A Glimpse Of The Future?

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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.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “A Glimpse Of The Future?”

  1. Yannick Says:

    You’ve got a good point there about the rookies who had to leave the series through no fault of their own. Mainly, that was down to the economy, them not finding sponsorship and teams quitting the series. Since there is the DW-12, drivers who only know the old car have been having a hard time to make a comeback. So it’s somewhat unlikely we’ll see Raphael Matos, Alex Lloyd, Bertrand Baguette and Hideki Mutoh run in the Verizon IndyCar Series again because they don’t know the new car.
    Yet, Tristan Vautier, James Jakes and Bia Figuereido (a/k/a Ana Beatriz) hopefully get a ride again soon. And Katherine Legge really impressed me with that Bump Day – Carb Day – Race Day effort for Sam Schmidt last year at Indy.

    That leaves the most experienced of those recent rookie classes to discuss: J. R. Hildebrand and Simona De Silvestro. Both are fan favourites and would probably be welcomed back by the crowd with open arms. J. R. has done a nice job this year at Indy for Ed Carpenter’s team and here’s hoping he’ll get to run more races soon. And Simona, well, her sponsors have bought her an F1 development drive with Sauber. Too bad she didn’t find a ride on your side of the Atlantic in IndyCar after her podium at the GP of Houston last year. Here’s hoping she’ll find sponsors to get her into a race seat somewhere for next year, even if it’s not a full season drive, so she can stay sharp by making use of her racecraft. If that’s the Sauber race seat, wow, that would be really big for her.

  2. madtad1 Says:

    Sadly, being an extremely talented driver is no longer enough to get you a ride in IndyCar. If you don’t bring an armored truck load of money with you, it ain’t happening.

    Let’s take a look at a historical example. I’m sure George will tell me if I’m wrong… Lol

    Let’s say you’re a young guy. You’ve been very successful dirt tracking; you’ve spent a good amount of time in the lower level stock car racing, where you were also modestly successful. You’ve gotten all your rides by essentially going to a track where the series is racing, bringing along your helmet and race gear and going from garage to garage seeing if anyone needs a driver, test driver, relief driver, etc. It has worked at getting you breaks, you’re being noticed, but no top team has picked you for tintops. ;-)

    Open wheel racing is exciting looking, you can make a reputation there, but you have no money, only a lot of talent. Your name is known, but only slightly. So, again, you take your resume and racing gear from garage to garage trying to get someone to hire you. But, you bring no dinero to the dance, only a ton of talent.

    So, the owners all tell you the same thing, “Sorry guy, come back when you bring at least $2 million with you and we can see about maybe driving my backup car a few times.”

    So, what happens? Well, Johnny Rutherford never gets his IndyCar ride and never wins three Indy500s.

    • Sherman Nelson Says:

      Hawksworth only brought his helmet.

    • And he goes to Nascar…

    • Is this really a new situation, though? To my mind, IndyCar has more or less been like this for the last 30 years, with the only people breaking into the top ranks being guys who manage to win at the rung just below (and who probably have a little cash themselves), or foreign guys (usually quite capable themselves) who bring a big check that prevents a team owner from saying “no” (with a few notable exceptions to these two scenarios being the Fittipaldis, Zanardi, Montoya, de Ferran, etc., etc.). Really, can you name more than a couple drivers who have gotten all the way into IndyCar’s elite (I’m talking top-5 in points here) who have fit into the “nothing but a helmet bag and a heavy right foot” category since about 1985? Or maybe even a few years earlier than that?

      In the meantime, the current ladder system is the most cohesive that it’s ever been, and is arguably better than any ladder system anywhere in the world. The new Lights car should be cheaper to run and will have direct technical comparison to the DW12, and just last weekend, Dan Anderson added an alliance with the Rotax Max karting series to the Road to Indy ladder, so that the top kids in karting get a paid-for test in a USF2000 car, which will help them directly into the ladder. Now, if a kid’s parents can afford a kart (a few thousand dollars, which is no more or no less than a dirt track kid’s first late model or quarter midget would be), and the kid can win, then it’s a matter of finding some money to go to USF2000 (which, really, would be not much more than it would cost nowadays to move up from dirt late models or quarter midgets or something to pavement, which would be the first step to making it in NASCAR). Win in USF2000, and you get a scholarship to move up to Pro Mazda. Win in Pro Mazda, and you get a scholarship to move up to Lights. Win on Lights (in 2015 or beyond), and you’re GUARANTEED three starts in the following year’s IndyCar Series (new for next year). I don’t know, but that sounds like about the best system for allowing kids with the “no money but a ton of talent” label to move up to IndyCar that I’ve heard in a long, long time.

      • What Speedgeek said. The phenomenon of the “ride buyer” is hardly a new one. And Indycar is hardly the only one affected by it. If anything, I hear the epithet used more in F1 and NASCAR than I do in Indycar.

