It all started Monday night, fittingly, with a tweet from the driver who in 2014 had an argument to win that year’s Indianapolis 500 Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors, but didn’t.
Sage Karam won the 2013 Indy Lights championship, and would make his IndyCar debut against a significantly bigger name from a significantly bigger series, who was racing with Andretti Autosport, while he was in a smaller budget team known for out-kicking its coverage and overachieving from a results standpoint, in Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
That bigger name was NASCAR star Kurt Busch, running the 2014 Indianapolis 500 in a fifth Andretti Autosport car, and finishing sixth after starting 12th in the first of his planned Indy 500-Coca Cola 600 double.
Karam, meanwhile, had dazzled the crowd for DRR in the pit stop competition on Carb Day, made an epic save in the one-hour practice earlier, then drove from 31st to ninth in the race. All this at 19 years old, having missed his prom.
At that time, I wrote that co-rookies of the year would have been a justifiable outcome, as it would not have been without precedent. Busch excelled in his IndyCar debut, soaking up the atmosphere, learning from his Andretti Autosport teammates and finishing sixth – albeit fourth of the five Andretti cars! Teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay (first), Marco Andretti (third) and Carlos Munoz (fourth) all finished ahead. Karam, meanwhile, did his performance on a single-car team, albeit one that at the time shared a technical partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing.
With the local broadcast on WTHR-TV delayed by about an hour from when the media banquet was happening live, Karam revealed Monday night that Ed Jones – the 2016 Indy Lights champion making his Indy 500 debut – had not won this year’s Rookie of the Year honors, and instead had lost to Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula 1 World Champion in his oval debut.
The result was par for the course in a month where Alonso dominated the headlines, soundbites, media attention and race coverage… until it mattered most.
With just over 20 laps to go, Alonso’s Honda engine expired in a sad, almost fitting ending. It was a metaphor, in a way, for the overkill of Alonso coverage to fall short to the rest of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil itself, and the other 32 drivers competing in the race.
All the while, there was Ed Jones, biding his time, racing like a veteran even as he too was a rookie in this year’s race, and promptly finishing third for Dale Coyne Racing, capping off a month where he brought the team so much joy in a month where the team had so many unexpected incidents pop up.
The outrage on social media followed almost immediately once the news began to spread Alonso, not Jones, had won the year’s rookie of the year award.
It’s at this point we figured, let’s not just express an opinion about the process, but instead let’s find out why the process transpired the way it did.
For that we reached out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR staff for a bit of background into how the vote was conducted and why it came to the decision it did – Alonso over Jones.
For full disclosure, I had a vote for the rookie of the year, and selected Jones as my first choice and Alonso as my second.
WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA?
There are four criteria at play for the vote, which awards $50,000 to the Sunoco Rookie of the Year. They are:
- (a) the driver’s skill
- (b) sportsmanship
- (c) accessibility and conduct during the month
- (d) finishing position
Per IMS, each criteria should be considered the same as any other.
The first three are arguably more subjective categories. It takes time and careful, studious analysis to determine driver skill, and it’s a slippery slope to go on, because if you say one driver is more talented than another, then that driver gets frustrated.
Sportsmanship extends to how well the driver gets on, on track, and with his or her competitors.
The accessibility and conduct during the month was always going to be a massive gap between Alonso and Jones. One was involved in so many media activities and going around the garage at random; the other was staring right across from his garage.
There were several times it seemed Jones would have been worthy to bring up to the fourth floor press conference room but he was only in twice; once after Saturday qualifying, where he literally was only asked one question, while Alonso had six formal availabilities on the fourth floor – a special press conference after his one-day test, then five during the two weeks itself. This does not factor in the hour of media availability he had on media day, either.
Finishing position, objectively, goes to Jones. Third to 24th is the widest gap between the two. This also doesn’t factor in Jones’ other on-track performance successes this month – he also had the second fastest lap of the event, fifth quickest lap of the race, qualified 11th after Sebastien Bourdais’ accident in qualifying. Jones never looked a driver outside the top 10 outside of qualifying, and that was down to bad timing more than anything. Had Ed Carpenter Racing’s cars qualified earlier in the day on Saturday, or if Jones qualified later, it could have been a different outcome.
Per IMS PR, it’s “a group of current and past members of the media alongside a group of IndyCar/IMS officials. It’s a moderate sized group of individuals who are close to the sport year round. What’s more important is that everyone on the list has the background/qualifications to make their choice. There are more media members on the list than IndyCar/IMS officials.”
While that doesn’t provide an exact number of voters, it does provide enough background to determine that the voting bloc is one of people that pay attention to the sport close enough to where they can make educated decisions.
HOW DOES THE VOTE HAPPEN?
Again, per IMS PR: “Those who vote receive an email with instructions. The email outlines the criteria for selection. They then supply a first and second selection. We add up the votes.
“We ask the voters to weigh the four criteria equally. Ultimately, it’s their decision who they select as first and second and whether a certain factor weighs more heavily in their decision. We simply monitor the tally of votes supplied.”
LET’S USE HISTORY AS A GUIDELINE
That’s the process outlined. It’s at this point we now look back through history and see where Alonso who again, starred all month, fits in compared to others who were not the highest-finishing rookie, but was awarded rookie of the year honors. Here’s a few examples:
- The last time this happened was in 2010. Mario Romancini of Conquest Racing finished 13th, Simona de Silvestro of HVM Racing finished 14th. Essentially a wash, either would have been a deserving candidate and de Silvestro was justifiably awarded the spot.
