Rookie Of The Year – No Easy Choice

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By Paul Dalbey

The vote for the Indianapolis 500 has stirred a lot of emotions. It was not an easy choice. I don’t have a vote, but I have gone on record as saying I would have voted for Ed Jones, if I did. But when looking at the criteria, I could also make a strong case for Fernando Alonso, who eventually won it. I thought that you couldn’t go wrong either way. Based on the outrage that erupted on social media Monday evening, I guess I was wrong.

My good friend Paul Dalbey of the currently-dormant MoreFrontWing.com does have a vote. Here, he breaks down his decision on how he voted and the steps he took to arrive at it. – GP

Since word first broke on Monday evening that two-time World Driving Champion Fernando Alonso had been named the 2017 Indianapolis 500 Sunoco Rookie of the Year, racing outlets and social media have been ablaze with consternation over the perceived snubbing of Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones as many feel he was more deserving of the honor and the $50,000 prize that goes along with it. While conceding that Alonso had an exceptional month and did all that was asked of him, many felt Jones’s month was more worthy of the honor given his finishing position, drive through the field, and status on one of the smallest teams in the IndyCar paddock. And it’s very difficult to find fault in any of their arguments.

First a small bit of disclosure. I do have the great honor of submitting a vote for the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. I am not sure what the criteria is for selecting the media members who vote on the Rookie of the Year or how many people are actually included in the vote, but it is an honor I have had since at least 2014. I didn’t ask anyone to be selected, nor did I petition the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a ballot. It simply showed up in my email a few years and has continued to do so every year since.

This has been a source of friction and bitterness with some people who are not afforded such an opportunity, even causing one friend to storm out of the media, depart IMS without so much as a goodbye, and not speak to me for more than a month. I recognize there are many well-qualified motorsports media who have not been included in the vote, and I have no good explanation why. It is an honor I do not take lightly and one that I give great consideration to each year. Nonetheless, having now attended the Indianapolis 500 for 30 years and having been involved with the Verizon IndyCar Series since 2009, I feel I am qualified to cast a thoughtful and well-reasoned vote for this award, even as my role has changed in the last couple years and I am more in the background than before.

Which brings me to my next point. The Sunoco Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year is a vote. It is a vote that is to be indicative of the performance of a first-time Indianapolis 500 race participant over the course of the entire event, including, but not exclusively so, his or her finishing position in the race. The rookie status of a driver does not consider experience in other forms of motorsports. Whether you are a two-time world champion or USAC national midget champion or an IndyCar veteran who has previously tried but failed to make the Indianapolis 500, you are still considered a rookie at Indianapolis until you qualify for the race and are pushed away from the grid. And unlike the season-long INDYCAR Rookie of the Year award, which is given to the rookie amassing the greatest number of points during the entire season, the Indianapolis 500 never has been, nor was it ever intended to be, simply the recognition of the highest finishing rookie, a statistic which can be very fickle and not representative of performance throughout the entire event.

During the Month of May for the 2017 Indianapolis 500, there were two outstanding rookies, both of whom were well-deserving of Rookie of the Year honors. Fernando Alonso and Ed Jones both had stellar months and either driver would have been a worthy choice. In the end, the finally tally gave the nod to Alonso in spite of his 24th-place finish rather than to Jones, who finished third. Giving the award to a lower finisher is not common but it is also not unprecedented.

The decision this year was more difficult than any year I have previously voted. The question of how much weight to give finishing position has come up in other years. In 2014, I voted for Sage Karam to receive Rookie of the Year even though Kurt Busch finished closer to the front and ran a very strong race. He qualified better than Sage that year, but I felt Sage actually showed better during the entire Month. Furthermore, the fact that Busch destroyed his car in the post-qualifying Monday practice session tipped the scales for me that month. I didn’t feel Busch was unworthy of being named Rookie of the Year. I just felt Karam was more worthy.

