Does Rookie Of The Year Really Matter?

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Lately, I’ve received a couple of e-mails and seen some items on social media regarding the rookie status of Conor Daly and questioning whether or not he should be in the running for Rookie of the Year in the upcoming Verizon IndyCar Series season.

One e-mailer was kind enough to include a passage from the IndyCar rulebook that pertains to rookies. It defines a rookie as A Driver is a Rookie in the IndyCar Series if the Driver has i) not participated in more than four (4) IndyCar Series Races in a racing season or ii)participated in less than eight (8) IndyCar Series Races in his/her career.

The question in all of this is last year’s Indianapolis 500. If you’ll recall, Daly’s car caught fire on the Parade Lap and he never took the green flag. What is confusing things is the way Daly was apparently scored. Had he been scored as a DNS (did not start), it wouldn’t count against him. But the fact that he was instead scored as completing zero laps, indicates that he took the green flag (he didn’t) but failed to complete a lap. That would indicate that Daly started five races total last season; one with Dale Coyne Racing and four with Schmidt Peterson Racing.

Why I don’t understand all the fuss, is the second part of the rule; which says he would be a rookie with less than eight starts in his career. Even if you count Indianapolis last year, that still totals only six starts. One in 2013 at Indianapolis for AJ Foyt, and Five in 2015 – Long Beach for Dale Coyne, Indianapolis in the No.43 car for Schmidt Peterson and three other starts in the No.5 for Schmidt Peterson as a fill-in for James Hinchcliffe. So, as far as I’m concerned that should put this supposed controversy to rest.

Reading through all the hubbub regarding Rookie of the Year got me to thinking…If this had legs and was indeed a controversy, is this something that is worth worrying over? Do drivers fret over this, even when they are rookies? Do fans? Whether we’re talking the Indianapolis 500 or the IndyCar season, I don’t really get too wrapped up in Rookie of the Year. Am I the lone oddball that doesn’t really care about it or are there others out there like me?

I understand that there is prize money involved – one e-mail said $50,000, but I wasn’t real sure of the amount. That’s a lot to you and me, but what about to the driver? And does it all go to the driver, or is it split with the team? If it’s split with the team, then it really isn’t that much.

And there’s prestige, I guess – but how much? Last year, there were only two full-time rookies; Gabby Chaves and Stephano Colletti. Sage Karam did not run in four races last year, yet still almost overtook Colletti for second place. Chaves won the award handily, last season. Unfortunately, Chaves and Colletti currently have no ride for this season and Karam only has a ride for Indianapolis.

Many times, that seems to be the way of winning IndyCar Rookie of the Year. The 2013 winner, Tristan Vautier, had no full-time competition and essentially won it by default. He had no ride at all the next year, but came back for a partial schedule this past season for Dale Coyne. Currently, he has no plans for this season.

James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud, the respective 2011 and 2012 Rookie of the Year winners have done very well for themselves, but what about the previous three – Alex Lloyd, Rafa Matos and Hideki Mutoh? As far as racing in IndyCar, it would appear their careers were over before they really got far off the ground.

In fact, only two series Rookie of the Year winners from the previous decade went on to win championships – Dan Wheldon (2003) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2007). Calling Hunter-Reay a rookie was a bit of a stretch, since he had driven three complete seasons in CART/Champ Car and had won races before moving over to IndyCar for the final six races in 2007. The fact that Hunter-Reay won the honor after only starting six races in a seventeen-race season speaks volumes. His closest rookie competitor was Milka Duno, who started seven races. Looking back over his career, I doubt that Hunter-Reay lists 2007 Rookie of the Year as one of his greatest accomplishments.

Take out the two aforementioned champions and the rest of the winners in the 2000’s produced a total of three wins in their careers thus far – two for Marco Andretti and one for Danica Patrick. Others like Kosuke Matsuura, Laurent Redon, Felipe Giaffone and Airton Dare have become nothing more than trivial footnotes. However, there was one CART Rookie of the Year in 2001 that made something of a name for himself – Scott Dixon.

In fact, the last full decade of CART Rookie of the Year awards was much more of an indicator of greatness than winning it in the first full decade of IndyCar (IRL). From 1990 to 1999, the impressive list of top rookies reads Eddie Cheever, Jeff Andretti, Stefan Johansson, Nigel Mansell, Jacques Villeneuve, Gil de Ferran, Alex Zanardi, Patrick Carpentier, Tony Kanaan and Juan Montoya. Those CART rookies from the nineties produced two Formula One championships, five Indianapolis 500 victories and eight American open-wheel championships.

So wining CART Rookie of the Year in the nineties was certainly a better indicator for success than winning the IndyCar Rookie of the Year in this century. You’ll notice I didn’t even bother to list the three forgettable winners of the award on the IRL side in the nineties. For the record, they were Jim Guthrie, Robby Unser and Scott Harrington. I see no reason to say anything else.

