A French driver may be leading an Australian in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings, but the resurgence of American drivers hasn't gone unnoticed.
With a couple of veterans, a good crop of mid-career racers and several up-and-coming stars peppering the field, the 2016 U.S. contingent in the Verizon IndyCar Series is arguably stronger than it’s been in more than two decades.
“I think it's big for the series,” said Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti, who hails from Pennsylvania.
“There's not only skill, but personality if you look at guys like (Josef) Newgarden. It's all good for the sport and it's what we need. There's nothing bad about Americans being successful, but having said that, it's good to have a great mix (of international drivers) as well.”
Whether it’s No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet driver and Iowa Corn 300 winner Newgarden, from Tennessee (right), or 2016 Indianapolis 500 victor and California native Alexander Rossi, having a good group of young American drivers is a great selling point for the Verizon IndyCar Series as it continues to build its audience and attract new fans.
A big part of the equation is the deliberate Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires program in place to help young drivers gain the experience they need to make the steps up the ladder. Newgarden (2011) and teammate Spencer Pigot (2015, shown at right in top photo with Conor Daly) are the last two Indy Lights champions, with another 10 current drivers going through the stepladder series.
Another key, says points leader Simon Pagenaud (the Frenchman), is that the Verizon IndyCar Series continues to work extremely hard to ensure American open-wheel talent gets the recognition it deserves as the series grows.
“INDYCAR is promoting the drivers more, we are on an upswing, and we are reaching out to a larger demographic now, so I think it's all going to help,” said the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet driver.
“It's really important that INDYCAR cultivate American drivers. There's a very patriotic mind in America and that's why we need them to do well.”
Pagenaud leads teammate Will Power (the Australian) by 43 points heading to the Sept. 18 finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Newgarden is fifth in the standings but just five points from third place. Other American front-runners include Graham Rahal, winner of the Firestone 600 completion at Texas Motor Speedway on Aug. 27, in seventh, Charlie Kimball ninth and Rossi 11th.
The list of U.S. drivers begins with veterans Ryan Hunter-Reay and Ed Carpenter, both in their mid-30s. Along with Andretti, Ohio's Rahal and Kimball from California, they make up the mid-career stars.
But it's the young guns who really make the American future of the Verizon IndyCar Series shine bright.
There's 2016 Indy 500 winner Rossi (shown at left with Hunter-Reay), who drives for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, Dale Coyne Racing's Daly, a second-generation driver from Indiana, Newgarden and Pigot. And there’s also 19-year-old RC Enerson, a Floridian who has impressed in his two races to date with Coyne.
“I do think there is a good crop of young drivers and even younger than sort of my age bracket, which is great for the longevity of American drivers in INDYCAR,” said Kimball, 31.
“I think it's really important to continue to grow the fan base in the U.S. and we need to have drivers that American fans can relate to and connect with.”
Then again, while having a good contingent of U.S. drivers is an important component in the success of the Verizon IndyCar Series, its American stars also need to race against and beat the best in the world, Hunter-Reay insisted.
“Right now, I think we are racing with a legend with Scott Dixon (from New Zealand) and Helio Castroneves (from Brazil) is a three-time Indy 500 winner — there are a lot of heavy names in this series,” the Andretti Autosport driver said.
“On the other hand, there is a lot of great young talent breaking through, too. These are great times in INDYCAR. It's pretty special.”