The last time IndyCar was loaded with so much 40-plus talent, it was 1991 with the ageless Mario Andretti, Pancho Carter, Emerson Fittipaldi, A.J. Foyt, and Danny Sullivan leading the charge in part- or full-time programs. Team Penske’s Rick Mears, who’d go on to win his fourth and final Indy 500 in 1991, along with the late Tony Bettenhausen Jr, were mere babies at 39.
Thirty years later, by coincidence, 2021 NTT IndyCar Series field is looking a lot like a tribute to the legends and heroes of 1991. Defending series champion Scott Dixon leads the over-40 crowd, and he’s joined by fellow 40-year-olds in Ed Carpenter, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Will Power.
Next up is Sebastien Bourdais at 42; reigning Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato and Helio Castroneves are 44; Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmie Johnson have 45 covered and IndyCar’s iron man, Tony Kanaan, tops the list at 46.
That’s 10 drivers who are twice the age — or more — of IndyCar Rookie of the Year Rinus VeeKay, which underscores the unavoidable clash between the old guard and the new guard throughout the season.
The story of young IndyCar guns intent on retiring the old guard is far from new, with the likes of VeeKay (20), Colton Herta (21), and a trio of 24-year-olds in Pato O’Ward, Pietro Fittipaldi and Alex Palou ready to shine, IndyCar has a battle of the 20s versus the 40s on its hands.
“It is unique; it almost feels like you’ve got the older veterans and you’ve got a bunch of really young guys coming in, and it’s broken out into classes of age,” Hunter-Reay tells RACER. “And, obviously, there’s a bunch of guys who are in their 30s, or almost at that age, in the middle, who’ve been here a while and will be around a while longer.
“You look at guys in that older class that have been in IndyCar for a long time, and there’s a lot of accomplishments, championships, Indy 500 wins. So for me, it’s definitely a great group to be in, to be racing with these guys for decades now. And it’s something where it doesn’t feel like there’s been any tailing off in that regard. I mean, Dixon’s settings records as he goes and we’re all there competing and contending for race wins. So, I think age is only a number.”
Scott Dixon (left) and Tony Kanaan (right) are part of the over-40 crowd that have accomplished the highest achievements the NTT IndyCar Series has to offer. Cantrell/Motorsport Images
Asked if he had any ideas as to why so many of today’s 40-and-over drivers are performing at such a high level—more than many of their counterparts in 1991, Dixon wonders if it’s a matter of lower mileage.
“I think with current rules, with the lack of testing, I think that maybe lends to it a little bit with keeping the older drivers fresher these days,” he says. “In 2001 when I came into CART, I think the team did over 50 days of testing and back then there was a ton of testing, which enables the young guys to get up to speed a lot quicker. Then you had, like, 20 races or whatever, and so you were just always working, always in the car, always going throughout the year.
“For the drivers back in ’91, they had all those races and the constant testing, too, so I don’t know how the older ones fared with that constant pace. I think today, the fact that you’re not in the car as often, that you get almost no testing, maybe that downplays the brutal schedule you used to have, so guys aren’t burned out when they get to this age.”
Dixon notes that one area the legendary drivers of 1991 and their older counterparts in 2021 have in common is a passion for driving. The same flame found within a Mario Andretti three decades ago is no different than the ones inside Bourdais, Montoya, and the rest of today’s veterans.
“I think that does play into it because as you get older you can get burned out, or you start looking at life in different ways once you have children and things like that,” Dixon says. “So it’s definitely an individual thing, and not every driver is going to have that same amount of motivation as they get older. But I think if you look at all the good ones who had long careers, there’s no way to last that long if your heart’s not in it.”
“And Helio’s showed that as well; he did forever years in IndyCar, went away for like three years in IMSA, won a championship last year, and now he’s back in IndyCar because he’s still as fast, and he’s still as energetic to be here,” he said. “As long as you keep after yourself in good shape, and the fire’s there, that’s what matters. This group of 40 and over we have now is a special unit, for sure. That’s crazy.”
Dixon adds, “And when you look at it plain and simple, it’s guys that have been winning a lot of poles, winning races, winning championships. That definitely helps you stick around. If you aren’t doing those things, you might not be here much longer, which is something we all accept.”
Rinus VeeKay was new to the NTT IndyCar Series in 2020, but instantly made an impact, scoring a podium, three top fives and one pole for Ed Carpenter Racing to claim Rookie of the Year honors. (Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images)
The time will come when the 40s give way to the 20s, and those in their 30s will take the baton from IndyCar’s old guard. Although he has no intention of making it easy for the next generation, Dixon sees a serious crop of young stars pushing for their turn at the top.
“There’s a ton of really good talent rising, and it’s super important for IndyCar as a whole and for its future and for us to know they’re here,” Dixon says. “For someone like myself that’s been in this sport for quite a while, it definitely adds a different dynamic to it. And it is a different generation of racers who’ve grown up with different tools to learn with than we had, which is cool.
“It’s clear to see that there’s a ton of talent, but I think those defining moments that these guys will need to have to prove is when they become championship contenders. I think there’s definitely two or three that are right on that cusp, and maybe when they do hit that stride it will transform everything they do. But you know, there’s also some of the guys who’ve been here a little while that are on the cusp of breakthroughs and they don’t want to let the new guys take their place.
“That third through eighth in last year’s championship was super tight. So I’m actually going to really enjoy watching that portion of the field and seeing which guys it clicks with and which guys definitely make the most of their situation and definitely crush it. But unfortunately, for some of us who’ve been here the longest, there are a lot of drivers that are right on that cusp of something big.”