In 2017, there were several factors in play that each gave Alonso and Jones a slight edge. Throughout practice and qualifying, it’s difficult to say Alonso wasn’t just slightly better than Jones. Though Jones had the faster practice lap between the two, Alonso finished higher on the speed chart in five of the eight practice sessions, though going strictly on speed can be deceiving when realizing teams are working on different setups and using the draft to post higher speeds. Additionally, Alonso posted faster qualifying speeds on both days of qualifying weekend, though it must again be recognized track conditions changed throughout Sunday qualifying and generally got faster as the temperatures began to cool for Alonso.

Then there is the factor of experience. How does one consider the experience of each driver when making their decision? In Alonso’s car, he had never driven an Indy car and had never driven an oval, let alone an Indy car on an oval at 230 mph. Though a season-long rookie in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Ed Jones doesn’t have significantly more experience in championship cars on the big ovals. Jones raced in the IndyCar race at Phoenix in April (a short oval) but also has previous experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, having driven in Indy Lights with Carlin Racing in 2016. As such, he has at least experienced hot pit stops, rolling starts/restarts, and dealing with traffic and very high speeds.

On the flip side, Fernando Alonso is widely considered one of the greatest drivers in the world in any form of auto racing. The 2005 and 2006 World Driving Champion has been driving at top level Formula 1 since probably before Jones every got started in racing. If Ed Jones had any sort of advantage of knowing ovals and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fernando Alonso should certainly be considered to have the advantage in overall experience and knowledge of race craft.

In terms of accessibility of each driver, it’s really hard to lean one way of the other. The fact is, Fernando Alonso faced a level of scrutiny and media suffocation not seen since Nigel Mansell came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1993. Not once did he seem annoyed or burdened by the demands placed upon him even though it is far beyond what he typically experiences in F1. That said, I was disappointed to see him refuse an interview with Dr. Punch on the ABC broadcast after his motor expired late in the race. I understand his disappointment in the moment (not that I’ve actually lived that, but still…), and I even made a comment on Twitter that him walking straight back without even removing his helmet didn’t portray himself well. It really was the only slight blemish on an otherwise spotless month for Alonso from a PR standpoint.

Though the demands for his time were but a miniscule fraction of those for Alonso, Ed Jones similarly handled himself in a pleasant, accommodating, and sportsman-like manner all month. Though he didn’t grab the headlines day in and day out, Jones was reportedly extremely open and available to all who sought him throughout the month. Some might say it is easy to act that way when you don’t have media watching and reporting your every move, but nonetheless, Ed Jones handled himself perfectly all month and represented himself, his team, and his sponsors in the highest manner.

Then we come to the issue of race performance. Technically, the ballot says that consideration should be given for “finishing position.” I think this is an unfortunate wording and criterion as I believe “race performance” is more indicative of the spirit of the award. As is does stand, Ed Jones is clearly ahead in this regard owing to his third-place finish. But does his third-place finish and Fernando Alonso’s 24th-place finish truly represent the performance of each driver during the race? I’d say no. Jones started 11th and generally ran between 10th and 12th for the first 50 laps. After making a couple pit stops for repairs, he languished between 20th and 25th until pit strategy jumped him to the top 10 around 140 laps and a lucky yellow at lap 167 kept him in the top 10 and back on pit sequence. Once he got to the top 10, though, Jones drove like a veteran and kept himself there, showing speed throughout, aggression when necessary, and caution when prudent. He didn’t have the speed to catch Helio or Sato, but then again, neither did the 17 other cars on track.

Alonso’s race was more of the “start up front, stay up front” sort. Starting fifth, he fell back to ninth on his first ever rolling start, but he slowly and methodically worked his way back and drove into the lead for the first time just before the 100-mile mark. He generally stayed in the top 5 for the first 350 miles until the group of drivers who were on Jones’s alternate pit strategy hopped in front and then took advantage of the lap 167 yellow when Charlie Kimball’s Honda engine let go. However, when Alonso’s Honda engine expired on lap 179, Ed Jones was in fact ahead of Fernando (though Jones’s third position to Alonso’s eighth does not, in my opinion, qualify as “well ahead” as the Dale Coyne Racing team pointed out to me on Twitter).

