Rookies Have Played Major Roles at Indianapolis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 5 2009
The legendary Jim Clark ushed in a new era at Indy as a rookie. The top rookies of all time at Indy? See John Sturbin's top-10 list below. (Photo special to RacinToday by Mary Ellen Loscar, IMS Photo Operations)  

The legendary Jim Clark ushered in a new era at Indy as a rookie. The top rookies of all time at Indy? See John Sturbin's top-10 list below. (Photo special to RacinToday by Mary Ellen Loscar, IMS Photo Operations)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Four drivers will begin the grunt work Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for one of open-wheel racing’s career-defining moments – selection as 2009 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. 

Stanton Barrett, Mike Conway, Robert Doornbos and Raphael Matos all have competed in the first three events of the 2009 IndyCar Series schedule. In preparation for the 93rd edition of the Indy 500 on May 24, the four – and Indy-only rookie Nelson Philippe of HVM Racing – will participate in the Indy Racing League’s acclaimed Rookie Orientation Program. The drivers are scheduled for a total of eight hours of practice around the 2.5-mile oval divided between three hours on Tuesday and five on Wednesday. 

The driver selected as Indy 500 Rookie of the Year will join an eclectic list that includes Parnelli Jones (1961), Mark Donohue (1969), Donnie Allison (1970), Arie Luyendyk (1985), Jacques Villeneuve (1994) and Juan Pablo Montoya (2000). And certainly not to be overlooked is a complete sweep by The Family Andretti: Mario (1965), Michael (1984), Jeff (1991) and Marco (2006).   

Doornbos leads the Bombardier Rookie of the Year point standings with 59 following the season’s first oval event on the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. Matos has 48 points, followed by Barrett with 44 and Conway with 36. For comparison, former series champion Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing leads the standings with 100 points. 

Matos’ eighth-place finish on the Streets of Long Beach is the highest by any rookie this season. And Doornbos’ 12th-place result at Kansas is best on an oval by a rookie. 

Despite their different racing backgrounds, competing in the Indianapolis 500 always has been the ultimate goal for the Class of ‘09.           

Barrett, a native Californian, was hooked on the ‘500’ even before he started racing as a teen-ager. “I got to go there a couple of times and watch the race before I started racing,” said Barrett, 36. “In the ’80s and ’90s, when I wasn’t in racing yet and watching it from a fan standpoint, that was the race to watch. I remember you always wanted to know who won.”           

Barrett’s racing career path took him to stock cars, however, where he has made almost 200 starts between NASCAR’s Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. “The Indy 500 is at the top of any kid’s list,” said Barrett, driving the start-up CURB/Agajanian/Team 3G entry. “No matter what kind of racing you’re in, all those (NASCAR) guys would want to race that race.”           

Conway and Doornbos grew up in Europe where Formula One rules the landscape, but both kept their eyes on the Indianapolis 500. “Many people (in Europe) know the race,” said Doornbos, a native of Rotterdam, Netherlands. “A lot of people in Holland are proud that they have another Dutch guy there. If I can only do the same as what (two-time winner) Arie (Luyendyk) did, I will be very happy.” 

Doornbos, 27, is driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing – the second-year IndyCar organization that has won 107 open-wheel races, 107 poles and eight Champ Car World Series championships. Doornbos’ resume includes 11 combined F1 starts with Minardi and Red Bull Racing.  

“You grow up with Formula One, so that was my dream, my target,” said Doornbos, who is the only fulltime rookie paired with a teammate – American Graham Rahal. “To achieve that was great, but you kept an eye on the other part of the ocean, because you knew that they were racing at high speeds on ovals, extremely high speeds. You don’t even do that in a Formula One car. 

“I have to be honest, racing in the Indianapolis 500 is another boy’s dream come true. I’ve been there (at IMS) with F1, drove the other way around, but you don’t experience the same sense of what it’s like. All the drivers who have been there many years keep telling me that it will be the best I’ve ever experienced, and it still surprises them every year.” 

Englishman Conway, who tested for the IRL’s Panther Racing last year, echoed those international sentiments. “When (Dan) Wheldon won it (2005) and Dario (Franchitti in 2007), that was massive. It was big news back in the U.K.,” said Conway, 25, who is competing for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing co-owners Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl. “I suppose I won’t really appreciate how big it is until I get there and experience it myself. I can’t wait.”           

