It’s hard to imagine an Indy 500 without the names of Kanaan, Dixon, Sato, Castroneves, Montoya or Power. It’s been since 1999 since one of those seven names was not in the Indianapolis 500. Castroneves took his fourth Borg-Warner trophy last year at the age of 46. The 500 has turned into a race for the veteran driver. The 2010s were dominated by drivers in their 30s. Outside of Alexander Rossi’s win in 2016, the winners of the 500 in the 2010s were no younger than the age of 30.
Eventually, the tide has to change. Youth has shown it’s talents of late in IndyCar with Alex Palou winning the 2021 IndyCar Championship and the likes of Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay finding victory circle for the first time in their careers. It’s hard to believe that Colton Herta will enter his fourth full time season at the age of 21. These four drivers will lead IndyCar in the future, but who might be joining them on the top step of the IndyCar podium?
We know Kyle Kirkwood is set up to be a star for seasons to come. Although he may only be at A.J. Foyt Racing for a year, Kirkwood’s talent will keep him in IndyCar over the next several years. The rookie field for this year's Indy 500 will be a mixed bag of age. Kirkwood and Devlin DeFrancesco are under the age of 23 while Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson are 35 and 46 respectively. David Malukas, who should have a ride for this year's Indy 500 is just 20 years old.
Herta, VeeKay, O’Ward and Palou have laid the groundwork for the future of the sport. All three have found victory within their first two years of full-time competition. IndyCar might be the only racing series on the planet to have a 24 year old and 46 year old battling out for the win in their biggest event on the final lap.
Looking to the future of IndyCar for the next couple of seasons, a few names to keep your eyes on in the Mazda Road to Indy Ladder Series.
ERNIE FRANCIS JR.: Ernie comes to Indy Lights in 2022 with plenty of racing experience, just not in the open wheel variety. Francis Jr. is 23 years old and will compete with Force Indy in Indy Lights. The goal for Francis Jr. is to be in the Indianapolis 500 in 2023 and has the backing of Roger Penske to do so. A veteran of the Trans-Am Series, Francis spent 2021 racing in Tony Stewart’s SRX Series, scoring a victory at Lucas Oil Raceway. Francis should adapt to Indy Lights cars rather quickly. His lack of oval experience may hold him back early in his IndyCar career, but look for him to be in the 2023 Indianapolis 500.
CHRISTIAN RASMUSSEN: Moving up to Indy Lights in 2022 is the defending champion of Indy Pro 2000 Christian Rasmussen. Rasmussen was the 2020 USF2000 Champion, competing both seasons with Jay Howard Driver Development. The 21-year old Denmark native will compete with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights in 2022. I have worked a little bit with Rasmussen and can tell you, he has the talent to win the 2022 Lights crown and with the proper ride in IndyCar, can be a driver that has a good career in the NTT IndyCar Series.
STING RAY ROB: Joining Rasmussen at Andretti Autosport this year is Sting Ray Robb. With a name like that, Robb is destined for popularity in the sport. The 20 year old is more than just a name, he scored the 2020 Indy Pro 2000 titles for Juncos Racing and scored 16 top 10s in 20 starts for Juncos in Indy Lights last season. The move to Andretti Autosport should propel his consistency in 2021 to podiums and even wins.
MATTHEW BRABHAM: Brabham is a driver looking to resurrect his career in Indy Lights. This doesn’t happen often, a driver with Indy 500 experience returning to run Indy Lights. In fact, thanks to the help of Mike Thomsen, only two drivers have ran an Indy Lights race after running the Indy 500. Willy T. Ribbs drove in a Lights race in 2011 at Baltimore, and Zachary Claman DeMelo started several Lights races after his Indy 500 debut in 2018. Brabham started his only Indy 500 in 2016, finishing in the 22nd position. Brabham has spent the last seven seasons running Stadium Super Trucks, winning the 2021 championship. I’m not saying he will be a driver that will win an IndyCar championship, but getting back in the door at Andretti is a start in the right direction to the ultimate goal of full time in IndyCar. The third generation driver makes his return to Andretti Autosport after spending two seasons there in 2013 and 2014, scoring his only career Indy Lights win.
Seeing these drivers in the Indianapolis 500 might be a few years away, but they are certainly fun to watch as they make their way, albeit different paths, to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They certainly give even the casual race fan a reason to pay attention to the Road to Indy ladder series throughout the 2022 season.
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