- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
INDIANAPOLIS — Drivers, start your calendars.
When the 33-car field jumps into the collective throttle to start Sunday’s 107th running of the Indianapolis 500, every move they make will be measured by both the smallest and largest increments of time. Laps tracked down to the tiniest fractions of the stopwatch, those results produced by racers whose careers and lives are measured in years and decades.
“Out on the racetrack, we are separated by seconds — actually not even seconds, barely seconds,” explained Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 winner who will roll off from Row 6 on Sunday, squarely in the middle of the 11-row field. “But when we are all together, you realize that we are also separated by years. Myself, and the guys I came up with, we used to be the young guys. Now we definitely are not that. I don’t feel old … until I start talking to some of these other guys!”
From pole-sitter Alex Palou back to Jack Harvey, the slowest car in this year’s field, the entire 33-car grid was a scant 2.121 seconds apart after their four-lap qualifying efforts were recorded.
But the age difference between the oldest driver in the field, 2013 Indy 500 winner and soon-to-be-IndyCar-retiree Tony Kanaan, and this year’s youngest competitor, David Malukas, is nearly 27 years. Kanaan and lifelong friend — and four-time Indy 500 champion — Helio Castroneves are both 48, older than Al Unser Sr. in 1987 when he became the oldest winner of this race and its second-ever four-time victor.
On the other end of that timeline, three drivers — Malukas, Sting Ray Robb (yes, that’s his real name) and Christian Lundgaard, all 21 years old — will have a chance to break one of Indy’s longest-standing records. On May 30, 1952, Troy Ruttman became the Greatest Spectacle in Racing’s youngest winner at the tender age of 22 years and 80 days. To earn that victory, Ruttman, a kid from the California short tracks, had to hold off a field of largely older, experienced and World War II-hardened elders.
Back then, Ruttman was vastly outnumbered. Today, unlike only a few seasons ago, the kids represent a quickly growing chunk of the grid. Sunday’s first five starting spots average only 25 years of age and less than 3.5 career Indy 500 starts per racer.
The buzziest souvenir seller is 24-year-old Pato O’Ward, whose signature sombreros are the hottest infield merchandise get for fans and who still openly and unapologetically pines for an F1 ride. The buzziest American driver is another 23-year-old, Colton Herta, who remains a fan and industry favorite to also one day make the jump overseas. But both have learned to refocus on the here-and-now Hoosier State task at hand.
Still, any one of today’s youngsters seeking to stand in the winner’s circle will have to do the same as Ruttman in ’52, steering through a field that includes nine former winners of this race, one shy of the single-race record. Most of those 500 champions are either well above or hovering around 40 years old. The only exceptions are last year’s winner, Marcus Ericsson, 32, and 2016 milk guzzler Alexander Rossi, 31, both of whom spent years in the F1 system before coming stateside to IndyCar.
“I think the first time you guys really started writing the ‘changing of the guard’ stuff was when Rossi won the race as a rookie,” Will Power, 42 and the reigning IndyCar champ, recalled during Thursday’s Indy 500 media day. “Then I won the race the following year and I was 37. Then Takuma [Sato] won it twice in three years and he was around 40. Simon [Pagenaud], Helio, us older guys kept winning this race for years after that. So, the guard didn’t change, did it? At least not yet. But I know I’m not getting any younger and yet when I look around the paddock, a lot of these guys are getting younger, it seems. You can’t hold them off forever.”
No, you can’t. No one can. Father Time remains undefeated. Or, as the OG four-time Indy 500 champion A.J. Foyt, himself a youthful party crasher back in the day (in the 1959 race, Foyt made his second start and was the only driver of the 33 under the age of 30) once said as he rubbed his aching, fuel-burned, reconstructed knees, “A race car never kicked my ass. Another race car driver never kicked my ass. A swarm of killer bees didn’t kick my ass. Even a lion didn’t kick my ass. But Father Time, he is kicking my ass. Getting old sucks.”
“Well, getting older is definitely a challenge, I know that, and for a lot of reasons,” said Scott Dixon, 42, who last year eclipsed Foyt and all others in Indy 500 laps led with 665. Sunday will mark the six-time IndyCar Series champion’s 21st start in the 500, with “only” one win earned way back in 2008. “Experience matters, maybe in this race more than any other, because you don’t really understand the magnitude of it until you have been a participant, and then it’s understanding the length, the constant changes in conditions, and the cost of one tiny mistake. I’ve been doing this a long time, and it was a one-second mistake in the pits that cost me the win one year ago. At a younger age, I don’t know if I could have processed that properly, or who knows? Maybe being young allows you to get over things quicker.”
See: Long Beach less than two months ago, when Dixon was tangled up with O’Ward after the latter dove inside Dixon in Turn 8 of the race’s 20th lap, touching tires and sending the veteran into the tire barrier nose-first. When they arrived at Indianapolis for a pre-500 test session only a few days later, Dixon was still angrily vocal about the wreck and the youthful aggression that he believed to be the cause. O’Ward shrugged it off, saying, “We’re big boys … people made it seem like it was the end of the world, but it was racing.”
It’s a racing tale as old as, well, time. Youngsters with seemingly countless years and Indy 500 starts ahead of them, all while being touted as the future of the sport, versus living Hall of Famers who are nearing the end of their careers with a finite number of chances remaining to have their faces sculpted in silver on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Add to that this still-new unpredictable age of the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series as a whole. A world where five different drivers have won the first five races of the season. And a world where a tried-and-true Indy 500 mindset of long-range pit strategy and deliberation, even at 230 mph, always being the key to winning Earth’s biggest motorsports event at the end of 200 laps has been replaced by a parity-packed field that has produced more late-lap “Where did he come from?” moments in the past decade than in the century before it.
“There is a really fine line to walk and race,” said Marco Andretti, now a grizzled veteran at 36 and making his 18th Indy 500 start. The grandson of Mario was the undisputed “changing of the guard” flagbearer of the 2010s, after losing the 2006 edition of the 500 by a soul-crushing .0635 seconds. “When you are young, you aren’t as cautious as you should be, but you also think you’ll have so many more shots to win this race. Then one day you wake up and you’re me, 0-for-18 and not far from 40 years old and the guy starting next to you on Sunday [Malukas] is like, ‘Yeah, I grew up watching you race.’ You learn patience as you get older, but you get impatient as time feels like it’s not on your side.
Exactly whose side the World Center of Racing will be on this weekend — youth or veteran, legend or lucky — is still to be determined, but with each tick of the clock toward the future and each tick of the lap count toward Indy’s 107th checkered flag, the arrival of that youth movement so boldly predicted seven years ago feels more and more inevitable.
“I have been coming here for more than a decade now and I don’t believe I have ever seen a field this talented,” recalled Pagenaud, who turned 39 one week ago. “I am very excited to see where these young guys can take this race and this series and their careers. I think all of us who have been here for years, we are all excited to see what the young guys will do…”
Pagenaud cut his eyes over to Ericsson, the defending Indy 500 winner addressing the media at a table nearby. The French driver smiled and winked.
“But not yet.”
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