A Glimpse Of The Future?
Many have probably come here today thinking I would go off on a rant about the old scoring pylon at IMS coming down on Monday afternoon. After all, rumor has it that it is to be replaced by something similar to a vertical ribbon-board reminiscent of what’s found running around every stadium in the NFL. Well, before I get jagged out over another iconic landmark at IMS giving way to some modern gadgetry, I will withhold judgment until I see what is supposed to be in its place by mid-July. I’m told by those I trust that at most times, it will look just like the pylon it replaced – except you’ll be able to see it better. Other times, it may morph into some type of vertical video board. If it is as I’ve been told by those that know – I won’t have a huge problem with it. Therefore, I’ll withhold any rants for now.
Instead, I’d like to discuss something I’ve been noticing for a few weeks now, but it really came to the forefront this past weekend.
The 1965 Indianapolis 500 is known for many things. Selfishly, it’s significant because it was the first Indianapolis 500 that I attended in person. It was also the first “500” to be won by a rear-engine car, the first in forty-five years to be won by a foreign driver and the first in almost twenty years to be won by an engine other than an Offenhauser. It is also known for its outstanding class of rookie drivers.
The rookie class of the 1965 Indianapolis 500 has long been regarded as one of the best, if not the best, in history. It is the gold-standard by which others are judged. Among the USAC regulars that were “500” rookies in 1965 were Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Al Unser, Arnie Knepper, George Snider, Jerry Grant and Joe Leonard – along with Formula One driver Masten Gregory. There are seven Indianapolis 500 victories represented in the 1965 crop of rookies along with eleven series championships and one Formula One championship. One would be hard-pressed to find a group of rookies that eventually produced better results than the class of 1965.
Before I’m accused of blasphemy, let me be clear that I am not suggesting that the class of 2014 will match the results that the ’65 class did. However, halfway through their inaugural season – they are making a case to be considered one of the better classes in the past twenty years or so. 1994 had a decent crop that included Jacques Villeneuve, Bryan Herta, Scott Sharp, Adrian Fernandez and Maurício Gugelmin – each of whom won races. Two went on to series championships, while one won the Indianapolis 500 and a Formula One championship.
There are four full-time rookies in the Verizon IndyCar Series: Jack Hawksworth, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Huertas and Carlos Muñoz. I sometimes have trouble thinking of Muñoz as still a rookie. The Colombian ran in three races last season, including a brilliant second-place finish in last year’s Indianapolis 500. But according to the rules, a driver can run three races in one season and still be classified as a rookie in the next. So even though he is a rookie this season, he was not a rookie at Indianapolis, where he also finished an impressive fourth this year. A rookie with a second and a fourth place finish at Indianapolis is not doing too bad in my book. Muñoz is currently seventh in championship points.
Muñoz is not the only Colombian rookie in the series this season. His countryman, Carlos Huertas, won his first Verizon IndyCar race this past Saturday at Houston. In his praise for Huertas, car-owner Dale Coyne said that Huertas was fast, yet doesn’t tear up his equipment. A rookie that has already won a race, is considered fast, if not spectacular and is easy on equipment and a car-owner’s wallet – will certainly garner attention as his career continues to unfold. Huertas is currently ranked seventeenth in the title chase.
Mikhail Aleshin hails from Moscow and is the first Russian driver to compete in the Verizon IndyCar series. Like most, I had never heard of him until he was signed out of the blue by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. But there are a couple of people who follow the obscure feeder series around the globe that told me that Aleshin was one to watch and this was no obscure signing. I’ve always trusted the opinions of these two individuals, so I had complete faith that Aleshin would do well. Like all rookies – including all in this class as well as the class of 1994 and 1965 – there have been rookie mistakes combined with flashes of brilliance with Aleshin. He seemed lost in the rain at Barber just after an excellent sixth place drive at Long Beach. He did the most damage to Sebastian Saavedra’s car in the standing start at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
In three of the last four races, Aleshin has placed seventh in the second race at Belle Isle, seventh at Texas and second in Sunday’s race at Houston. Wedged in there is a last-placed finish at Houston on Saturday, after he got a little too racy with Takuma Sato while being a lap down and took them both out. Aleshin is currently ranked sixteenth in points.
But my personal favorite rookie in this full-time class is undoubtedly British driver Jack Hawksworth. When Hawksworth was announced just before the season as Bryan Herta’s driver – I assumed it was only because he was bringing more money than the driver who had been penciled in at that seat – Luca Filippi. I knew he had driven in Indy Lights last year, but I don’t hide the fact that I don’t really follow the feeder series. I wait until a driver makes it to the top series before I learn anything about them. Such was the case with Hawksworth.
From his first race at St. Petersburg, he opened my eyes. Have his results been great? No, but he has run up near the front in almost every race before being bitten by bad luck or his own rookie mistakes. Obviously, ovals are not his strong suit. At the two ovals he’s raced on so far – Indianapolis and Texas – he has finished twentieth and sixteenth respectively, and has been very unspectacular in the process. But at times, he has been brilliant on the road and street courses.
At the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he shot out to an early lead and drove away from the field of veterans before bad luck and bad pit strategy put him back in the field. Yet, he still came away with a seventh place finish. Things seemed to come together for him at Houston. It was reported before Saturday’s race that he was tired of having good runs, but having something happen to scuttle his results. Saturday, he finished sixth. On Sunday, Hawksworth put on a clinic as he battled Juan Montoya in the late stages of the race. It opened more than just a few eyes when Hawksworth schooled Montoya and it was Hawksworth that landed on the podium, while Montoya settled for seventh.
As much fun as it is to watch Hawksworth on the track, it’s hilarious to listen to him out of the cockpit. His voice belies his young age of twenty-three. Instead, he sounds like an old man about my age. His gravely voice and the dry smirk on his face is a far cry from most sponsor-laden interviews from the corporate hacks we see in racing. His British delivery is refreshing and it hints at a very dry wit that seems it will be fun to get to know over the next few years. Hawksworth is currently ranked fourteenth in the point standings.
Unlike some of the rookies we’ve seen over the years, I think these will stick around. A lot of times, through no fault of their own – we’ve seen promising rookies fall by the wayside. Talented drivers like Tristan Vautier, James Jakes, JR Hildebrand, Alex Lloyd, Rafa Matos, Hideki Mutoh and Jamie Camara run one or two full seasons, show a good deal of potential and then are hardly or never heard from again.
All four of these current rookie drivers have shown us that they belong in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Each of them found themselves on the podium this weekend. Throw in the other three rookies that made their IndyCar debut in this year’s Indianapolis 500 – James Davison, Sage Karam and Kurt Busch; along with Martin Plowman, who already had a couple of IndyCar starts under his belt – and you’ve got a very stellar class. It’s one that might make people twenty years from now, look back at amazement about the collection of talent that was the Rookie Class of 2014.