You see them at every IndyCar race: the diehards, middle-aged men in faded Greg Moore shirts. The core group of IndyCar fans who have followed the series through the CART years and the split, from the IRL to the IndyCar Series.
Those fans may be the heart and soul of the sport today, but IndyCar must appeal to a younger demographic in order to thrive in the future. Fifty-two percent of IndyCar fans are over the age of 45; the average age of a stock car fan is 42. The average age of an ESPN viewer of the NBA in 2012 was 36. That difference has not been lost on America’s premier open-wheel series. Racing runs on money, money comes from sponsors, and sponsors are after potential customers, especially young consumers that aren’t yet saddled with mortgages, children and car payments.
Among today’s IndyCar drivers, a youth movement is under way that appeals to a completely different generation of fans. Look at the grid: nearly one-third of the drivers are 25 years old or younger. JR Hildebrand, Tristan Vautier, James Jakes, Sebastian Saavedra, Simona De Silvestro, Josef Newgarden, and Graham Rahal are barely old enough to rent cars. Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport are the old men at 26.
All of these drivers arrived in the series through different routes. James Jakes began his racing career in Formula Renault in Britain, receiving a nomination for the McLaren/Autosport BRDC Award before racing in GP2 and GP3. Josef Newgarden also raced in England before joining the IndyLights Series in 2011.
The Mazda Road to Indy provided a path for Saavedra, who raced in IndyLights and has a season of IndyCars under his belt (a year with Conquest Racing). De Silvestro also followed the Mazda Road to Indy, transitioning from Atlantics to HVM.
Tristan Vautier followed a more traditional European route, starting in Formula Renault and Formula Two, before switching to the Star Mazda Series and winning the championship. He turned his scholarship money to IndyLights, where he raced for Sam Schmidt and won another championship. His IndyLights prize earned him an IndyCar drive with Schmidt, and his career begins on March 23 at St. Pete.
As talented as this group is, so far there’s been more promise than hard-won results. Saavedra was a winner in IndyLights but has also experienced difficult days with Bryan Herta, and he unwillingly stepped into a controvery when his team replaced popular driver Katherine Legge (under strained circumstances). De Silvestro is with a new team (KV Racing Technologies) after a horrid year with HVM and a Lotus engine that left her far behind the field on most Sundays.
Hildebrand very nearly won the Indianapolis 500, and is due for a race win for his one-car team. The native of Sausalito is eager to pair up with the experienced Oriol Servia. Servia, whose capable hands are respected throughout the paddock, may allow Hildebrand to break through with his already considerable talent. Similarly, De Silvestro is happy to paired with veteran Tony Kanaan after a season on her own at HVM.
“We’ve solidified the relationship we have with Dreyer & Reinbold and Oriol Servia,” Hildebrand said. “The two of us are working together as a pseudo-two car team. That’s been exciting for us.”
De Silvestro is also looking forward to learning from the wily Brazilian.
“Especially on the ovals,” she said, “[Tony] has a lot of experience. I can learn a lot of from him.”
Most of these drivers are on teams with the technical ability to win races or, at minimum, challenge for podiums on a regular basis. IndyCar needs these drivers to succeed in order to ensure that in 20 years, middle-aged men are wearing Hildebrand t-shirts.