In the end, I feel that Alonso drove a more “skillful” race given that he ran most of the day with the leaders, actually led laps (third highest number behind Max Chilton and Ryan Hunter-Reay), and ultimately fell out of the race due to no fault of his own. If Alonso hadn’t exited the race, I feel like he likely would have caught and passed Jones as I think Jones would have had to either back way off or made another pit stop. Having made his final pit stop on lap 166, it’s nearly inconceivable he could have made it to lap 200 without the abundance of caution he received from Alonso’s blown engine and the 5-car crash on the ensuing green flag. BUT, we’ll never know…

I guess for this point, I would give the edge on “finishing position” to Ed Jones because that’s what the black and white criterion calls for. However, I give Alonso bonus points on the “skill” criterion because I think he drove a better overall race.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room about the teams each of the candidates drove for in the Indianapolis 500. In years past, this could have been seen as very much a David vs Goliath story with the tiny, minimally sponsored and hard-luck Dale Coyne Racing team taking on all-power, six-car armada of Andretti Autosport. There is no doubt that having six cars on the team (five of which were considered legitimate contenders) helps in every possible way. Furthermore, they have the resources to massage their cars to the n-th degree, engineering staff with decades of experience, and a fleet of drivers that included the likes of 2006 runner up Marco Andretti, 2014 winner and IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, and defending winner Alexander Rossi.

On the flip side, Dale Coyne’s small budget operation is generally considered one of the smallest funded teams in the paddock. In their better years, Coyne has typically tried to hire a well-respected driver to his “top” seat while selling his second seat to a well-funded driver who can help cover the bills. However, this isn’t last generations Dale Coyne Racing team. Since Dale brought on the late Justin Wilson in 2009 and scored their first victory at Watkins Glen, the little team from Plainfield, IL, has shown on repeated occasions they can punch with the big boys. This year, the addition of four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais and engineering genius Craig Hanson have further legitimized Dale Coyne’s operation into consistent contenders on a weekly basis.

Though they said early in the season they likely wouldn’t have the horses to keep up at bigger tracks like Indianapolis, Bourdais was the fastest driver in practice and time trials before his month came to an abrupt and terrifying end against the Turn 2 wall during his qualifying run. Only slightly behind Bourdais was Ed Jones, who showed that while he was clearly the #2 driver on the team, he still had plenty of speed to be a real contender for the Fast 9 in qualifying. So while nobody is every going to mistake Dale Coyne’s relatively tiny operation for Michael Andretti’s, it’s clear the gap has narrowed and being in a DCR car is nowhere near the disadvantage it was a few years ago.

So where does this leave my vote? I tried to look at the overall big picture of the month and then see how that jived with the criteria set forth by the Rookie of the Year ballot. I felt that Alonso probably had the better month with usually higher practice speeds and a better qualifying weekend. Jones, however, was faster on Carb Day and was a popular dark horse pick, having run the second fastest single lap in all of practice. Alonso faced almost unimaginable media scrutiny and oversight all month long, never expressing any frustration, trepidation, or irritation until the very moment he fell out of the race. But Ed Jones did everything that asked of him as well. In the race, I thought Alonso had the better race and there is a good chance he would have finished higher than Jones if he made it the full 500 miles. In reality, Alonso only made it 450 miles, finishing 24th, while Jones finished all 500 miles and came home third, only 0.53 seconds behind winner Takuma Sato.

If there would have been an option to name Co-Rookies of the Year, that would have been my choice. I think each of them was deserving of the honor and I wish I could have done that. In the end, though, I had to choose one over the other. I gave the choice many hours of consideration and played mental ping-pong over who had the better and most deserving month. I even solicited the advice of George Phillips and James Black (of 16thandGeorgetown.com and for whom I am still a photographer) to see if they had thought of something during the month that would sway a vote one way or the other. Unfortunately, even they were split on who they would give the nod to. In the end, I made my decision given my overall view and in regards to the totality of the month, and my vote went to Fernando Alonso.