The USAC Championship Trail had an even more impressive list of Rookie of the Year winners. Many will recognize names like AJ Foyt, Jim Hurtubise, Parnelli Jones, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Bobby Marshman, Jim Clark, Tom Sneva and Rick Mears. Other lesser known names that had good careers, but never achieved stardom were Jim Malloy, Dick Simon, Pancho Carter and Spike Gelhausen.

What about winning the Indianapolis Rookie of the Year? Unlike winning it for a full season, which is based purely on total points – the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year is far more subjective and voted on by members of the media. Last year Gabby Chaves was a clear-cut winner, beating out Colletti who was the only other rookie in the field.

In 2014, however – it was not as one-sided. Kurt Busch won over Sage Karam, who was starting his first-ever IndyCar race at the age of nineteen. Karam charged through the field from thirty-first to finish ninth. Busch, a NASCAR champion, qualified twelfth and finished sixth. Many felt that Karam should have won, but Busch was voted the winner.

Like the other lists, the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year list is a mixed bag of some drivers that went on to stardom, while others dwelled in relative obscurity throughout most of their careers.

Some of the more notable Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year winners include Parnelli Jones (1961 – co-winner with Bobby Marshman), Jim Clark (1963), Mario Andretti (1965), Jackie Stewart (1966 – over rookie winner Graham Hill), Mark Donohue (1969), Rick Mears (1978 – co-winner with Larry Rice), Michael Andretti (1984 – co-winner with Roberto Guerrero), Arie Luyendyk (1985), Eddie Cheever (1990), Nigel Mansell (1993), Jacques Villeneuve (1994), Tony Stewart (1996), Juan Montoya (2000), Helio Castroneves (2001), Danica Patrick (2005), Marco Andretti (2006) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2008).

There were many others that went on to very decent careers and then some that had very underwhelming driving careers. Some of the more forgettable Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year winners were Graham McRae (1973), Bill Puterbaugh (1975), Jerry Sneva (1977), Josele Garza (1981), Randy Lanier (1986), Bernard Jourdain (1989), Steve Knapp (1998), Tora Takagi (2003), Kosuke Matsuura (2004) and Phil Giebler (2007 – whose only other rookie competition was Milka Duno).

Sadly, there were many drivers who met an untimely death shortly after winning Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, and their careers cannot be fully judged. Many feel that the likes of Larry Crockett (1954), Al Herman (1955), George Amick (1958), Bobby Marshman (1961 – co-winner with Parnelli Jones), Johnny White (1964 – suffered paralysis following a crash one week after the Indianapolis 500. He passed away on Christmas Eve, 1977), and Bill Vukovich III (1988).

It seems as time goes on, Rookie of the Year is less of an indicator for success. In the USAC years of the late fifties and through the sixties, most Rookie of the Year winners went on to achieve great things. CART had its share of duds in the eighties, but had a strong crop in the nineties. The IRL and IndyCar had had mixed results, at best, with its rookie crop so far.

While Rookie of the Year for the season or for the Indianapolis 500 carries some weight for bragging rights and some notoriety, it certainly is not a guaranteed predictor for future success. Perhaps it means a lot to rookie drivers at the time, but I don’t think that Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock or Dario Franchitti are upset or feel overlooked by the fact that they were never named Rookie of the Year in the top level series of their sport. So I don’t think we really need to wring our hands too much over the three current drivers who appear to be in the running for 2016 – Conor Daly, Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Does Rookie Of The Year Really Matter?”

  1. The rookie titles sure do mean something for the budgets of the teams who hire rookies to drive for them. I guess winning the Indy 500 Rookie payout is a big motivator for running an additional car.

    For the rookies themselves, it’s a more or less realistic goal to achieve in their new environment during their 1st season.

    Oh, and I’m very surprised that JR Hildebrand’s 2011 Indy 500 Rookie title didn’t get a mention, and neither did Carlos Munoz’. Both drivers have shown in later years that they can race well / near the front, together with the established masters at the 2 1/2 mile oval. And that’s also rather important for any team boss planning their team’s campaign for the season.

    • The point was how winning Rookie of the Year impacted their career or served as an indicator of what type of a career they would have. It’s too early to tell on either of those two drivers. But one could argue that, so far, winning Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 2011 was not much of a predictor for Hildebrand. Exactly two years later, he was on the street and has driven in only a handful of races since the 2013 race. But to be fair, the jury is still out on both of these drivers. – GP

      • Every time I see Hildebrand’s name, the only thing I can seem to remember is him running up and over the top of Power during a yellow. I guess that would be a case of texting while driving.

  2. Brian McKay - Central Time Zone Says:

    Thanks for blogging, George. Another enjoyable post.

  3. I would say that fans care about rookie of the year when a driver that they are a big fan of is running for it. I think thats why you are seeing such a big fuss this year. We have several really talented drivers in this rookie class that already have their built in fan bases.

