It’s a young man’s game.
Ah, yes, the catchphrase used by many when talking about professional sports. Slightly humorous, considering it has been the savvy and seemingly ageless veterans who have ruled the roost in the NTT IndyCar Series for quite some time now.
In fact, prior to Colton Herta winning on March 24 at the inaugural INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas, only two rookies had been victorious at the top level of North America’s prestigious open wheel championship since 2009. They were Alexander Rossi, whose infamous “clutch and coast” ride took him to glory in the 2016 Indianapolis 500, and one-hit wonder Carlos Huertas, who stunned the paddock on the rain-plagued streets of Houston, Texas, in 2014.
While a win is a win, Rossi’s and Huertas’ performances were fuel-saving efforts and quite different than the one put forth by Herta on the demanding 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course in Austin, Texas. Piloting the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda, Herta did his best impression of a walk-off home run – an homage to his team co-owner George Steinbrenner IV, grandson of the late, bombastic New York Yankees owner of the same name. By commanding a late race restart and comfortably gapping second-place Josef Newgarden, Herta became the youngest driver (18 years, 359 days) to win an Indy car race.
Yet, Herta is just one of a widely heralded 2019 NTT IndyCar Series rookie class which comes in with a wealth of promise, but also an immense amount of pressure. While we are just two rounds into the season, it’s apparent all are relishing it and rising to the occasion.
At COTA alone, five of the six rookies entered logged laps among the top 10 at some point throughout the 60-lap race. Four managed to pace as far up as the top five in the running order.
Some of that was due to pit-stop cycles and unique strategy play, but the kids had enough moxie and pace to prove they could hold their own. Behold the prime example below with the incredible side-by-side battle between rookie Patricio O’Ward and 13-year veteran Graham Rahal:
The season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida also proved enjoyable for many of the newcomers. Some fans may not have heard the name Felix Rosenqvist (and even some media, which, shame on them) prior to this year, but his outing on the tight and tricky 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit certainly got everyone’s rightful attention. Rosenqvist started third, charged to the front and led 31 laps in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda before faltering to finishing fourth due to strategy and a slightly extended pit stop.
And these rookies don’t come into the NTT IndyCar Series with blank resumes. They’re all real racers. Among their career highlights to date are:
- Marcus Ericsson (Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) spent the previous five seasons in Formula One.
- Santino Ferrucci (Dale Coyne Racing) was a development driver for the Haas F1 team.
- Ben Hanley (DragonSpeed Racing) was runner-up for the 2007 Renault 3.5 Series championship and boasts extensive sports-car experience.
- Colton Herta (Harding Steinbrenner Racing) won the 2013 Pacific F2000 championship with 10 wins and 10 poles, was runner-up in the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship and co-drove the winning GT Le Mans car in this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona endurance race
- Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) was the 20017 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion.
- Patricio O’Ward (Carlin) was the 2018 Indy Lights champion, the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion and has top-10 finishes in his first two NTT IndyCar Series starts.
- Felix Rosenqvist (Chip Ganassi Racing) was a two-time Macau Grand Prix winner, 2015 FIA F3 European champion and three-time race winner in FIA Formula E.
This crop of rookies is as decorated and deep as many can remember in Indy car annals, and they have already proved they’re not here to simply make up the numbers. We still have 15 races to go until someone hoists the historic Astor Cup as this year’s champion, but the rookies have already put the veterans on notice.
So, keep an eye on your mirrors at this weekend's Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, NTT IndyCar Series veterans. The new kids may be objects closer than they appear.