In late December, Tony Kanaan posted a photo on Instagram of his Trek bike while taking a rare break on a Florida beach. A few weeks earlier, Scott Dixon posted a pic of himself about to take a brisk but long run in Indianapolis.
In part, fitness is part of their success and longevity, and the cornerstone of productivity in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The statistics support that notion. Four of the top 13 drivers on the all-time victory list are currently active, and all of them are 35 years of age or older.
But when Kanaan and Dixon – two Chip Ganassi Racing veterans and two of INDYCAR’s biggest stars (shown in the photo at right above) – look at the depth of the current roster of drivers and the statistics they’ve amassed, they hesitate to declare modern times another golden age of the sport.
It’s not fair to compare eras in terms of talent, they say, but it is fair to say the competition is closer. And that’s not a criticism of any other time or driver. It’s simply an acknowledgement that things are closer, top to bottom, than they may have been in the past.
“I don’t want to sound like what they had in the ‘80s and ‘90s with all the great names that are part of the history of racing wasn’t as good as it is now,” said Kanaan (shown at left competing in Ironman competition). “The difference is that in the past, with engine manufacturers, tire manufacturers and chassis manufacturers being so widely different, things were more spread out.”
Nobody of this era is going to catch A.J. Foyt’s 67 career victories, but Dixon leads the active list with 40 wins, fourth on the all-time list and two behind Michael Andretti. Sebastien Bourdais is tied with Bobby Unser for sixth with 35 victories, while Helio Castroneves and Will Power are tied with Rick Mears for 11th at 29 wins.
“It’s a very strong time,” said Dixon, who has four Verizon IndyCar Series championships and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 to his credit. “If you look just at the competition level, this is probably the most competitive ever on record. Granted, there have been very different car variations throughout the years and levels of competitiveness, and I don’t think it’s too far separated from other eras in terms of age. If you look at A.J. and Mario (Andretti), we all kind of race in packs and groups, and when you’re in a current era it’s kind of hard to comment. It just seems normal.”
What’s considered the golden era of the genre – the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s – produced some of the biggest legends of the sport and some of its most prolific winners: Foyt, Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser, Rick Mears and Johnny Rutherford – and the beginning of the careers of Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. (Mears and Foyt are shown in the above photo at left).
At the time, with a wider spectrum of available equipment, a talented driver could find himself in the wrong combination for a period of time while others were in winning combinations. Now, with two engine/aero kit manufacturers, one chassis and one tire supplier, the talent is packed closer together.
“Let’s say Driver A in that era had more talent than Driver B, but Driver A wasn’t in the right equipment at the time,” Kanaan explained. “He wouldn’t be as competitive. The discrepancy in the grid was bigger because of the equipment, not because of talent. That masked how tight the competition was at the time. You had a bigger discrepancy in equipment. Now you don’t.”
Now, the starting grids at Indy car races are separated by slim margins. At Iowa last July, the top 10 in qualifying had a margin of slightly more than six-tenths of a second.
“It’s very competitive now; it’s very cutthroat,” said Dixon (shown at right prepping for the bike portion of the 2015 Ironman 70.3 in Miami). “You’re chasing tenths and hundredths (of a second). When I first came in, you could be four or five tenths off and still be among the top five. That’s just impossible now.”
Which brings us back to fitness. When everything is so close, how does one gain the advantage and the best shot at longevity? Drivers offer a one-word answer: athleticism.
“Look at me. I’m 42,” said Kanaan, who reached that birthday on New Year’s Eve. “The way I’m built and the way I work out and the way I’m keeping myself in shape, I can continue to do this at a high level at this age. Back in the day, a 42-year-old guy who didn’t work out and stay fit would be near the end of his career. He wouldn’t be driving as well because his reflexes would have fallen way off. We’ve changed that. Drivers are lasting longer because they stay fit. It’s a new generation that has extended their careers through fitness.”
So the verdict from a jury of two experts is in. Yes, it’s a good time for Indy car racing, perhaps another golden age, but for different reasons than the previous golden age.
“It is kind of a golden era,” Kanaan said. “I think we have more talent in terms of quantity than in some previous eras, but the equipment is helping to make it extremely close.”