        Plus, there’s also some mythology involved in the casting of aspersions at ride buyers. Yes, there are drivers with talent and no money, but it doesn’t automatically follow that drivers with money have no talent. In F1, for example, Schumacker and Alonso both started out buying rides. I can’t name who’s done so in NASCAR, but the point is that it can’t be presumed that buyers don’t belong in a series. Not all buyers are Milka Duno types.

        And to take that thought a step beyond: This may come off as a heresy, but being able to bring dough to the table is an important skill in and of itself. Not as important as being able to drive – and yes, there’s clearly injustice in talented drivers being sidelined when untalented ones get rides – but racing’s just plain not cheap, and having skilled drivers who are also skilled fundraisers will always be a desirable among team owners and series management if not among fans. That’s just the business reality of racing.

        I don’t intend for any of this to be agitprop, and I’m most certainly not attacking the original problem of cashless talent not getting rides. That will always be a tragedy, and as Speedgeek said, Indycar has come up with a pretty darn good way to try and mitigate that, so it’s clearly been an issue. But we – all of us, myself included – should really be careful about who we designate as “villains” and what we label as bad practices in this narrative. Money getting an otherwise unqualified driver a spot is bad. Money getting a perfectly talented driver one should not be. And when it comes down to two talented drivers with only one of them having cash, can you really blame a team for choosing one over the other? It may be injustice, but in regards to the financial bottom line, can you honestly blame them?

  3. I also hope the new pylon at least looks the same. I wonder what the heck they’ll do with the old one–it would look pretty cool in my front yard.

    I miss Simona but I’m guessing she doesn’t miss ovals.

  4. I have felt (and I feel like I might have posted this same comment here a while back) that the 2011 rookie class was one for the ages, and that I thought it compared very well to the 1994 class, though maybe the results haven’t borne that out yet (though there’s still time…those guys are all still early in their careers). I had James Hinchcliffe as the Jacques Villeneuve: the Canadian future champion (which I still think could very well happen, if his car would stop crapping out on him long enough for him to not have to occasionally overdrive when it’s actually working); J.R. Hildebrand as the Bryan Herta: cerebral American future race winner and potential championship contender; and Charlie Kimball as the Scott Sharp: scrappy American future race winner and perennial 7th to 11th in points (which there is no shame in, with the current crew of excellent drivers). Charlie has won a race and has several other podiums and top-5s, Hinch can dominate on the right day, and J.R., well…he has spent all but 5 of his IndyCar starts at Panther Racing (which, I’d like to remind everybody, has only won one race since 2003, and looked out to lunch in the majority of the races run from about 2009 through 2013), so I don’t really feel like we’ve seen the best from him yet (though this year’s 500 showed that J.R. was well capable of running up front with the big boys). So, I still feel like that 2011 class could be a great one, once history takes a look back.

    That said, to me, this year’s class is pretty darn solid. Munoz, as we all know, seems capable of winning more often that not, given one decent break (it seems like he’s always running in the top-10, so he’s right near front runner pace already). Hawksworth, to my mind, has proven that he belongs in this series long term (and for the record, I thought he’d come up from Lights one year too early…shows what I know). Aleshin has spectacular speed and is probably capable of winning a race within the next year. And Huertas, the guy we all pegged as #22 out of 22 in the “list of full timers capable of winning a race” went out and showed us all that sometimes in racing, you just never know.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    At the races this weekend, while browsing the clearance rack at one of the apparel retail trailers, I was reminded of what was.
    They were, no joke, trying to unload dozens of Milka Duno t-shirts. I actually saw a fellow purchase one and proceed to wear it.

    After Huertas’ win on Saturday, I was reminded of what is.
    The competition is the Indycar series is remarkably close, and the depth of driving talent overall and in this rookie class is a major part of that. Even the disappointing drivers are quite often competitive. I think it should be noted too, that there is unprecedented parity among the teams and manufacturers. The rookies, in particular, are benefiting from being able to climb into a competitive ride from day 1, a rarity in days past.

    Adding all of this up, Indycar is putting on some of the most competitive contests not just in racing, but in all of sports. It really is remarkable.

  6. Rookies having early success is really a function of the spec cars, low horsepower, excess downforce and street courses. These cars are just too easy to drive and street courses are more about luck and strategy than skill. It is difficult to distinguish between excellent and average skills under these cumulative circumstances.

  7. Just so they don’t run any commercials on the new pylon.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    I enjoy good racing and I don’t get all that worked up about American drivers vs drivers from another country. Never-the-less, as the IndyCar series casts about for additional fans it is worth noting that there were no podium finishers at Houston from North America. The four rookies who are doing so well this year are not American drivers.

    Hopefully the new ladder system outlined so well here by the Geekster will even things out somewhat in the future. Even so, the chances of drivers racing regularly at the 48 tracks here in Wisconsin (for example) of ever getting into the IndyCar series are slim to none. Some of them though may very well dream of being at Indy some day.

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