It was during Thanksgiving – while nestled at the kids’ table for another year – that I began to ponder racing’s youth movement.
It was not the tryptophan that led to my wandering daydream, but rather an epiphany recently revealed to me. Three of global racing’s premier series – the Verizon IndyCar Series, Formula One and MotoGP – each recently crowned a five-time champion. Scott Dixon’s consistency allowed him to claim the INDYCAR title at Sonoma, Lewis Hamilton again piloted his Mercedes to an F1 crown giving him a quintet and Marquez rode his Honda to a fifth MotoGP championship in six years.
All have won races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, events that drew me close to their brilliance, but the chasm of their feats to my own position in life was illuminated by the exact location of my Turkey Day daydream. As the three men remained at the head table of their respective series, I was again relegated to the junior circuit.
In terms of the Verizon IndyCar Series, I’m starting to feel alone at the card table. Each year, more drivers elevate to prime status, chasing the entree that accompanies the Astor Cup.
We hadn’t even distributed the appetizers before Patricio O’Ward introduced himself to the INDYCAR world. The teenager from Monterrey, Mexico, made the jump into the Mazda Road to Indy, running the Pro Mazda Championship in 2015 and nearly winning the title in 2016. In 2018, he ran a full season of Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires and scored his first win in the season’s first weekend at St. Petersburg, Florida. He would go on to take the checkered eight more times, to match his pole total of nine.
Even with that dominance, O’Ward didn’t secure the championship until the season’s concluding weekend, thanks to the consistency of teammate and fellow teen Colton Herta. The Californian cooked up a gourmet season of his own, scoring four wins despite a mid-season injury at Toronto. Herta finished second to O’Ward in the final standings. Now, both drivers will combine their talents as Harding Steinbrenner Racing teammates in the 2019 IndyCar Series.
Taking a piece of Dixon’s championship pie, however, won’t be easy. In addition to the Kiwi great, the table is full of drivers filled with hunger and skills of the cockpit culinary.
Will Power has 35 career wins and will be looking to add his second championship. Sebastian Bourdais has tallied 37 wins and four championships, but is looking for his first title since the sport unified in 2008. The Frenchman will turn 40 this offseason, but still turns left and right with the precision and speed of his juniors.
Tony Kanaan will welcome Bourdais into the “40 Club,” a fraternity in which he has been a member for nearly four years. But Kanaan comes to the table with the same appetite and aggression he brought to the table in many a Thanksgiving past.
Ryan Hunter-Reay poured his gravy from the Astor Cup in 2012 and shows no signs that he can’t again do so. Simon Pagenaud toasted the table with his own championship champagne just two years ago.
There are two seats at the table for O’Ward and Herta, but they’ll find the elbow room tight. Spencer Pigot continues to look more comfortable in his seat and Zach Veach showed his booster chair was merely figurative: the youngish Ohioan was impressive in his 2018 rookie campaign. Matheus Leist and Santino Ferrucci will be looking to pile more ample portions of success on their plates as well.
Josef Newgarden sat at the head of the table last year and will be salivating at the thought of taking the spot back from Dixon. Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi are consistently willing to pass their foes as well as the potatoes, and Takuma Sato seems to always find a spot on a plate that most would see as filled to the outer line.
Chip Ganassi prepared a seat for promising newcomer Felix Rosenqvist. Schmidt Peterson did the same for another fleet Swede, Marcus Ericsson. A few open chairs have yet to be filled.
It’s an entertaining, gregarious and welcoming group that will join Herta and O’Ward at the table come March for the St. Petersburg opener. Until, of course, the food arrives. At which point it’s each man for himself trying to grab at the main dish.
And again, I’ll joyfully watch and admire. From the other side of the room.
(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)