The old guys in IndyCar look like they’re driving with turn signals on

John Romano | A new generation of drivers, including Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner Scott McLaughlin, are threatening to upend the establishment in the IndyCar series.
Scott McLaughlin video chats with his parents in New Zealand in Victory Circle after winning his first-ever IndyCar race at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Sunday in downtown St. Petersburg.
Scott McLaughlin video chats with his parents in New Zealand in Victory Circle after winning his first-ever IndyCar race at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Sunday in downtown St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 27, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — The guy who won the race had never driven a competitive lap in this series just 17 months ago. The guy chasing him on the final lap made his series debut in 2020.

Not too far behind were a couple of drivers who would not have looked out of place at the homecoming dance only a few years ago.

The face of IndyCar racing is changing, and darned if it doesn’t look awfully boyish.

Oh, there are still some familiar names around. Will Power, 40, finished third in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and Scott Dixon, 41, was eighth. If you want to go back to last year, Helio Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 at 46.

So, yeah, the old guys are still capable of putting the pedal down.

They just might prefer to do it in orthopedic shoes.

“How old are you, man?” Power asked second-place finisher Alex Palou during their joint news conference after Sunday’s race.

“Twenty-four,” Palou replied.

“You’re, like, more than 15 years younger than me,” Power said. “I’m on my 17th year of IndyCar.”

“Oh my God,” Palou said with seemingly genuine shock.

And so it goes. If it seems like the younger generation is always in a hurry, it’s even more evident when they’ve got a motor with 700 horsepower at their disposal.

This time around, it was Scott McLaughlin, last year’s Rookie of the Year, who drove a near flawless race to reach the winner’s circle for the first time in his 19th start in an IndyCar race.

It continued a trend that began last season and is threatening to completely upend the narrative in a series that was used to seeing the same drivers finish atop the standings. If you go back to 2007, IndyCar had only six different drivers win the season championship during a 14-year run.

That began to change with Palou’s victory in Birmingham last year and it continued with Colton Herta’s win in St. Pete. Of the 16 races run last season, nine were won by drivers who were 24 or younger.

To get an idea of how unnatural that sounds to IndyCar fans, in the previous 65 races covering four seasons, there were only two races won by a driver 24 or younger. And both of those were Herta.

“It’s great, man, it really is,” Power said. “In the years I’ve been in this series, (this) is the toughest it’s ever been. Just so many good, young drivers. You can tell the quality is really high, because there’s not many yellow (flags), even in practice.

“It’s such a good product. We’ve just got to get it out to the world. It’s the best open-wheel racing product in the world.”

Even if it has made his job more difficult, Power is wise to embrace a new generation of drivers. Familiar names may sell more tickets in the short term, but creating a new generation of rivals will keep IndyCar enticing and relevant for years to come.

The irony is IndyCar had one of the most famous rookies in motor sports history last year, and he turned out to be a complete dud. Everyone knew it would be an adjustment for seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson to switch to open-wheel racing in his mid-40s, but it was stunning to watch him stall, spin out and run far behind the leaders for most of 2021.

Johnson made his second start in St. Pete on Sunday and, while he kept from hitting the wall, his most notable accomplishment was ticking off Power, who got annoyed that Johnson was blocking him even though he was far off the pace. Johnson ended up finishing 23rd in the 26-car field.

Meanwhile, Palou, Herta, 21, Pato O’Ward, 22, Rinus VeeKay, 21, and Christian Lundgaard, 20, were among the top dozen finishers on Sunday. They also combined for nine wins last season, while Johnson’s best finish was 17th.

Now, it’s entirely possible that all of this is being overstated. It would be foolish to count out Dixon, Power and Josef Newgarden so early in a season.

But even Power seemed to recognize the changing of the guard as he and Palou exchanged good-natured shots on Sunday. Someone suggested to Palou that he might not have felt so comfortable goofing around with Power in a news conference just two years ago.

“Yeah, it’s amazing,” Palou said. “I’m happy. I mean, Will Power.”

“I’m trying to make you happy,” Power said.

“I’m always happy,” Palou responded.

“I want you to be comfortable, but not too comfortable,” Power said. “I don’t want you to win anymore. It’s a bit of a problem.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.