- In 1996, Richie Hearn finished third in the first 500 run as part of the Indy Racing League, still under USAC sanction, while Tony Stewart finished 24th with a blown engine, and Stewart won top rookie. Hearn drove for a smaller team (Della Penna Motorsports) and finished third, while Stewart’s Team Menard team was widely considered one with the most resources at that time.
- In 1983, Teo Fabi was the polesitter and went out with a fuel gasket issue early, ending 26th. Al Unser Jr., a then unheralded-son of a several-time Indianapolis 500 champion, was top rookie finisher in 10th. Fabi was rookie of the year.
- The infamous 1981 race, which took months to officially decide between Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti, saw Josele Garza (finished 23rd with a crash) win rookie of the year while the top rookie finisher was Kevin Cogan in fourth.
- In 1966, Jackie Stewart finished sixth and won rookie of the year while Graham Hill, also a rookie, won the race.
So while it’s not unprecedented that a driver who’s finished worse has been awarded rookie of the year, it’s not something that happens frequently.
In terms of co-rookies-of-the-year, that’s happened in 1961 (Parnelli Jones, Bobby Marshman), 1978 (Larry Rice, Rick Mears), 1984 (Roberto Guerrero, Michael Andretti), 1989 (Bernard Jourdain, Scott Pruett) and 2002 (Alex Barron, Tomas Scheckter).
The last time the rookie of the year finished outside the top 20 was in 2007, when Phil Giebler was 29th. The only other rookie in that year’s field was the less heralded Milka Duno, who was 31st.
SO WHY DOES IT MATTER, AND WHY DID I CAST MY VOTE FOR JONES?
Using the four criteria as a guideline, and also considering the respective situations the two drivers who could realistically deserve the award, I selected Jones for the following reasons:
- Skill: Jones, too, we must remember, was also making his first big oval start in an IndyCar, although his runs over two years in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires gave him a bit of a head start over Alonso. The Coyne team made engineering changes this year and it paid dividends; Jones’ 11th place start is the team’s best in its history and in the last two years with the Honda aero kit, the Coyne cars qualified 21st, 24th, 25th and 28th (2016) and 18th, 21st and 28th (2015), and in 2015 two of them moved to the back row with in-week driver changes. After a strong week of practice, Jones never looked like qualifying worse than 12th and as noted, was disappointed not to be higher. In the race, Jones sustained rear wing damage from the Scott Dixon/Jay Howard crash. He’d also had his nose of his car punctured by debris, which cut a hole in it. His race craft in traffic was mature beyond his years.
- Sportsmanship: Jones was unafraid to tell it like it is while also noting how thankful he was to be part of the Coyne team. As a driver who was unafraid to admit he was annoyed by the amount of Alonso coverage, Jones pressed on regardless. Several drivers, notably Helio Castroneves, hailed Jones’ efforts: “I have to say he did a very good job. When we ran side-by-side, he was very smart. I have to say that you drove not like a rookie, to be honest, so congrats.”
- Accessibility and conduct during the month: As noted earlier, a bit of an unfair fight: Alonso was everywhere, Jones not so much. But Jones poked fun at himself after having to milk a cow following the rookie luncheon on Tuesday – that was funny.
- Finishing position: Three is better than 24. Also, even if Alonso’s engine didn’t blow, there was a case to be made he might have only finished sixth or seventh, so Jones could have legitimately beat him on track anyway – and was all set to in the final stint.
Resources are not factored directly into the vote, but they are worth noting.
As Busch did in 2014, Alonso walked into a team with outstanding resources and a significant financial edge at Andretti. He had the combination of teammates in past winners Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, two near-winners (and now one new one) in Takuma Sato and Marco Andretti. And with Jack Harvey there in a sixth car, Andretti had double the amount of cars.
While Coyne has made massive strides, it’s not got the winning pedigree Andretti does. Andretti has five Indianapolis 500 victories; Coyne has five total wins in its history, and only one on an oval (Justin Wilson at Texas, 2012). Setting aside the rookie angle for a second, how Jones stepped up as an overall rookie in the full series for a team in need of a leader with Bourdais sidelined was incredible to witness.
Lastly, there’s the question of what does this do for the series or the race going forward.
Forever, in history, Fernando Alonso will be able to say – and IMS will be able to declare – he is the 2017 Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year. But the award coming 11 years after he won the second of his two Formula 1 World Championships is never going to be the first thing mentioned when Alonso’s career is put into context.
Jones? We don’t know how his career will progress, but at only age 22, the Dubai-based Brit has more of his career ahead of him than behind him at this stage. Saying he was Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year for Dale Coyne Racing, a year after winning the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship (yes, some would argue in controversial fashion), would be a springboard for him and for Coyne’s team – which has been an IndyCar stalwart for more than 30 years. Consider also that Coyne’s team has incurred more than half a million dollars in damaged race cars the last month, and that that extra $50,000 might have helped.
In many ways, the debut of Alonso and return of McLaren was about hailing the past glory of F1 stars at Indianapolis, and in that regard, both driver and brand lived up to the hype, and the expectations.
But for an award that should go to a driver who plans to make his or her future in IndyCar full-time, it was a swing-and-miss.