For Carlos Huertas, it was obvious.
The Colombian driver watched JR Hildebrand sail his National Guard Chevy into the final turn, 1,665 feet from being able to introduce himself as the champion of the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, as thousands of fans cheered him on to all-but-certain victory. “I was watching the race because somebody that was involved in his management was a friend of mine,” Huertas said Monday.
The last and final obstacle that stood between Hildebrand and having his name immortalized on the Borg-Warner Trophy was Charlie Kimball, who was one lap down, in 13th place. “When I saw that moment, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, he’s going to crash,'” Huertas said. “Then it happened.”
Hildebrand aimed his car to the high side of Kimball’s ride, expecting daylight and glory. Instead he found nothing but the wall.
In the 103-year history of the Indianapolis 500, totaling 97 runnings to date, a rookie has won just eight times. JR Hildebrand, of course, is not one of them. On Sunday, seven drivers will look to break a streak of first-timers’ futility dating back to 2001, when Helio Castroneves followed up Juan Pablo Montoya’s rookie win in 2000. Before that, the feat hadn’t been performed since 1966.
Keep in mind the term “rookie” can be used loosely here. Some are new to the car; others are just new to the track. Here’s your 2014 Indianapolis 500 rookie class:
Car: No. 22 Brantley Gilbert Chevrolet
Team: Ganaasi Racing
The youngest driver in the 33-strong field at age 19, the Nazareth, Pennsylvania, native is a development driver for Ganassi Racing, with the 500 his only scheduled race this season. (Not a bad gig if you can get it.) A high-school senior, Karam missed his prom last week, but his team held a makeshift dance for him and his girlfriend, Anna de Ferran, the daughter of 2003 Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran and a budding pop singer.
The defending Indy Lights champion, Karam didn’t set foot in an IndyCar until rookie orientation earlier this year. “Thank God it was rookie orientation and they made me go 200 mph, or else I would have been like any other racecar driver, and wanted to go as fast as I could and probably scared myself,” Karam said last week.
Karam had a brush with the wall during Carb Day practice before placing runner-up in the pit-crew competition. The rookie has been seeing a sports psychologist to help him prepare mentally for the rigors of racing.
Car: No. 7 SMP Racing Honda
Team: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Aleshin is the first Russian to ever qualify for the 500, and the only part of his persona that appears to have completely permeated Gasoline Alley is the Russian factoid. Both Juan Pablo Montoya and fellow rookie Kurt Busch can’t remember his name. “The poor guy, that’s the Russian,” Busch said Sunday. “I don’t even know his name. We hear him as ‘The Russian.’ He’s done a tremendous job.”
Aleshin, a native of Moscow, has garnered a full-time ride this year, a secure job that many drivers fret over. In his first three starts, the highest he has placed was sixth at Long Beach. “I’m learning every race,” Aleshin said. “I would say not even every race, I learn every practice and every lap I do. I’ve never driven this car, I’ve never driven these tracks, so I’m learning every time I’m on the track, in every corner.”
Back home in Russia, Aleshin’s mother is a psychologist, and his father is a driving coach for other racers. Before committing to a life of racing, Aleshin was in a cover band that performed the songs of Jack White, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. With the help of YouTube clips, Aleshin taught himself to play guitar.
Car: No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda
Team: A.J. Foyt Racing
When Plowman was trying to convince Larry Foyt that he was the right choice to drive a second car in the Indy 500 for Foyt Racing, the native of Burton upon Trent, England, presented a list of 10 items he believed supported him as a candidate. At the top of that list was his team winning the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
“Even though I am technically a rookie of the Speedway, I’ve had a lot of years of different experiences in sports cars,” Plowman said. “I had a lot of time to mature as a driver and as a person. So I’m not like a fresh-faced 22-year-old kid who’s just big-eyed and everything is new to him.”
Plowman also noted his IndyCar experience, but that came in three road-course races in 2011, before the series began using newer DW-12 models.
“They’re very different cars,” Plowman said. “The old IndyCar was heavy and old technology. It didn’t brake as well. The new one is such a nimble street fighter now. It brakes a lot better, and it has a ton of down force.”
Car: No. 26 Suretone Honda
Team: Andretti Autosport
The rookie getting the most attention is no stranger to Indianapolis. Busch has raced in the Brickyard 400 for more than a decade in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and the Las Vegas native is now attempting to tame the Speedway in an open-wheel car as part of “The Double”—completing the 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 (yes, it’s a longer race) in one day.
“The paddock [of drivers] here has been very inviting and welcoming to me coming in,” Busch said Sunday. “I expected [it to be] more cutthroat. I’m sure we’ll get to that next week when it’s race time. The open-wheel paddock has always [had] that make-or-break type feel with those young guys, and in NASCAR, the veterans aren’t there to help out with the rookies, but it isn’t like we’re there to make their life miserable.”
