Indy rookie field has big plans
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bobby Rahal believes the Indianapolis 500 rookie class could change the look of IndyCar racing -- and not just because his 19-year-old son, Graham, happens to be one of the series' top new faces.
With the veterans coming over from Champ Car, talented young drivers getting a chance to drive for established teams and the elimination of a contentious rift between the rival open-wheel series, Rahal thinks it could turn into a showcase for the series' future stars.
"It's not just going to be Graham or Alex (Lloyd) or Ryan (Hunter-Reay), but you've got Justin Wilson, Will Power, and I'm missing a lot of other guys, Oriol Servia, who is quite quick on the ovals, it's going to be a tough deal," the 1986 Indy winner said. "If this isn't the strongest rookie field in history, I don't know what year would be. I think it's going to create a lot of interest and make things better."
The verdict will come May 25, during the 92nd running of America's most prestigious open-wheel race.
Until then, the one dozen rookies hoping to make the 33-car starting grid will spend the next three weeks proving themselves.
They'll spend May learning about the tricky winds, the changing track conditions and how to adjust at faster speeds, the same things that can trouble the most tested veterans. Their first chance begins Sunday, during a two-day rookie orientation. The Indy veterans will join them on the 2.5-mile oval Tuesday.
Historically, the learning curve has been steep for newcomers at the historic Indy track. Only three rookies have won the race since 1928 -- Helio Castroneves in 2001, Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000 and Graham Hill in 1966. Most tend to find trouble.
If all 12 first-timers qualify, it would be the largest rookie field since 1997 when 13 new drivers started the race.
Then again, this is no typical rookie class.
There are veterans like Spain's Servia and Australia's Power, the 2006 Champ Car rookie of the year. Both moved over when Champ Car was absorbed by its longtime rival.
Lloyd and Jay Howard are former champions in the IRL's developmental series, and Rahal's own driver, Hunter-Reay has actually been competing in the IRL since the middle of last season -- but he's never started the Indy 500.
Wilson, of England, and Enrique Bernoldi of Brazil are former Formula One drivers who have raced at Indy before, but never under these conditions. Bernoldi finished 13th in the 2001 U.S. Grand Prix, while Wilson was eighth in 2003 on F1's road course. Now they must adapt to a new environment.
"I think this will probably be the fastest speed of my life," the 29-year-old Bernoldi said. "But it will be a completely different experience because we'll be going the opposite direction in the straight and you will not hit the brakes. Or, I should say, you should not hit the brakes."
The feature attraction is Graham Rahal.
He grew up around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when his father was driving, comes with a familiar surname and already has a strong resume that includes being the youngest driver to win an IndyCar race. He won at St. Petersburg last month, breaking Marco Andretti's previous record.
Even for someone with Rahal's background, a road-course veteran who understands the challenges of Indy, it will be difficult.
"To say I'm nervous is an understatement," he said. "I've been coming here a lot of years with dad, and in the past cheered for Rahal Letterman Racing. I'm looking forward to going out there and doing our best, but as dad said, Indy is a whole different deal."
The biggest difference is speed.
Drivers like Bernoldi and Wilson may have clocked 210 mph in short stretches during their F1 stints but will now be going for long stretches at speeds topping 220. Rahal and Lloyd have been successful at Indy, although their achievements came in less powerful cars.
Lloyd, who now drives for Rahal's father and Target Chip Ganassi, is the only driver in Indy history with victories on both the road and oval courses.
"I think one of the biggest things as a driver is if you're patient and realize that, if you lose a position, it's a lot easier to get back than on a road course," said Lloyd, a 24-year-old from England. "You don't need to be quite as aggressive as you do on the road courses. It takes a little bit of time to learn for sure."
And the former Champ Car drivers will now have some time to finally get familiar with oval racing, something they rarely did in their former series.
Other former road-course veterans, such as two-time 500 winner Castroneves, believes that having nearly an entire month to learn the nuances will help make the rookies more competitive the rest of this season.
But is it the best rookie class ever at Indy?
"I disagree with Bobby," Ganassi said, smiling. "I think probably the most competitive rookie class at the Speedway was 1982."
Ganassi and Rahal were both rookies in the 1982 race.
Clearly, though, this contingent has a little of everything -- an international flavor, solid resumes, experience in other cars and victories.
All they have to do now is live up to Rahal's evaluation.
"I'm not a great historian of the Indianapolis 500, but I've got to think this is, maybe, the best rookie class in race history," Rahal said. "I think Graham will be competitive, and I think there will be a lot of other guys who will issue a strong challenge."