One of the most inspiring sights in motorsports is to witness the changing of the guard that is going on in the IndyCar Series.
The season has already yielded victories for two of the younger drivers on the race course: James Hinchcliffe in St. Petersburg at the season-opener and more recently IndyCar defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.
It’s a poignant, almost surreal, moment when one generation replaces the other on the podium. There is some whooping and hollering to be sure, in greatest part because of the thrill associated with victory and to a lesser extent as testament to the inevitable process of change.
Racing is perhaps the most daunting, and the most rewarding, of all the sports. The season begins anew each spring in a warm climate somewhere, and runs into Memorial Day at Indianapolis, and burns white-hot on the Fourth of July, and finally concludes around Halloween with the crowning of a champion.
There is absolutely no better example of man against man than a closely contested auto race, with multiple lead changes and a thrilling dash to the finish. It's a nail-biting climax which fans get to experience over and over again whether on small ovals, road courses, street circuits or the monstrously fast, gargantuan dimensions of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When you think about it, auto racing does something pretty darned remarkable in such a vast and diverse country as our own. It brings thousands upon thousands of Americans together and gives them a chance to think about something other than their troubles pretty much every weekend of the year other than the bleak cold-weather months of the off-season.
Whenever I come back from two or three days in the South, or the West coast, after catching a race live and in person I always feel grateful that I live in a country where such trivial business as blazing around at break-neck speed on four tires is still alive and possible.
While I'm at these events I generally talk to dozens of fans in attendance from all over the country: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Nevada, Washington, Wyoming, and all the rest. And those are just people I actually talk to, not including thousands more that I will never have a chance to button-hole for a word.
I can't remember a single one of my impromptu racing conversations that I've had with these complete strangers where a mention of politics, religion, the economy or the unemployment rate came up. Every person I meet as a rule has but one thing on their mind, and wants to talk about just one thing: auto racing.
Well, every once in a while, somebody will bring up NASCAR; but if that's what floats their boat then I'm happy to learn something new about the tin-tops that I may not have known before.
One thing that is especially interesting to me, and it is not confined to the current racing season by any means, is the changing of the guard that has taken place over last year's IndyCar Series season and this one.
You won’t find old favorites like Vitor Meira and hotshots like Rubens Barrichello in the garages this year. You won’t see Paul Tracy in a racing suit and driving shoes. There's no sign of smiling Townsend Bell other than in the broadcast booth, nor veteran Davey Hamilton or the amiable Ryan Briscoe out on the pit lane.
In their places are swift, promising rookies, and yearlings and second-year men like Josef Newgarden and Hinch and Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway--all great young drivers who have been served up by our maker with huge heaping helpings of talent and are now coming into their own.
These up-and-coming studs are out there, and for the most part, sticking it to the veterans. You've all seen them, the heroes of yesterday anxiously guarding their position on-track while glancing in the mirror at what's closing up fast behind them or getting out-maneuvered for the apex of a fast corner by one or several of the young turks.
Yes, a new era of IndyCar racing is taking root.
Sure, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi are still running formidable teams, but this season the new kids on the block seem to be pressing just a little bit harder and grabbing a growing share of the pile of gold in the winner's circle.
Even AJ Foyt has turned the reins quite fully over to Larry Foyt and his team, many of whom have never been without the four-time Indy 500 winner watching their every move, seems to be carrying on with newfound purpose (not to mention speed).
And how about AJ delving into acupuncture at the suggestion of his driver Takuma Sato; who would ever have believed that could happen. New world order look out: here comes the Texan revived by an ever-young speedster named Taku.
What I find most intriguing about this new crop of racers is that I remember a lot of them as wide-eyed kids in Indy Lights or Mazda or midgets what seems like only a few short months ago.
I remember watching Newgarden take over for the European bound Connor Daley, and wondering how he would fare in the wake of a local kid with a ton of ability. It turns out Josef himself was the harder act to follow.
I remember Ana Beatriz and her hard-nosed determination and desire, both of which served her well in winning the first Indy Pro Series race by a woman. Now she's in a solid ride with solid support and primed to make the most of her opportunity.
I remember when Sam Schmidt Motorsports were the kingpin of the "little" cars, not the wizards whose expertise power legends like the late Dan Wheldon across the finish line first in the 500.
I remember all of these guys who seemed and were so young, that are now running up front and pressing the familiar names like Castroneves and Franchitti and TK.
That’s just one of the cool things about racing--there always has been a fresh group of drivers, engineers and fans to take over when another era departs.
We haven't seen an "Arrivederci Mario" farewell tour in a long time, but I would wager a guess that it will happen again after this season or during the next in 2014.
And come next February there will be another bumper crop of lead-footed prospects ready to take its turn at conquering the big oval and everything else in between.
If you have been reading to this point then you know I am passionate about open-wheel racing.
I hope as fans that you understand how important it is to pass on the traditions of the sport while embracing the new and the unfamiliar.
When I went to St. Petersburg this year I was inspired by the different generations of fans who were there. At one point a rain shower broke out, not uncommon in Florida, so I sought refuge from the downpour under the covered area of the paddock where IndyCar was located.
While there I talked to the most adorable little older lady, who was all decked out in orange and white attire. She had on a Novo-Nordisk crew shirt, orange socks, orange scarf and an orange and white hat that looked like a lop-sided Creamsicle; but she was cheerful as she could be while we both tried to stay dry amidst the teams working on the cars.
She was so sweet, and so full of energy, and full of hope for the new season. I am sure she didn’t feel old on that day, as she was behaving like she was 16 and at her first race.
Needless to say, she made my day; made it into a very special day.
I hope that each of you reading this takes the time to take at least one family member or friend to a race this season. Take your grandma, your uncle, your mom, your dad, your son, your niece, your grand-baby or even your grumpy boss who never takes a day off and share this great sport of ours with someone else.
Hand on this great past-time to someone else, because I am guessing someone helped pass it on to you.
After all, there will come a time when each of us will step aside from our seat in the grandstand or our pace on the grid, and will ourselves be replaced.