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ROOKIE RUNDOWN: Evaluating the Indy 500 Rookie Class

Zachary Houghton
| May 10, 2011


With Rookie Orientation underway Thursday for the Indianapolis 500, it’s time to take a look at the IZOD IndyCar Series’ Indy 500 rookies. Ana Beatriz and Sebastian Saavedra, who are still series rookies due to the minimal number of races they contested last year, are not 500 rookies, but 8 other drivers on the Indy 500 entry list are. Here’s a rundown of each 500 rookie, along with the possible upsides and downsides that could impact their dreams of making the 500 Centennial Anniversary field.

 JR Hildebrand

Number/Team: #4, Panther Racing
IZOD IndyCar Races:

Potential Upside: Panther has Indy figured out. They’re going to give JR a very good car this month. Hildebrand can also call on his Indy 500-winning teammate Buddy Rice if he runs into any trouble.

Potential Downside: Hildebrand and Panther would likely be the first ones to admit there’s been a little too much contact and rough patches over their first four races as a team. Panther’s a different story on ovals; however, they’ll need to avoid the mistakes and issues to maximize on this team’s great potential at Indy.

James Hinchcliffe

Number/Team: #06, Newman-Haas Racing
IZOD IndyCar Races: 3

Potential Upside: The Mayor of Hinchtown has been lights-out in the last two races. He’s really been the most impressive rookie thus far, and is on a team that had a car in the Pole Day Shootout last year. He took third in last year’s Firestone Freedom 100.

Potential Downside: It’s looking good for Hinch so far, but don’t forget that in Firestone Indy Lights, he never qualified terribly well at Indy (12/22 in ’09, 8/16 in ’10). Indy will be his toughest qualifying challenge ever. Nothing is ever for certain at Indy, but Hinch seems grounded enough to remember that.

Jay Howard

Number/Team: #88, Sam Schmidt/RLL Racing
IZOD IndyCar Races:

Potential Upside: In terms of the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indy 500, you won’t find a more experienced “rookie” than Howard. He’s been to Indy twice (replaced once, followed by a Did Not Qualify), and both times it could be argued events beyond his control ensured his being on the inside looking out. He’s got a lot of experience, and one more shot at realizing his ultimate goal here.

Potential Downside: A tumultuous breakup with Sarah Fisher Racing left some bad blood in the series, but Howard’s back to prove the events of the last two attempts weren’t connected to him. Still, if something goes sideways this time out, there’ll be a lot of critics ready to point the finger. There’s something to be said for the concept of luck at Indy; we’re about to see if Howard is a Jigger Sirois or a Sebastian Saavedra.

James Jakes

Number/Team: #18, Dale Coyne Racing
IZOD IndyCar Races:

Potential Upside: Has run well once in an actual race, generally moving up multiple positions from his starting spot each time out. For a rookie with little name recognition when he was announced in the #18, Jakes has actually outperformed his better-known teammate Sebastien Bourdais thus far this season. He’s also got an excellent teammate for Indy in Alex Lloyd, who should help steady him.

Potential Downside: Dale Coyne Racing has had a horrible time in practice and qualifications this year. They simply can’t take that long to get up to speed at Indy, no matter how well they’ve been running in the race. If they don’t improve in that area, they won’t make it that far.

Charlie Kimball

Number/Team: #83, Norvo Nordisk Chip Ganssi Racing
IZOD IndyCar Races:

Potential Upside: As Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Townsend Bell can tell you from their past affiliations, Ganssi’s going to deliver you a good car for Indy. Kimball finished second in the Firestone Freedom 100 last year, so he knows this track as well.

Potential Downside: 23, 21, 24, 18. Those are the qualification positions of Kimball through the first four races of the year. As an oval (THE oval, really), Indy’s a whole different ballgame, but Kimball can’t afford poor qualifying if he wants a successful Month of May.

Pippa Mann

Number/Team: #36, Conquest Racing
IZOD IndyCar Races:

Potential Upside: Pippa won the pole for the Firestone Freedom 100 last year, and she really stepped up in the second half of last year’s Lights season. The Conquest team was reportedly very impressed with her test at Texas earlier this year.

Potential Downside: Aside from her early-season testing with Conquest, this will be Pippa’s first real time in any IndyCar. She showed in Firestone Indy Lights she has speed, but without any experience in the series to review, she’s almost a total cipher right now.

Scott Speed

Number/Team: #20, Dragon Racing
IZOD IndyCar Races:

Potential Upside: Speed is one of the more experienced drivers in field when it comes to top-level racing series, previously contesting both NASCAR and F1. He’s also been in longer-mileage races, a point which should work in his favor.

Potential Downside: Speed has experience in F1 and IndyCar, but success in those series does not equal success at Indy (ask Nelson Piquet). Additionally, between Speed and Ho-Pin Tung, Dragon Racing is an all-rookie team, which can be a definite hindrance if a team runs into trouble.

Ho-Pin Tung

Number/Team: #8, Dragon Racing
IZOD IndyCar Races:

Potential Upside: In terms of series and experienced, Tung is one of the more well-traveled rookie drivers in the field. He also had a very quick IndyCar test with FAZZT Racing in late 2010, so he’s at least been in an IndyCar before. He’s also known as an intelligent driver, capable of excellent feedback for a team’s engineers.

Potential Downside: Besides having never contested an IZOD IndyCar Series race, Tung has very little oval experience. Although solid in many of the series he’s been in, he has few outstanding results. As mentioned above, Dragon Racing is an all-rookie team for Indy, which doesn’t exactly help one’s odds.

Of course, we’d also love to hear your opinion! Which rookies do you see making the field and doing well at Indy this year?

Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-update INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.



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  15. 15 Gregg 20 May
    This may seem unfair since I've been to the track everyday they practiced. I'm really impressed with JR HIldebrand. Fast times doesn't necessarily parlay into a good finish but it sure helps. He gets my vote for Rookie of the race. 
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  17. 17 Lynn 13 May
    Gotta go with J.R.!
  18. 18 Zachary 12 May

    I definitely think Pippa can surprise a lot of people this month. She's fast, and Conquest was relatively solid last year. If she stays out of trouble, she can definitely put it in the field. It's a tough list of competitors this year; you have to think some of these rookies will be bumped, but I think you can make a case for each finding their way in as well.

  19. 19 Phil Mcardle 12 May
    Pippa Mann's the one to beat. A hard nosed driver. Would do wonders for Indy popularity.

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