INDYCAR's young guns
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Editor's Note: As we were going to press with this story, Verizon IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe (featured in this story and accompanying video) was injured in a single-car crash. He was taken to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital where he underwent surgery and is in stable condition.
Graham Rahal was 18 years old when he hit racing's highest levels. Even at that age, he wasn't a stranger to the sport. In fact, he'd been around it his entire life. His dad, Bobby, won the Indianapolis 500 before Graham was born. When most boys were getting fitted for a tuxedo for prom, Graham Rahal was a seasoned, professional race car driver.
Seven years after he won his first Verizon IndyCar Series race in 2008, Rahal says he wishes he knew then what he knows now.
"You've got to put your arrogance aside and realize this isn't the minor leagues," Rahal said. "The level of competitiveness is incredible. Everybody has a big right foot here; there's nobody who doesn't. You have to put that aside and realize how much harder this level is."
On the fast track
As younger drivers advance to the Verizon IndyCar Series – the top level of open-wheel racing in North America and the racing series competing at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans – they encounter changes. As the years and races go by, they come to embrace the changes, even thrive at conquering them. Fans will get to know the young guns well when they arrive in the Motor City for the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, May 29-31.
"The biggest part is appreciating how much value experience really has in this sport," said James Hinchcliffe, a 28-year-old Canadian who's in his fifth season in INDYCAR. "It's not like other sports where you can go and practice all day, every day, if you want to hone your craft. Our practice comes on race weekends. That's why you see guys kind of hitting their stride in their 30s. … It's not one of those sports where you have these 18-year-old phenoms coming in like your Sidney Crosby or your LeBron James. It's a very different atmosphere."
One of those phenoms is 19-year-old Sage Karam, who raced in last year's Indianapolis 500 as a high school senior. This year is officially his rookie season, and it hasn't been perfect. He had an accident early in a test session in March at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and in his first three races of 2015 his top finish was 18th.
"You see the rookies like Gabby Chaves and Stefano Coletti," Karam said. "We're all trying to find our rhythm. I think that's the biggest thing. Once we get in that rhythm, we're going to do OK. But it's hard just to get in that initial rhythm."
That doesn't mean young drivers can't be successful. One of the hottest prospects in INDYCAR racing is Josef Newgarden, a 24-year-old from Hendersonville, Tennessee, who posted the first win of his career last month at Barber.
"It's an interesting time in IndyCar right now," Newgarden said. "You've got a lot of young guys trying to take on the veterans – the titans of the sport. It's been fun for me as a young kid trying to learn the ropes and get the better of the older guys. … That experience is what these guys have. They've been doing this for years and years.
"They have so much data and so much experience to draw from every weekend. As a young kid, you're trying to go up against them and match them and beat them. It's fun to watch."
Some of the changes between lower levels of racing and the top level are expected, others aren't. The cars are faster, bigger and more powerful; that's expected. What isn't expected is the increased workload created by responsibilities not always related to the act of racing.
"There's probably not a driver out there who would say, 'I'd like to go shake 100 people's hands and sign autographs before I get in the car,' but it's part of the responsibility," said Jack Hawksworth, a 24-year-old from Bradford, England, who's in his second season in the Verizon IndyCar Series and first with A.J. Foyt Enterprises.
"You get on with it and you do it. You still get the 10, 20 minutes before you get in the car where you can focus yourself and reprogram yourself to get into the racing mindset, but you do the appearances and meet-and-greets because it's part of the game."
Putting egos aside
Confidence also is part of the game. Younger drivers have to establish the belief that they can handle racing at the highest level before they get there. They usually do that by winning consistently at a lower level, like Gabby Chaves, a 21-year-old from Bogota, Colombia, who won the Indy Lights championship – the level below the Verizon IndyCar Series – last year before moving up to the top level in 2015.
"I believe I have a future in this, and I believe I can be successful at this," Chaves said. "One of the things that's very important to me is staying the way I am and always keeping in mind why I do what I do and keeping those reasons clear. I do this because I love racing. If I could wake up every day and drive a race car, that's what I'd do. It's my passion."
If Rahal could mentor younger drivers, he'd echo Chaves' advice and let them know how much more difficult IndyCar is from Indy Lights and its other ladder series.
"First of all, I'd tell them to put their egos aside," Rahal said. "I wouldn't say I was cocky when I was that age, but after coming out of Atlantics, I thought moving up can't be that much harder. People have to realize how much harder you have to work. It's not just working at the track. It's not just driving or working with your engineer. It's about sponsorships. It's not just going to be handed to you because you're good. This takes a very high level of work."
It also takes an understanding that improvement isn't always measured in speed. Hawksworth said he isn't any faster than he was during his rookie year, but he's better.
"I'm probably no faster now than I was when I first came in," he said. "There's not much difference speed-wise between Jack Hawksworth circa 2014 and Jack Hawksworth circa 2015. Time-wise, it would be a dead heat. But there is stuff around that – like the technical side of it, racecraft, dealing with difficult situations and other things like that – that's where I've grown up."
And growing up might just be the key. Plenty of young drivers can be fast, but the ones who advance are the ones who learn to adapt quickly to constantly changing situations.
"There are a lot of talented guys trying to fit into these seats," Rahal said. "Those who can make a difference are the ones who are going to get the opportunities. Making a difference isn't just driving the car fast; it's also everything you can do off the track."
To learn more about the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix and to purchase tickets, visit www.DetroitGP.com.
This story is provided and presented by our sponsor, Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.