Saturday, March 30, 2013

Age and Racing

Racing has seen an influx of youth in the past decade. It is not uncommon for a driver to end up racing in the Daytona 500 or Indianapolis 500 just a year or two after graduating high school. NASCAR, IndyCar and Formula One have each seen younger and younger winners. Graham Rahal won in IndyCar at 19 years and 93 days. Joey Logano won his first NASCAR race at 19 years and 35 days. Sebastian Vettel has set virtually every F1 records in the youngest category. Youngest to compete in a practice, youngest to set a fastest time in a practice, youngest to score a point, youngest to lead a lap, youngest pole winner, youngest to podium, youngest to win, youngest champion, youngest championship runner up and the list goes on and on.

However, only a few drivers have been able to win championships at a young age, with most not winning their first championship until their late 20s, early 30s.

In 64 seasons of NASCAR Cup racing, only on 6 occasions has the champion been younger than 28 years old (Bill Rexford, 1960, 23; Richard Petty, 1964, 27; Jeff Gordon, 1995, 24; Jeff Gordon, 1997, 26; Jeff Gordon, 1998, 27; Kurt Busch, 2004, 26). The average age of a NASCAR Cup champion is 34.53 years. However, NASCAR champions on average are getting younger. In the first quarter of NASCAR's history (1949-1964) the average age of the champion was 34.125 years. The average age of the champion actual went up in quarter 2 (1965-1980) to 35.1875 years and up again in quarter 3 (1981-1996) to 36.5 years. From 1997-2012 however, the average age of the champion dropped to 32.3125 years of age.

Since 1949, thanks to two splits, there have been 78 seasons of major American open-wheel racing (AAA 1949-1955, USAC 1956-1979, CART 1979-2003, CCWS 2004-2007, IRL 1996-2007, IndyCar 2008-present). The average age of the champion over those 78 seasons is 31 years. On 16 occasions has the champion been under 28 years old, however 11 of those championship occurred during the split from 1996-2007 (AJ Foyt, 1960, 25; AJ Foyt, 1961, 26; Mario Andretti, 1965, 25; Mario Andretti, 1966, 26; Jacques Villenueve, 1995, 24; Buzz Calkins, 1996, 25; Tony Stewart, 1997, 26; Juan Montoya, 1999, 24; Sam Hornish Jr., 2001, 22; Sam Hornish Jr., 2002, 23; Scott Dixon, 2003, 23; Sébastien Bourdais, 2004, 25; Sébastien Bourdais, 2005, 26; Dan Wheldon, 2005, 27; Sébastien Bourdais, 2006, 27; Sam Hornish Jr., 2006, 27).

Despite the last seven champions being under the age of 30, the average age of a Formula One champion is 32.01 years. However, the average age of the last 15 champions has been 28.466 years. On 12 occasions has the champion been younger than 28 years old (Jim Clark, 1963, 27; Emerson Fittipaldi, 1972, 26; Niki Lauda, 1975, 26; Michael Schumacher, 1994, 25; Michael Schumacher, 1995, 26; Jacques Villeneuve, 1997, 26; Fernando Alonso, 2005, 24; Fernando Alonso, 2006, 25; Kimi Räikkönen, 2007, 28; Lewis Hamilton, 2008, 23; Sebastian Vettel, 2010, 23; Sebastian Vettel, 2011, 24; Sebastian Vettel, 25, 2012).

What's the point of all that I have listed?

Especially now, there are a lot of drivers in racing who enter at a young age and by the time they are 25 are expected to be a dominant driver. In IndyCar we have seen it with Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal. Andretti is 26 and is entering his 8th season, while Rahal is 24 and entering his 7th season. These two drivers combine for only three career wins and both have only finished as high as 7th in the championship standings. However even some of the all-time great drivers did not win their first championship until their 30s. Bobby Unser was 34 when he won his first title, Al Unser was 31. Johnny Rutherford was 42. Bobby Rahal was 33. Michael Andretti was 29. Dario Franchitti didn't win a title until he was 34.

NASCAR is no different. Kyle Busch will be turning 28 this May and while winning 25 races in 8 seasons to date, he has yet to come close to a Cup title with a 5th place finish in the standings in 2007 being his best so far. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 38 and it finally looks like this is going to be his year. Jimmie Johnson didn't win a title until he was 31 and he now has the third most championships.

The point is no matter how young a driver may enter professional racing, dominance does not come with age. Even guys who won at a young age struggle at some point in their career. Scott Dixon struggled in the three seasons after his first title in 2003, though mostly due to an under performing engine supplier and chassis manufacture. Dale Earnhardt went five years before winning his second title. Look at what Ryan Hunter-Reay went through before winning his championship. Even look at Brad Keselowski. While Kyle Busch was winning for Hendrick Motorsports in the first year of the Car of Tomorrow, Brad Keselowski was running the then-Busch Series for Keith Coleman and his best finish in 13 starts was 24th. Who would have though Keselowski would be a Cup champion before Busch at that point in time?

So, if you are wondering when the plug will be pulled on Marco and Graham, just give them a little more time and we will see what happens.