When Are IndyCar Drivers In Their Prime?

Tony Kanaan after his Indianapolis 500 win in 2013. Source: USA Today

Racing has long been a sport for people of all ages.  For example, Mario Andretti won the Phoenix Grand Prix in 1993, making him 53 at the time, and the oldest person to ever win an IndyCar race.  This wasn’t his last year in racing either, Mario went on to Formula 1 in the next season, arguably (but it’s really hard to), the top racing series in the world.  And yet we have people such as Josele Garza who are racing in the Indianapolis 500 at just 19 years old. So that begs the question, at what age do Indy Car drivers actually peak?  More specifically we’ll be taking a look at Tony Kanaan after his outstanding performance in the Iowa 300 this week and his Indianapolis 500 win last year, to see his peak years.   

We are going to be using Tony Kanaan’s career results as our data points for a number of reasons.

          1) Tony Kanaan is still an active driver and provides recent data
          2) He is an old enough driver (39) to have gone through his peak years
          3) He is an actively competitive driver in the races
          4) Kanaan has endured a long career which gives us a lot of numbers to work with

Note: Obviously, the final age isn’t going to be perfect for all drivers because of a number of factors.  There are going to be drivers that are different and achieve success at a very young age and yet some that have their best years towards their end of their career.  This is meant to be a generalization of when to expect the best performance out of a driver, as well as give us a good understanding of when Kanaan peaked.  

We will be comparing the top three statistics of Kanaan over the course of the last 12 years he has been in the IndyCar series.  The only season we are excluding his 2002 season is because he only ran one race.  We’ll check out the number of wins, average start position, average finish position, and points earned for each year:  

If we take a look at the age where he was most proficient in each category, we get age 29 for average finish, 32 for average start, 29 for points per season, and age 32 for most wins in a season (5).  This model doesn’t take into account the number of races run each season but since they only differed by 2 races for the bulk of Kanaan’s time it is still accurate.  Now based on this data, we could say Tony Kanaan had most of his success at age 30.5 in his career.  But, this would be an average of just the four statistics we looked at.  

His most successful age is really up to interpretation, whether you say that it’s the season he had his most wins, points or if you choose to think that all of his stats combined and averaged gives us his best season.  The problem that arises when you try and put all sorts of stats together is in how you choose to weigh the different pieces of data.  Maybe poles and wins are more important than average finish to you, it all depends.  

According to our weighted model, TK was in his prime at around age 29.5.  This is when he had is overall best season and finished with 3 wins, 11 podiums, and finished first in the driver’s championship with 618 points.  If we want to try and apply this to all drivers, we can give the model a +/- 3 years lenience to determine the “prime” years of said driver.

As for Tony Kanaan, it seems he has left his best years behind.  Sure, he’ll still be putting up good results every once in a while and maybe even a few wins, but he won’t be nearly as consistently competitive as in his early thirties. 
               – Drew Bennison

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