IndyCar's Next Generation is Ready for Its Close Up
Don’t let the spelling of his first name fool you, this 21 year old rookie and 2011 Indy Lights champion is from Nashville. Newgarden’s IndyCar career is four races old, but everyone in the IndyCar world has taken notice. He had already shown flashes in the first two races, but at Long Beach is where the breakout really started. First, he qualified 2nd alongside pole sitter and 4 time champion Dario Franchitti. Against the biggest dog of all, the smart thing would be to hang back at the start and slot behind Dario, right? Well, that’s not what Newgarden did. He went for it in the first corner, attempting a daring pass on the outside. It didn’t work, as it looked like Dario squeezed him a bit, and Newgarden ended up in the wall. Still, the young man showed that he has a racer’s mentality.
So far at Indy, Newgarden has been the story. He’s topped the speed charts three of the five practice days already. Again, this is a rookie. Not just a rookie, he’s driving for a small team, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He’s already made that team infinitely more competitive on road and street courses, and now he’s carrying it over to the biggest stage in the sport. He’s also shown media savvy and a fan friendly personality. The hype is growing in IndyCar circles, and while it’s still very early (practice is one thing, but qualifying and the Indy 500 itself are both much different animals), but the returns so far indicate that Josef Newgarden is a future star who hopefully can stop making videos showing how nobody knows who he is.
The other second generation driver in the group, Graham is the 23 year old son of Bobby Rahal. At 19, Graham won his first IndyCar race in his first career start. He remains to this day the youngest winner of a major American open wheel race. A second win has yet to happen, but with 5 podiums in four seasons, he’s come close. This was despite the fact that he spent 2010 driving for four different teams due to sponsorship issues. His record at the Indy 500 has also gotten better every year, going from last as a rookie in 2008 to 3rd last year. Of all the drivers on this list though, Graham has the best opportunity for future greatness. He currently drives for what’s known as the Ganassi B team, a team owned by Chip Ganassi, but not his famous Target cars. With Dario Franchitti getting up there in years, it’s widely believed that Rahal will be the successor to that #10 car, a car which has only won three straight championships and an Indy 500 recently.
Graham has had maturity issues over the years though, which primarily have manifested in ridiculous Twitter fights. It hasn’t helped his reputation any, but there are signs that he is starting to grow up and “get it.” It first showed after Dan Wheldon’s death. It was Graham who first offered to auction his race helmet for Wheldon’s family. That turned into the Dan Wheldon Memorial Auction, which raised over $600,000. Graham has also put together a bus trip for fans to get to the race in Milwaukee this year, a race that desperately needs good attendance to continue. This emphasis on giving back will continue to endear Graham to fans. If he can finally turn close calls into wins, that, plus being a second generation driver, will only increase his star power.
While the current generation of IndyCar drivers certainly isn’t going away, the future of the sport is starting to showcase itself through these seven. All of them should be closely at Indy this year (save poor, stuck Simona). While none would be considered the favorites, anything could happen. On the biggest stage in IndyCar, it may well be time for a new set of stars to be born.