By definition, the word ‘rookie’ refers to someone in their first full season at a particular level in their sport. When you hear the term ‘rookie,’ the image that comes to mind is a driver who has been through the ladder of feeder series, a ball player drafted out of college, or perhaps, a police officer fresh out of the academy. The point is that a rookie is often young and inexperienced.
However, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the term can be deceptive. A driver is considered a rookie in their first start in the Indianapolis 500, regardless of how much experience they may have. Look no further than this year’s rookie class at IMS to see an example of this.
Kurt Busch, with fifteen years of Cup-level NASCAR racing under his belt, will attempt to qualify for this years running of the 500. Because of NASCAR’s heavier schedule, Busch actually has more starts in professional races than any other driver on this year’s entry list; nearly twice as many as Tony Kanaan.
Despite all that experience, the yellow stripe was applied to the rear wing of his car signifying his status as a rookie. He’s in good company, they did the same thing to experienced drivers like Graham Hill, Cale Yarborough, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell.
Lets take a quick back at some of the more interesting stories involving rookies at the Speedway, and then examine this year’s class.
Ray Harroun became the first winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 when the entire field were classified as rookies. Since then, seven other drivers have taken the Indy win in their first start. Two of those rookie winners are entered in this year’s running; Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves. It is worth noting both of these wins occurred during the open wheel split of 1996-2008. Both drivers had experience in the CART Series before coming to Indianapolis. Montoya was closer to a ‘true’ rookie with only one year of experience under his belt, compared to Castroneves’ three.
Before them, Graham Hill took the win on his first try in 1966. Hill, who had won the Formula One championship in 1962 was also far from a ‘true’ rookie. In fact, you have to go back to 1927 when George Souders took the win to have a true rookie winner.
This is not to say that young, inexperienced drivers have not made a name for themselves at the Speedway. Let’s look at a few examples.
In 2011, J.R. Hildebrand nearly walked away as the Indianapolis 500 winner. He was leading on the final lap, when he crashed hard in turn four heading towards the checkers. Indeed, a rookie mistake.
In 2006, rookie Marco Andretti was also leading on the final lap, only to get passed by a charging Sam Hornish Jr. at the start/finish.
In 1983, Teo Fabi dominated qualifying and put his car on the pole. He led the opening 23 laps before fading to an eventual 26th place finish.
In 1981, Mexico’s Josele Garza led twice for 13 laps mixing it up with the likes of Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti before crashing out of the race.
In 1978, Rick Mears qualified on the front row beginning a career at the Brickyard that would become legendary.
In 1965, Mario Andretti briefly held pole position during qualifying, before eventually starting fourth and finishing third in his maiden attempt at the 500.
In 1952 the ‘Rookie of the Year’ award was established. The winner is selected by a vote from members of the media. More often than not, the award goes to the highest finishing rookie. But, that is not always the case. Look at Graham Hill, for example. Hill won the Indy 500 in 1966 as a rookie.
Imagine his surprise when the ‘Rookie of the Year’ trophy went to Jackie Stewart. Stewart led forty laps on the day and had a one-lap lead on the field when he suffered mechanical issues with eight laps to go. Don’t feel too bad for Graham, as the title Indianapolis 500 winner undoubtedly came with a much bigger paycheck.
The rookies in this year’s field certainly have the potential to make a big splash during the month of May. Jack Hawksworth, for example, has already made headlines handily leading the first half of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis. While the 2.5 mile oval track will represent a new challenge for the young British driver, his poise and maturity in the car seems to be far beyond his years.
Battling Hawksworth and the aforementioned Kurt Busch for ‘Rookie of the Year’ honors will be full-time series regulars, Mikhail Aleshin and Carlos Huertas.
Aleshin, the first Russian driver in IndyCar, will be in the second Schmidt-Peterson entry alongside teammate Simon Pagenaud. The 26-year old has shown some flashes of brilliance this season, and has practiced well at the Speedway. After three days, he was comfortably lapping in the 223-224 mph range. Not too shabby for a guy with zero oval-track experience.
Carlos Huertas, in the Dale Coyne entry, has a season that is off to a decent start. He has been running at the finish at all four Verizon IndyCar events leading up to the 500. The 22-year old Colombian also faces a steep learning curve as he learns his way around an oval track.
They will be joined by three ‘one-off’ drivers: James Davison, Sage Karam and Martin Plowman.
Karem, (pictured) was born and raised in Nazereth PA, home of the Andretti family. Both Davison and Karem have experience in the Indy Lights Series with Karem being the 2013 Lights Champion. For the 19 year old Karem, this Indy ride with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing represents the chance of a lifetime, as he is actively seeking a full time ride in the IndyCar Series.
Martin Plowman is a 26-year old British driver that has experience in Indy Lights and four prior Verizon IndyCar Series starts. He has spent the past few years contesting endurance racing in Sports Cars, and will enter this years 500 in a second car for A.J. Foyt Racing.
While the smart money seems to be on Busch or Hawksworth to be the highest finishing rookie, don’t count these other guys out. The Indianapolis 500 is a long race with a history of surprises.
Indy 500 qualifying kicks off on May 17-18th with the race being broadcast on ABC-TV on Sunday May 25th at 11:00 AM Eastern.