Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Indy 500 Rookie Field Shaping Up Nicely

There have been years where the Indy 500 has barely had any rookies (1979), and other years where there's been a bumper crop (1919, for example, saw 19 rookies start, the most if you exclude the inaugural race). Some have won the race, while others are a one-and-done sort of deal.

Rookies are special at the Indy 500; it's the only race on the schedule that demands a regimented, strict approach to passing Rookie Orientation (ROP), and there have indeed been a fair share of drivers over the years that did not make it past that step. More importantly, though, rookies are a wild card. Be they experienced ex-F1 drivers or a Mazda Road to Indy graduate, no one quite knows how they'll respond when they need four laps to put a car in the field, or how they'll react on a rocket into Turn 1 at IMS. An Indianapolis 500 rookie can change the course of a race, can surprise and disappoint, and can confound even the best of open wheel experts.

While this year's rookie field is not 100% official, Conor Daly's signing with Foyt yesterday seemed to be the last of the expected rookie signings for this year's Indianapolis 500 (though I wouldn't complain if Stefan Wilson was somehow able to show up). It's an intriguing group that will take to IMS on April 11 for ROP. You have:

Daly, the son of a famous former Indy 500 and F1 driver, who seems to have been mentioned in American open wheel circles for years now. He's still got his heart set on F1, but it's great that we finally get to see one of the most high profile prospects out there show his stuff at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing--and with a legendary name as the car's owner, to boot. He grew up at this race, and now it's time for a homecoming.

Carlos Munoz, the Colombian Firestone Indy Lights driver, fast but unpolished, making his debut on the biggest stage IndyCar has while also running the full Lights season. Like Sebastian Saavedra last year, he'll be running the Firestone Freedom 100 as well as hopefully the big race itself. As the fifth Andretti car, he could have some serious speed on his hands.

Daly should be a fan fave at his home race.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Tristan Vautier, the seemingly default Sunoco Rookie of the Year and as poised and clear-headed a rookie as you'll find. The young Frenchman already won over fans with a spirited performance in the first week of the IndyCar campaign; will that still be the case when he charges into Indianapolis for the Schmidt Peterson crew?

AJ Allmendinger, former ChampCar driver who missed out on the Indy 500 due to the open wheel split. Now, nearly a year after his troubles in NASCAR, he returns, to a rookie 500 debut that would have been in 2004 in a kinder world. Known for being able to drive open wheel, tintops, and sports cars with equal skill, he'll have the power of Penske behind him for his Indy effort.

Nothing precludes another last-minute rookie addition to the 500 field; one could conceivably still do their ROP at a later date (see Legge, Katherine last year). Still, if this indeed is the rookie class we have, I'm pretty excited to see what they can do. It's worth remembering that every legend of Indianapolis was once a rookie. This May, we could see a flash in the pan, or the beginning of a new legacy. Rookies, be ready to show your stuff.

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