Early on, Busch was the only one of the newbies to give Karam encouraging words going into the Month of May.
“He came up to me at rookie orientation and said, ‘Hey man, just want to wish you the best of luck this month and just go out there and do your best,’” Karam said. “I thought that was really, really cool of him. He went up in my book in respect level, for sure.”
Car: No. 33 Always Evolving Racing Chevrolet
Team: KV Racing Technology
The native of Melbourne, Australia, was the last competitor to enter this 500 field. Davison is a third-generation driver, raised by his father, Jon Davison, who was a champion in open-wheel Formula 5000 racing.
“When I told my dad I was going to do the Indy 500, obviously he was proud because it’s fair to say he’s living his dream through me since he wasn’t able to,” Davison said. “It’s a big deal for him.”
While his efforts to get into IndyCar full-time were hampered in the last four years by a downtempo economy, Davison wants it to be known that, while he isn’t a household name, he has as much ability as many of the drivers in the field, even if this is his sole scheduled race for the year.
“I did Indy Lights with [James] Hinchcliffe and [Charlie] Kimball in 2009 ,and I beat those guys,” Davison said, referring to his two wins and eight podiums in two seasons. “I simply didn’t have two-to-five million dollars in sponsorship to move up, and that’s the difference. I was in a boat that a vast majority of racing drivers are in that precludes them from reaching their potential. I just persevered with it and finally found a good avenue for sponsorship.”
Car: No. 98 Integrity Energee Drink Honda
Team: BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian
This 23-year-old native of Bradford, England, had everyone’s attention during the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. The lone driver for Bryan Herta Autosport started on the front row and then paced the field, leading for 31 laps before finishing seventh. Now he’s one of three rookies starting in the top half of the field Sunday.
“We’re closer to the front than we are to the back, so it’s the top one-third of the field; that’s good,” Hawksworth said, standing in his team garage with hands in his pockets and feet spread wide. “Starting on the inside, that’s got to be a great place to start as well. It’s such a long race, to be honest with you, it’s kind of irrelevant. It was good for championship points to qualify quite well.”
While he talked, racing fans milled about outside the Herta garage, waiting to get a signature from the rookie. Hawksworth still hasn’t gotten used to the attention.
“I find it really strange,” he said. “It’s really nice. I think it’s pretty cool at Indy. A lot of times, you go places and you have people ask for your autograph, and they don’t really know who you are. But here, everyone knows who you are. They follow racing. These are real racing fans.”
The only time the rookie is recognized in public is in the mornings, when he eats at Piada in Carmel after his morning workouts.
Car: No. 18 Cafe De Colombia Honda
Team: Dale Coyne Racing
The other full-time rookie, Huertas, will also be making his first start on an oval Sunday afternoon. Through four races, the Colombian’s highest finish was 10th in Long Beach.
“It feels like any other race, to be honest,” Huertas said. “I think on Sunday I may think different because obviously it’s a big event. Maybe things change.”
The 22-year-old’s first memory of the 500 is watching Montoya win the race in 2000. Now Huertas and two other Colombians will face off with the veteran who just returned from a lengthy stint in NASCAR. “It means I’ve been doing things correctly and doing things well,” Huertas said. “Obviously when he came back [to IndyCar], that was a bit unexpected because he was in NASCAR. It’s nice; I think you learn a lot from those guys.”
Huertas is one of three drivers on the Dale Coyne Racing team that also includes Justin Wilson and Pippa Mann. Coyne was impressed by Huertas and his time in the Renault 3.5 series: “He was apprehensive about coming here in the first place. Now that he’s been here, he’s enjoyed it a great deal. “It’ll be different in the first part of the race, just to get settled in and get used to what it’s all about. The last half of the race, he can come on and do a pretty good job.”
Many 500 veterans had the same response when asked about the one thing a rookie needs to know on race day: Just finish.
The most well-known rookie in recent memory agrees with that sentiment: “You’ve just got to be there at the end of the race,” Hildebrand said at Media Day. “It’s easy to fall into this thing where you start thinking because you’re in a big pack of cars running around, you’re all going flat out, you’re doing the orchestrated shift around and passing, your car is bitchin’ in race trim, and you’re going to be on the high side going through Turn 3 on the first lap because that’s your game.”
Despite how 2011 ended, Hildebrand, who starts ninth Sunday, learned a lot from his rookie experience. “I gained a lot my first year in IndyCar from making it all the way through the 500-mile races.”
Starting on the last row with Karam will be Buddy Lazier. The oldest driver in the field at age 46, Lazier has competed in more than 15 Indy 500s— and won in 1996. His advises rookies to just enjoy the moment, a moment that can change everything for them. “Don’t take it for granted,” Lazier said. “I would also tell them something that I was told the first year that I made the Indy 500 [in 1991]. Just qualifying for this race can change your life as a young race driver, and I believe that’s still true today.”
He should know. The former winner of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will start in the back row with Karam.