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33 Responses to “Rookie Of The Year – No Easy Choice”

  1. Underdog rookie raced from the rear to a close third place with a draggy rear wing and a damaged, draggy nose cone. I couldn’t vote ‘against’ Ed Jones.

    • Jones came off as a stuck up kid in the garage area when I asked him for his autograph while nobody was around. Alonso never once faltered or seemed upset in any way at the scrum which followed him from place to place all month (yes, I have a Bronze Badge and was there all day, every day) and signed everything that was thrust in front of him with a smile on his face.

      I couldn’t vote “for” Ed Jones.

      • It’s funny how as fans we hold the drivers in regards of the interactions we have with them. I would be the same way if that was my interaction with Jones regardless of the performance right or wrong.

        Back in the days of no twitter and early facebook when RHR was out of a ride at Rahul Letterman I went to his website and shot him an email saying that I was pulling for him. Put him in my prayers for getting a ride some place else. He emailed back thanking me for the support and nice email. That alone makes him the favorite in my house every year.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    It would be interesting to see how this vote would go if one could vote for co-winners. If forced to choose and given a vote (and having $17 million in a Scrooge McDuck vault, because this is all hypothetical), I would have gone with Jones. Both drivers exceeded my expectations, but Jones did so a bit more than Alonso.

  3. With Ed Jones having a podium finish, its hard to see how he did not get rookie of the year.

    • Brian McKay in Florida Says:

      Gushing, blushing fans of Alonso voted for a consolation prize for him whose engine expired and failed him.

    • Not hard to see at all, if you know anything about Indianapolis 500 history. Graham Hill WON the 1966 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, but who was the Rookie of the Year that year? Uh, that would have been Jackie Stewart, who dropped out of the race. The top finishing rookie has been passed over several times for RotY at Indianapolis BECAUSE the award is NOT all about where the rookies finish.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    “No Easy Choice”? Not hardly. Ed Jones. No-brainer. And what does “came across as a stuck-up kid” have to do with anything? I don’t think he was up for class president or Miss Congeniality.

    • I surmise that it is the best rookie interviewee award or the best rookie autographer award….. I had thought that it was the best rookie racer award …….

      • Sportsmanship, along with accessibility and conduct during the month make up 50% of the criteria. Finishing position only accounts for 25%. If you don’t like the rules, contact IMS. Better yet, since you are also a member of the media – cover the “500” yourself and maybe you’ll be randomly selected to get a vote. But don’t bash a voter for taking the time to follow the process as he saw fit, just because you don’t like the final result. – GP

        • Ron Ford Says:

          Yeah. Foolish Brian and foolish Ron for thinking that an award for a rookie race driver had to do with driving a race car. Perhaps Ed can ask A.J. Foyt or Paul Tracy for advice on how to be more congenial. “Randomly selected”. High praise indeed!

        • He must have been a really bad sport to have been penalized that heavily that finishing third as a rookie was not good enough to beat out a driver who did not finish. As for conduct, did he attack somebody in the Paddock? I think Alonso being a former champion of F1 had everything to do with it.

        • Ron Ford Says:

          I don’t feel that disagreeing with a randomly selected voter who took 20 paragraphs to justify his decision was being particularly bashful. We can agree to disagree here as have the vast majority of your poll voters.

        • Brian McKay in Florida Says:

          Jones was an inaccessible, poor sportsman who finished behind Alonso … and therefore Dale Coyne ought not be displeased?

    • Learn a little about the history of the Rookie of the Year program at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and you’ll see that there’s a whole bunch of “congeniality” measured for that award, Ronnie!

      • Ron Ford Says:

        I would agree with you, but then we both would be wrong.

        • I am not wrong. You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about and are just trying to get a reaction. That’s fine, but it’s funny how you come on here day after day acting like you’ve seen it all and know it all about IndyCar racing and then are totally clueless about the Rookie of the Year program at Indianapolis. Just… wow!

