Young drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series often get mentoring and tips from veterans in the field, but there's another way they help that's less apparent although just as important.
Because young drivers rarely transform into stars overnight, one of the more valuable commodities the veterans offer the young guns coming up through the ranks is time to grow on and off the track.
“You can't beat time — time is everything,” said championship points leader Simon Pagenaud, who drives the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet.
“When Helio (Castroneves, his Penske teammate) and T.K. (Tony Kanaan of Chip Ganassi Racing) showed up years ago, nobody knew who they were. It’s the same today: The popularity that I have now compared to three years ago has changed completely because I've been here longer and I've been winning races.”
Interestingly, the same experience that young drivers rely on for advice also goes a long way to extending the careers of the veteran drivers and allows many to keep driving into their 40s. With testing becoming more limited, the knowledge gained through years of racing allows plus-40 drivers Kanaan, Castroneves and Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya to find an edge and counter the enthusiasm and hunger of youth.
“You can't buy experience, and obviously I like that because it makes me last a lot longer,” Kanaan said.
“I think having guys race longer is a trend in the Verizon IndyCar Series and in stock cars. It helps me, Helio and Montoya and ensures the series has the right mix of drivers.”
Spending a few seasons under the wings of recognized stars before stepping into a bigger role as a series ambassador is something that's been going on in the Verizon IndyCar series for decades. It’s no surprise that those who benefited from similar help when they were the fresh faces of the series also want to pay it forward.
“I remember what it was like to ask veterans like Alex Zanardi,” Castroneves said of the two-time Indy car champion whose 1998 title coincided with Castroneves’ rookie season.
“So I always offer advice or opinions to the young guys if they ask for it. I know how I felt back when the veterans gave me advice and I would like to make the young guys today feel the same way.”
Having veteran drivers with strong name recognition also takes some of the pressure off the young guns like Dale Coyne Racing rookie driver Conor Daly, who is in the unenviable position of learning and making mistakes in public as he finds his feet in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“We have a lot of pressure on ourselves because we are a part of INDYCAR rising again and we want to keep the momentum going,” Daly said.
“It makes us want to do well and have a good, long career here. It's just going to take time and more drivers coming in, too.”
Daly is one of several young drivers in the 25-and-under crowd hoping to find a long-term home in the Verizon IndyCar Series. His cohorts include Chip Ganassi Racing driver Max Chilton, A.J. Foyt Enterprises' Jack Hawksworth, Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz, Josef Newgarden and Spencer Pigot of Ed Carpenter Racing and Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian driver Alexander Rossi.
The demographics of the Verizon IndyCar Series give it a good base to keep the pipeline flowing as the drivers move up through the age groupings and ensure a varied field of fresh-faced youngsters through to the cagey veterans.
Below the plus-40 veterans is the mid- to late-30s set that includes Indy car champions Sebastian Bourdais of KVSH Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (pictured above imparting wisdom to James Hinchcliffe), Team Penske's Will Power and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, as well as Ed Carpenter of Ed Carpenter Racing and Takuma Sato of A.J. Foyt Enterprises.
The final group of drivers are all around 30 years old and includes Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal (pictured at right joking with Montoya) of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' Hinchcliffe, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Charlie Kimball and Pagenaud.
“Marco and Graham are the interesting ones in the group, because they are about the same age as James (Hinchcliffe) and I, but they've been doing it for three or four more years, so experience level they are closer to some of the older guys, but age-wise they are closer to us,” said Kimball.
“There's also a good crop of young American drivers, which is really important to continuing to grow the fan base.”
As those young drivers come into their own, they'll continue to receive advice from veterans like 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Kanaan, who won't be hanging up his helmet just yet.
“I don't know why people keep asking me about stopping,” Kanaan said. “I am still competitive and, as long as I keep doing as well as I am, it's not going to cross my mind. I am not thinking about it anytime soon.”