Of all the motorsport categories in 2021 the IndyCar Series can lay claim to the strongest crop of newcomers.
They are not the usual batch of wet-behind-the-ears teenagers scrapping for half a door to open, but 10-time Formula 1 podium finisher Romain Grosjean, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and triple Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin.
The trio are joining a grid that includes multiple champions and Indianapolis 500 victors including Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato.
Recent campaigns have also featured an influx of young drivers such as Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta and Rinus Veekay, not to mention Swedish pair Felix Rosenqvist and ex-F1 racer Marcus Ericsson, who have already netted opportunities with front-running outfits.
The severence of the USA’s leading open-wheel championship into CART and IRL in 1996 divided the talent pool between categories but since the reunification in 2008 IndyCar has been enjoying something of an exponential growth.
Graham Rahal, whose first steps coincided with the reunification, believes IndyCar has never had it so good.
“You look at where it is today and just how deep the field is, and it’s impressive,” said Rahal.
“I mean, maybe everybody wants to say the golden era of IndyCar racing was in the early ’90s or in Champ Car, may have been the late ’90s, early 2000s. But I’ve got to be honest. From a talent pool perspective, the golden era is right now.
“We’re living the golden era. It’s never been better, and I’m not sure it will get better. It is deep across the board, and it’s definitely cool because you’re also gauging yourself against the rest.”
Newgarden, champion in 2017 and 2019, joined the series in 2012, and feels the competition has only gained in strength with each passing season.
“It just seems like it gets better every year,” added Newgarden. “It’s hard to diminish what happened the last couple years. I think our depth of talent has been incredibly high since I’ve been in the series. It’s just been incredibly high.
“It’s only gotten better from 2012, whether that’s teams, personnel or the drivers themselves. Yeah, I think if you look at the championship, who is in there now this year, certainly the additions with people like Jimmie Johnson or Romain Grosjean, there’s a lot of talented people in the mix.
“It’s going to be really tough to stay at the front of the pack. The field count is going up. It’s not just the depth of talent is increasing, it’s the depth is increasing but the size is increasing and you’re keeping that depth with increased size. Yeah, it’s going to be a tough task.
“IndyCar is so tight nowadays. This is the closest form of racing that I see on the planet at the moment, the most parity out there. To try to find an edge on this competition, it takes a tremendous amount of work.”
The effervescent James Hinchcliffe reckons IndyCar’s appeal can be demonstrated by this year’s three high-profile rookies coming from different racing backgrounds.
“I think every year for the last five years we’ve done interviews at the start of the season and said things like, ‘Man, this is the deepest talent pool we’ve ever had in IndyCar’. And it’s started to sound like a line, but it’s true. We just keep adding talent the whole way through the field.
“When you look at the fact that those three guys in particular all come from different disciplines, all have been successful in those disciplines and whether it was the goal to come here always or whether it was the next opportunity or whatever, IndyCar is where they wanted to be next.
“For whatever reason they left their old sport, this is where they wanted to be, and I think that speaks volumes for what we’re doing as a series, for the product we have on track, the quality of the racing.
“I think it’s kind of become a real drivers’ championship in the sense that people from all different kinds of backgrounds are like, ‘No, this is fun, this is competitive, these are awesome cars to drive, I want to go race IndyCar’. I think it’s the biggest endorsement we can get having guys like that come over here.
Tony Kanaan began his racing career in the United States in 1998 and was set to hang up his helmet in 2020, but will continue on with a return to Chip Ganassi Racing running ovals for Jimmie Johnson’s car.
The 46-year-old, who has been there, done that, got the T-shirt, believes only now are observers realising the strength in depth that IndyCar has possessed.
“We can go back on my rookie years, back in ’98, how strong that was, the late ’90s, the early ’90s,” explained the Brazilian. “I think people finally, I mean, you can take it or leave it, but IndyCar is an awesome series to be.
“I just think they’re late to the game. People are finding out there is life beyond Formula 1 or any other series. You can come here, it’s a top series, extremely competitive. You can still race the best drivers in the world. I think some of these guys are realising that, which kind of happened in waves, right? There were years. I remember when Nigel Mansell came, it was huge. Then Zanardi. It died off. It comes back and so on.
“To me now more and more you’re going to see people talking about IndyCar. We’ve been growing the series. It’s a great series to be in. Drivers are going to want to win races. Let’s face it, some of the series, if you’re not in the top two teams, you’re not going to win a race. This is not the case here.”
Reigning champion Dixon joined CART 20 years ago, before switching to IndyCar two seasons later, where he has remained ever since, competing each campaign for Ganassi.
As he sets out in search of a seventh title Dixon doubts the field has ever been as strong as 2021’s roster.
“I think with the current formula, the equality between the small team and big team, there is no small team anymore the way the rules play,” said Dixon. “There’s not much that a big team can out-spend anybody on. It’s just not that factor. So it really comes down to now the people, the people that you get to work with in the process of what you do, and then sometimes a bit of luck.
“I’d say the competition, I’ve never seen it so strong. I think when you look at it from a driver standpoint to a team standpoint and the options that you have, it’s pretty packed. I think it’s as strong as ever. And the talent that you’re getting is maybe the best that we’ve seen in the last 10 years or so.”
Not since before ‘the split’ has IndyCar been able to attract high levels of international driving talent and worldwide television coverage. With IndyCar pressing ahead with introducing a new chassis and hybrid power units in the near future, there is no reason why IndyCar can’t continue on its current path and reach new horizons.