By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
The search for young up-and-coming talent has never been higher in motorsports.
While having speed is one key element of the game, putting it all together to win is the tricky part. Even so, some have managed to find success in 2019.
In just his third career start, NTT IndyCar Series rookie Colton Herta put in a methodical drive in en route to victory at Circuit of The Americas in March. In turn, the pilot of the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Chevrolet became the youngest winner in Indy car history at 18 years, 359 days old.
Herta also recently became the youngest pole sitter in Indy car history at 19 years, 83 days old after an intense qualifying bout at Road America.
The spotlight isn’t just on North America’s premier open wheel tour, though, as the Formula One World Championship has seen some of the most iconic teams in racing put youth behind the wheel, and it has begun to pay off in a big way.
Over the years, Red Bull Racing have set a high standard when it comes to pursuing – and pushing – young upstarts to F1, much of it due to leaning on junior squad Toro Rosso.
Even Ferrari decided to shift with the youth movement by bringing on 21-year-old Charles Leclerc to pilot alongside four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.
Despite being in just his second season – first with the team – Leclerc has proven to be every bit as quick – and sometimes even quicker – as his teammate. In the second race of the season at Bahrain, Leclerc started on pole, scored the fastest lap, and had it not been for a mechanical issue while leading in the late stages, would have walked away with his first-ever F1 victory.
Fast forward to two weeks ago to the Austrian Grand Prix, Leclerc was on pole once more and joined on the front row by fellow 21-year-old and Red Bull Racing rival, Max Verstappen. The two dazzled at the front of the field before a late move with two laps to go put Verstappen on the top step of the podium.
Through 9 of 21 races, Verstappen and Leclerc currently sit third and fifth, respectably, in the championship standings.
Verstappen has been a fixture at Red Bull Racing for a few seasons now and in many ways has become the mold everyone tries to emulate. The Dutchman was the youngest to make an F1 start at 17 years, 166 days – shattering the previous mark by nearly two years – with Red Bull’s junior team, Toro Rosso, in the 2015 edition of the Australian Grand Prix. In 2016, he was moved up to the senior squad and found success immediately, winning in his first race with the team at the Spanish Grand Prix and becoming the youngest winner in F1 history at 18 years, 228 days.
The pace hasn’t relented since as Verstappen has amassed six victories and 25 podiums over 90 starts.
All eyes are likely to be fixated on this group for years to come, but at some point they’ll be on the receiving end of being challenged by the next generation of young upstarts.
While junior formula categories exist in all parts of the world, none have done it better lately than the Road to Indy – the three-tier ladder system sanctioned by INDYCAR. In fact, drivers from all over the world come to compete in the development program because of the competition level, but also the progressive scholarship format that can help advance them towards IndyCar.
The aforementioned Herta spent the previous two years in Indy Lights (top rung), collecting six wins, 20 podiums and 10 poles over 33 races. Additionally, he finished runner-up for the 2018 title, which was claimed by Patricio O’Ward. The path for O’Ward, 20, has drifted along a unique path that has seen him drive a handful of IndyCar races this year before being signed on as a Red Bull junior driver, which led to a random one-off drive in Formula 2 and will compete for the remainder of the year in Super Formula.
The likes of Oliver Askew, Rinus VeeKay, Robert Megennis and Ryan Norman shape the current crop of Indy Lights drivers that are ready and waiting for their shot to make an impression, which could come as early as 2020.
There is also a plethora of strong talent in Indy Pro 2000 (middle step) and USF2000 (bottom rung), led by 17-year-old Swede Rasmus Lindh, as well as Parker Thompson, Kyle Kirkwood, Braden Eves and Hunter McElrea.
However, one driver that warrants some attention is Jak Crawford. Due to age restrictions, he was kept on the sidelines for the opening two races before turning 14 on May 2. Since then, he has piloted the No. 52 DEForce Racing entry in five races, finishing in fourth on two occasions, including his first-ever start on an oval at Lucas Oil Raceway. A sixth-place run in the second race of the Road America doubleheader pushed him to 12th in the overall standings.
A recent test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course allowed the unique opportunity for Scott Speed, a former F1 driver with Toro Rosso and reigning Americas Rallycross (ARX) champion, to play the role of driver coach and see firsthand what kind of talent Crawford truly is.
“He has the talent,” Speed told Motorsports Tribune.
“He has what I would say are some of the ‘uncoachables.’ There are some things that you can teach people how to drive race cars for the most part, especially if you’re doing ovals. There are a lot of things you can teach with repetition, you can learn. It’s like any other thing, but there are some things that are not coachable and that just come down to how you feel a car. And I would say that he, in my first impressions, has a lot of those. That makes it really exciting to work with him because I see a lot of potential there.
“For me, there’s no question that if he wants to become a professional race car driver, he will. There is no question. So it’s fun to be able to help a kid along at this stage in his career when you know he has the ability to make it.”
Now 36, at one time Speed was the youngster everyone raved about. To this day, he is still the last American to compete in F1 full-time (2006) before eventually moving on to race in NASCAR. Since 2013, though, his heart has belonged to rally racing.
While it wasn’t until Speed was 22 he served as merely a test driver in F1, there is a fairly good reason he believes has changed the landscape of racing over the last 15 years.
“They’re just starting earlier,” said Speed.
“Yeah, it is mind blowing that a kid like Jak, at 14 years old, has the talent he has. I didn’t have that ability until I was 18, but I didn’t sit in a go kart until I was almost 11. It just seems like the ages are just offset. Parents are getting their kids into karting sooner.
“The younger you are, the quicker you learn. They’re able to now get into race cars at a much younger age. I think when I was racing had to have a driver’s license to drive a race car. But the way that the industry is going, they’re getting them in younger and younger and younger, and you have to do that if you want to be competitive and be relevant.
“So whether it’s good or bad, I’m not sure, but there’s no question that the talent level that these kids have at 14… I mean, geez, I was just barely figuring out how to drive a go kart by then.”
Even though it was just their first time out working together, Crawford ended the day’s test fastest overall around the tricky 13-turn, 2.258-mile natural terrain road course. While Speed continued to praise the talent of Crawford, he knows there is still plenty of hard work ahead.
“I’m really excited that I’ve got the chance to work with Jak,” said Speed.
“Not only does he have the talent, and he really does have the talent, there’s still a long way to go and there’s lots you have to know. You never really know someone’s drive.
“Ultimately, that’s always the determining factor – is how bad does Jak want it because if Jak wants it, he has the ability to have it. That is clear. I don’t know if it’ll be Formula One, sports cars, IndyCar or where he’ll land, but he definitely has the talent to do it.”