the clear cut favorite. I’m certainly not going to go against those experts. Nonetheless, the clear cut favorite rarely wins this race. Last year’s race is the perfect example when Dixon was again the clear favorite. You probably have to go back to 2009 when Helio Castroneves was the clear favorite to win. Perhaps before that, you might have to go all the way back to 1980 when many people wanted to hand Johnny Rutherford the win as soon as qualifying was complete.
Without further ado, here are my tiers of drivers who I think can pull into Victory Lane on Sunday. I fully recognize and admit that a few of these drivers will fall into tiers that might be in conflict with the three points I just made above. (I’m also writing this immediately before Carb Day practice is about to kick off. The next two hours may completely change my thoughts on these tiers.) Nonetheless, here goes…