MILLER: Which driver era was IndyCar's best ever?

Image by LAT

MILLER: Which driver era was IndyCar's best ever?

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: Which driver era was IndyCar's best ever?

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By 1985 we had ground effect, engineers, street races, a wave of second-generation peddlers and Championship Auto Racing Teams had displaced USAC. Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Pancho Carter, Johnny Parsons Jr. and Geoff Brabham were following their father’s footsteps, while F1 escapees Emerson Fittipaldi and Roberto Guerrero were launching new careers in the States. Mario was coming off a championship, J.R. was slowing down and A.J. was done winning, but Al Unser had just scored an unlikely championship as a backup for Rick Mears.

The new sheriff in Gasoline Alley, Mears was a fast, smooth and calculating desert racer that made Roger Penske look even smarter – instantly. The Rocket already had two of his four Indy wins and three titles in six years before pulverizing his feet in an uncharacteristic crash in Canada that realistically cost him a couple of years at his peak.

Danny Sullivan executed the spin-and-win at IMS and launched his fine five-year run with Penske, while Bobby Rahal had blossomed into a tough customer that the championship eventually had to come through. Tom Sneva was still a master of The Miles, Kevin Cogan was always fast yet somewhat cursed, and Arie Luyendyk had not yet hit his groove. Combined, they amassed 191 IndyCar victories – Michael (42), Little Al (34), Mears (29), Rahal (24), Fittipaldi (22), Sullivan (17), Sneva (13), Luyendyk (7), Guerrero (2), Cogan (1) – by the time they were finished, in addition to 13 trips to Victory Lane at Indy 500 and 13 IndyCar championships.

The late 1990s featured the exciting styles of Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya, but it’s tough not to give ’93 the nod. Nigel Mansell had bolted to CART after winning the 1992 F1 title, and Bernie Ecclestone was having trouble breathing. Nige took to the ovals like Bobby Unser at a fried chicken buffet, and scored five wins and the championship in a season that saw massive crowds at every track. Fittipaldi chased Mansell to the finish (losing by eight points), and his Penske teammate Paul Tracy matched Mansell’s win total and was third in the standings.

By the 1990s, winning meant beating the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmy Vasser. Image by Levitt/LAT

Stefan Johansson, Raul Boesel and Eddie Cheever left F1 for Indy cars to join Teo Fabi, while two-time world champ Nelson Piquet gave Indy a shot but was badly injured during practice. Robby Gordon, Scott Pruett and Jimmy Vasser led the new wave of Americans, while Scott Goodyear, Adrian Fernandez, Buddy Lazier and Willy T. Ribbs all played a part in open-wheel history. As a unit they totaled 84 wins (Tracy 31), Fernandez (11), Vasser (10), Lazier (8), Mansell (5), Goodyear (5), Fabi (5), Cheever (5), Gordon (2), Pruett (2) in their careers.

The Split voids 2000-2007 so we’ll go with 2009 – the second year everyone was back under one roof. Dario Franchitti’s trip to NASCAR was short and not very sweet, but he was back in IndyCar as teammates with Scott Dixon at Chip Ganassi Racing. They each won five times as the Scot edged the Kiwi by 11 points for the second of his four crowns, but there were also strong performances by Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves, while Justin Wilson and Will Power introduced themselves to a broader audience and the youth movement was led by Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti. Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon were plenty quick but didn’t make it to the winner’s circle, and Danica Patrick finished fifth in the point standings (and third at Indy) to shush some of her critics.

There was plenty of talent in the immediate post-unification era. Image by LAT

Ed Carpenter started his own team and would soon become a threat on every oval. Dixon currently has 46 wins and counting, Power stands at 37 and counting, while Franchitti finished with 31, Castroneves 30, Kanaan has 17 and counting, Wheldon won 16 times, Briscoe 7, Carpenter 3 and counting so that’s 187 plus 10 Indy triumphs and 11 championships.

This year’s lineup is an impressive mix of brains, bravado and babies. Josef Newgarden is trying to hold off teammate Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi after Dixon got kicked in the guts with back-to-back mechanical gremlins. The top three have all looked dominant at times in 2019, but 19-year-old Colton Herta, 20-year-old Pato O’Ward (before he signed a junior deal with Red Bull and left the U.S.) and 21-year-old Santino Ferrucci grabbed everyone’s attention with their wise-beyond-their years driving.

Throw in former champs like Ryan Hunter-Reay and Power, revitalized Takuma Sato, newcomer Felix Rosenvquist, super-sub Conor Daly and usual front-runners like James Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal and it’s a mixed bag of veterans and kids (aka babies) that keep things interesting. The strokes and posers have been weeded out, and Willy P. may be right – the Newgarden-Rossi-Herta era could be poised to take its place in history.

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