For Matos, who competed in the Firestone Freedom 100 at IMS last year as part of the Firestone Indy Lights Series, his first Indy 500 looms as an emotional experience. “It means a lot,” said the 27-year-old Brazilian, driving for Luczo Dragon Racing co-owners Steve Luczo and Jay Penske. “Since I was 7 years old, the Indy 500 was always the day my father and I would sit down in front of the TV and watch the race together. For me, it’s a huge not only accomplishment, but also emotional time. 

“I’m going to try and put that part behind us – the emotional part – and try to get the job done. It’s an unbelievable feeling for us, the whole team, and I think we’ll be very competitive there.” 

Ryan Hunter-Reay emerged from a huge class of 11 to win the ROY award last year while driving for Rahal Letterman Racing. Hunter-Reay started 20th and finished sixth, earning $399,665. 

A total of 106 rookies have competed in the Indy 500 since 1996, the first year “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” ran under sanction of the Indy Racing League. Since then, the yearly average has been eight first-timers. The Class of 1996 listed 17 rookies following the IRL’s split with CART and ranged in talent from Racin Gardner to Davey Hamilton to Tony Stewart, who was voted Indy 500 Rookie of the Year after starting on-pole and finishing 24th. The smallest Indy 500 rookie class during the IRL era is two – Milka Duno and Phil Giebler – in 2007. Giebler won the award almost by default after starting 33rd and finishing 29th. 

Mexican Josele Garza was the youngest Indy 500 Rookie of the Year at 19 years, 70 days when he started sixth and finished 23rd in 1981. Popular road-racing veteran Lyn St. James, who started 27th and finished 11th in 1992, remains the oldest Rookie of the Year at 45 years, 72 days.   

Practice for all drivers is scheduled from 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, following completion of the second phase of the ROP. The rookies’ first chance to make a lasting impression will come during Saturday’s Pole Day qualifications, when the fastest 11 drivers lock-in starting positions in the traditional 33-car field. 


Rookies to Remember:

RacinToday.com Senior Writer John Sturbin lists his top 10 all-time Indy 500 rookies:

  1. Jim Clark – 1963. Lotus-powered by Ford. Clark started fifth and finished second. The Scotsman, and Dan Gurney, ushered in the rear-engine revolution in Colin Chapman’s low-slung creation.
  2. Rick Mears –  1978.  CAM2 Motor Oil Penske/Cosworth. Mears started third and finished 23rd. His four victories for Roger Penske would soon transform IMS into “The Rickyard”.
  3. Juan Pablo Montoya – 2000. Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. Montoya started second and finished first. CART interloper simply was sensational, leading 167 of 200 laps in his G Force Oldsmobile.
  4. Danica Patrick – 2005. Rahal Letterman Racing Argent Pioneer. Patrick started fourth and finished fourth. She led as late as Lap 193 in her Panoz/Honda, officially launching Danicamania.
  5. Nigel Mansell – 1993. Kmart/Texaco Havoline Lola/Ford. Mansell started eight and finished third. The defiant F1 champion from Great Britain nearly won his first bloody IMS start.
  6. Teo Fabi – 1983. Skoal Bandit March/Cosworth. Fabi started first and finished 26th. The Italian might have looked like your parish priest, but Teo drove it like he stole it.
  7. Parnelli Jones – 1961. Agajanian Willard Battery. Jones started fifth and finished 12th. This beautiful Watson/Offy Roadster affectionately was nicknamed “Ol’ Calhoun”.
  8. Lyn St. James – 1992. Agency Rent-A-Car/JC Penney. St. James started 27th and finished 11th.  She was the third woman to qualify for the Indy 500 and made seven career starts at IMS.
  9. Eddie Cheever Jr. – 1990. Target Stores Penske/Chevrolet. He started 14th and finished eighth. Popular F1 veteran quickly adapted to the big oval with concrete walls.
  10. Tim Richmond – 1980. UNO/Q95 Starcruiser Penske/Cosworth. Richmond started 19th and finished ninth. Made two Indy 500 starts before launching a star-crossed NASCAR career.
| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 5 2009