  4. I got rookie of the year once in High School in ski racing so I remember that as one of my few claims to fame. ROY seems to be a somewhat fleeting title for some like Hildebrand depending on the year and the circumstances of each racing year. I think ROY has to has context and that can vary from one to the next.

  5. To be clear, I’ve nothing against Conor as he should have received a DNS last year in the 500. If only the series had followed its rules and the precedent set at TMS in 2012, when Rubens and Simona had engine failures on the grid caused them to miss the race and were scored as DNS and half points, there wouldn’t be a controversy.

    The real issue here is that it’s an illogically written rule. Condition (ii) in combination with the operative term “or” effectively means that condition (i) would always be superseded by condition (ii). Failing either condition, as long as a driver meets the other, would not preclude the driver from rookie status. A driver could start 7 races in his initial year, then demand to be a rookie in any subsequent season because he was under 8 for his career. Likewise, a driver could start 4 races every year for 5 years and claim he meets condition (i) and remain a rookie in all those years. That makes no sense.

    The rule was modified for this year, apparently in an attempt to clarify, but (obviously?) without a lot of thought. The rule for 2015 was:

    Rookie – A Driver is a Rookie in the IndyCar Series if
    the Driver has not participated in more than four (4)
    IndyCar Series Races in a racing season or eight (8)
    IndyCar Series Races in his/her career.

    Luca Filippi was credited with 4 starts in 2013 and 4 starts in 2014, yet he was not considered a rookie for 2015 even though he met BOTH conditions of the 2015 rule. Why, I wonder?

  6. Rookie of the year ……………. whatever.

    I do, however, applaud you George for the monumental effort that researching this post must have taken. Your heart is really in this stuff and I’m sending you my deepest thanks for it.

  7. Rookie of the year in more recent years might have proven to be more of a predictor of success if the rookies were able to keep their rides. Gabby Chaves being the current example of that dilemma.

  8. George, George, George, you are forgetting the one most important thing about Rookie of the Year (at least at Indianapolis)… it’s a TRADITION. 🙂

    • But you did teach me something I didn’t know about my hero A. J. Foyt: he was USAC Champ Car Rookie of the Year in 1957! I can’t believe I DIDN’T KNOW THAT! LOL! I guess that kinda makes your point about the whole thing, now, doesn’t it, hahahahaaa!

  9. billytheskink Says:

    How much Rookie Of The Year matters is going to vary from person to person, but it likely matters more to drivers and fans when it is a competitive battle between quality drivers. Rarely do more than 3 rookies compete in a full-season in Indycar, so the quality is key. Sometimes the accomplishment rings hollow because of a lack of competition, but that is not always the case.

    This is not only an Indycar issue. Most racing series see rookie classes of very limited size, and rarely draw a consistent number of new drivers year after year. Even stick-and-ball sports see disparity in the quality of their rookie classes.

  10. I think it is a mix bag. I think that if Kurt Busch can be the rookie of the year at the Indianapolis 500 then Connor Daly can be in the mix for Rookie of the Year for 2016.

  11. I think it matters a little, but not all that much. Oftentimes they don’t predict who has the eventual best career: Patrick Carpentier beating Dario Franchitti for the 1997 CART ROTY, Robert Doornbos beating Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal in 2007, Ken Bouchard(!) beating Ernie Irvan in NASCAR in 1988, etc… There have been many cases where the eventual best driver did not win it, even more when you do something over a single race like the Indy 500 (Barron/Scheckter winning over Franchitti/Kanaan in 2002, Takagi winning over Dixon/Wheldon in 2003, and so on).

    As for Daly, I don’t think his eligibility matters much because he in a Coyne car is not going to beat Chilton in a Ganassi car or Rossi in an Andretti car anyway. There is too large a difference in the teams, and I also think Chilton and Rossi are both better drivers.

    However, IndyCar has been ruining their ROTY system just like they did their actual points system (which was like perfect in 2007 – one of the few perfect things about split-era IRL, until they started messing around with half-points, not giving Champ Car drivers credit for starting at Long Beach in ’08, adding bonus points for leading a lap, which stunk in NASCAR and still stinks here, double-headers, and double points races). There is no reason on earth Simon Pagenaud should have been eligible for ROTY in 2012 and Rubens Barrichello NOT. I understand they generally continued to let people remain eligible for ROTY if they arrived in Champ Car in the 2003-07 period because those seasons had very few oval races (while the drivers who arrived in CART 2002 or earlier were not eligible because they raced on ovals regularly), but if Nigel Mansell was allowed to be CART ROTY when he was the defending F1 champion, I saw no precedent for Barrichello not being eligible, yet for some reason they decided he wasn’t even though Mansell was. Just messy officiating, but not really THAT big a deal. Pagenaud won and would have won regardless. Just as I think whatever they decide here won’t matter because Daly is not going to win ROTY in a Coyne car over rookies in Ganassi and Andretti cars.

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