          • Ron Ford Says:

            I freely admit that I know nothing about the criteria for selecting a Rookie of the Year, but I and 80% of the voters here simply disagree with the decision. Most comments I make here regarding IndyCar racing are based on the experience of being at IndyCar races. I have been to 33 Indy500 races beginning in 1950 and many more at the Milwaukee Mile and Road America. I am sticking with my choice of Ed Jones and not because he autographed my cap. I also think former Green Bay Packer Jerry Kramer should be in the NFL Hall of Fame and I know nothing about their criteria either. Just expressing my opinion.

  5. It’s a thoughtful and well reasoned case, Paul. I still believe Jones would’ve been the better RotY, but it’s clear your choice was at least rational. Yours is the only defense of the Alonso selection that I’ve read. The other Alonso voters weren’t brave enough to lay out their arguments before a skeptical fan base. Thanks for making a case that’s at least understandable.

  6. We had co-winners when rookies were 2nd and 5th I do believe, Guerrero and Michael Andretti? Really that was a political vote as Guerrero finished 2nd and should have had it free and clear. So I guess there is a history of this. With that logic I say, of 2nd and 5th is too close to call, how is 3rd and 24th even a toss up? Ed Jones wins it in that theory. But I also can’t seem to shake Alonso being so solid this month. Co-ROTY would have been my vote. This wasn’t the 2015 or 2007 class though, either driver would have run away with it those years so I guess it is just luck. It’s just politics I guess though, Andretti has a ton of pull in all facets of ICR.

    • billytheskink Says:

      The late Al Holbert was so angry about being snubbed for ROTY in 1984 that he never returned to the 500. (citation needed)

  7. I just realized, anyone else notice this exactly mirrors the 1996 ROTY situation? Richie Hearn finished 3rd and Tony Stewart 24th but Stewart won ROTY. Hearn’s supporters called it politically motivated as Stewart was the exact poster-child that the IRL wanted, a young American sprint car driver and Hearn’s team also ran CART races. Some things never change I guess!

    • There have been six times in the history of The Race that RotY has not gone to the highest finishing rookie: 1959, 1966, 1969, 1972, 1983 and 2017. There have been five time co-winners were announced: 1961, 1978, 1984, 1989 and 2002.

      Read up on the history before you get your panties all in a bunch, folks! Seriously….

      • I’m not mad, just an interesting piece of history that I realized. Tony was the IRL poster boy and Richie was running for a rival, sometimes things just get political on motorsports I reckon…

  8. Ron, that’s great stuff! You’re basically saying “I don’t know crap about what I’m talking about but TOUGH SHITE! I’m gonna tell you what to think whether I know anything about it or not!”

    That’s like voting for a politician you know nothing about but love the pantsuits she wears! Intelligent!

    I don’t care what 80% of the fans here think if 80% of the fans here don’t know the criteria behind the voting!

    I think you’ve made my point, brother….

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Now that all the dust and bytes have settled, it appears that Ed won the popular vote and “Fred” won the electoral college.

  9. Brian McKay in Florida Says:

    So this was a focused blog post that told four criteria for discernment and told how Ed Jones performed poorer according to those criteria? We understand that it’s not a popularity contest which someone won because he’s better known and liked?

  10. Officially the angriest blog response section in the history of OP 🙂

    • Not quite. Surprisingly, a post I wrote about John Andretti in summer of 2009 that somehow exploded into a CART/IRL debate. Then a negative article about Milka Duno in either 2010 or 2011 had some very nasty comments that went back and forth between readers. – GP

  11. Patrick Says:

    It was political as far back as 1957 when Don Edmunds was given the award over Eddie Sachs. Edmunds did absolutely nothing in the race before spinning out to finish 19th. Sachs qualified in the middle of the front row and ran in the top ten before being sidelined by mechanical failure to finish 23rd. Some people considered Sachs to be a clownish blowhard and refused to vote for him in spite of his performance.

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