Flying Freshmen

If you think NASCAR racing has turned into a young man’s game, take a closer look at the world of Indy Cars. Both the CART Fed/Ex Championship Series and the Indy Racing League are ripe with talented young drivers who have already made their marks in a short period of time.

The entry list for this year’s Indianapolis 500 is a perfect example of the open-wheel youth movement. There are 12 rookies trying to make this year’s 86th running of the Memorial Day weekend classic, however some of the names on that list may be freshmen at Indy but are certainly seasoned veterans on other circuits.

Drivers like Dario Franchitti, Max Papis, Laurent Redon and Johnny Herbert are on the rookie list but all are proven veterans from CART, Formula One and road racing. Nevertheless, should a rookie driver make it to victory lane this year it would set an Indianapolis Motor Speedway record. Never in the previous 85 Indianapolis 500-Mile Races has a rookie driver won three years in a row.

Juan Montoya was a rookie when he won in 2000 and Helio Castroneves was also making his first Indy start when he took the checkered flag last May. This duplicated the feat of Frank Lockhart and George Souders tying together rookie victories in 1926-27.

No less an pair of authorities than Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser, Sr. think the record has an excellent chance to be shattered this season.

“I think, definitely, there’s the talent in the rookie ranks that can have an opportunity to win this thing,” said Rutherford, a three-time Indy champion.

Four-time 500 champion Unser concurred: “I think we have a very, very good group of rookies this year. And like John said, there are several of them that could pull it off.”

The rest of the 2002 rookie list includes Alex Barron, a Californian in his first IRL season with a 226-plus lap to his credit; Tomas Scheckter, a South African driving for Eddie Cheever Jr.; Tony Kanaan, a CART regular from Brazil; Shigeaki Hattori, an IRL regular from Japan; George Mack, from California and the second African-American to drive in the IRL; Rick Treadway, an IRL regular and son of car owner Fred Treadway; Anthony Lazzaro, a Georgian who drives for Sam Schmidt in the IRL, and John de Vries, who hails from Las Vegas and is an IRL rookie, too.

“The only thing they have against them is they don’t have experience (at Indy),” Rutherford said. “If they make the race and run all day, they will have 500 miles of experience under their belt. If they’re fortunate enough to pull it off and be in the right place, and the team works well and they win the thing, then they deserve it.”

Unser noted that in 1966, Formula One import Graham Hill of England wasn’t given much of a chance to win against defending champion Jim Clark of Scotland, sensational Scottish rookie Jackie Stewart and an array of great American drivers.

“He ended up winning the race, as a rookie,” Unser said. “There have been others to do it, too. It’s very, very possible that there are rookies out there right now that are capable of doing that.

“It takes a whole body of people to win this race. It just isn’t the driver. It always tickles me, well, it’s me or it’s Rutherford, or it’s whoever; it takes a whole team. Is your team that day going to be strong?

“If it is, he’s going to be shining and smiling. When he leaves, he’s going to be a very proud man.”

And after being added to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway record book he’ll also become a household name.

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