When Dario Franchitti steps on the hallowed ground of Indianapolis Motor Speedway this coming May, he will have reason to celebrate.  Not because he is returning to the place where he has won three times, but because he will be celebrating a birthday; the big FOUR-O.

Yep, IndyCar’s most successful driver of recent years is also the oldest full-time driver in the field. It pains me to use the word ‘old’ to describe Franchitti, since he’s six years younger than me. But, the reality is that auto racing has become a young man’s game.

Familiar names in the sport like Kanaan, Castroneves, Tagliani, and Bourdias are right behind Franchitti for the 40 candle cake.  Within the next few years we will be seeing a changing of the guard.

If you are wondering who may be among the next generation of IndyCar stars, look no further than Simon Pagenaud.

Who is Simon Pagenaud?, you may ask. Would it interest you to know that, in his first full season in IndyCar, he led 63 laps, had four podium finishes, finished fifth in points, and was awarded Rookie of the Year? Would it interest you to know that Pagenaud has been blowing up You Tube with his spot-on impression of Jean Girard, the character from Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby? And, on an interesting side-note, Pagenaud actually has a crepe named after him at a restaurant in his hometown of Montmorillon, France.  “Just say, I love crepes, Ricky Bobby!”

While considered a rookie in the series in 2012, Pagenaud is no stranger to competition. He entered his first go-kart race in 1994, at the age of 10, and finished last. Dead last.

From there, he only got better. Moving up the ladder in European Formula Racing, he eventually was invited to come to America to compete in the Atlantic Series where he won the Championship in 2006. As the series champion, he was given a full-time ride in the Champ Car Series the following year. He had a decent season, finishing eight in the points. Unfortunately for Pagenaud, the Champ Car Series ceased to exist in 2008 when they were absorbed by the Indy Racing League.

Moving over to Sports Car racing, Pagenaud earned yet another series championship in the American LeMans Series in 2010. In 2011 he made a few IndyCar starts subbing for injured drivers, Simona de Silvestra and Justin Wilson. It was then that he caught the eye of Sam Schmidt, who signed him as his primary driver for the 2012 IndyCar season.

Sam Schmidt and with team co-owner Davey Hamilton were among the brightest stars in the early years of the Indy Racing League.  Schmidt was paralyzed from the neck down following a testing crash in 2000. Having overcome this tremendous obstacle, Sam Schmidt Motorsports became the most successful team in the Indy Lights Series.  He purchased the assets of FAZZT Racing in 2011 to field a full-time Indy Car effort.

In the driver’s seat, Pagenaud did not disappoint. He has fit in well at Sam Schmidt Motorsports, working well with his engineers and getting the most out of the DW-12.  He enters 2013 with many IndyCar pundits predicting he will win his first race this year.  He will be a threat to win on any of the street circuits, and his oval racing skills continue to improve each time he straps into the car.  With Pagenaud at the wheel, Sam Schmidt Motorsports has a realistic to chance to sneak up and snatch the title from the likes of Ganassi, Penske and Andretti.

In his off-time Pagenaud still enters Sports Car races and Rally events on a regular basis, and runs a racing school in France. He also keeps himself in tip-top shape with a variety of athletic endeavors such as rowing, biking, skiing and running. Like many drivers, you’ll be able to keep up with him through 2013 on his very active Twitter page @simonpagenaud.