Standard six first-timers plus Kurt Busch to fight for Indy 500 rookie glory

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Essentially, there are six traditional rookies, and one rookie in name only for a total of seven first-timers in the 98th Indianapolis 500.

The six, you’d say, standard rookies are Jack Hawksworth, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Huertas, Sage Karam, Martin Plowman and James Davison.

The seventh is 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch, whose attempt at the 1,100-mile double is a feat unto itself.

But for the “standard six,” it’s a mix of Indy Lights graduates and European ladder formula drivers who’ve made the move stateside. For both Aleshin and Huertas, Sunday marks their first ever oval race.

The natural transition for the other four exists as all four have past Freedom 100 experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indy Lights. Karam’s third place in 2013 was the best finish by that quartet.

Discovering the speed and tow differential, as well as making their first oval pit stops in the Verizon IndyCar Series, are key adjustments for Lights graduates.

“I felt like I had to learn all over again,” said Karam, who starts 31st. “I transferred the place, and reference points, but that was it.”

Added Hawksworth, who starts 13th, “In Lights it was much easier to follow and you could keep it flat. You get a better draft in Lights. But the draft in IndyCar is much bigger, because there’s a bigger hole punched in the air.”

Busch and Hawksworth, the two highest starting rookies in 12th and 13th, have each had their first unscheduled appointment with the wall this month. Busch admitted for his accident he made a mistake; Hawksworth shook his off rather quickly, and was more concerned about his limited track time (he missed several days of practice).

“You can’t linger on it,” Hawksworth said. “You have to move on and the guys did great to build it back up. It’s been tough more because of the weather, the accident, and the fact we didn’t run on Sunday.”

“You never fully get comfortable,” added Plowman, who rolls off 29th. “The second you do, and you saw what happened with Kurt Busch, and you see his experience level, and you let your guard down and it bites you in the backside. It was a reminder, that although there haven’t been many crashes, bad things can happen to anyone.”

If Busch and Hawksworth have crashed, and Karam nearly crashed despite a ridiculously good save during Carb Day practice, that might leave the other four as those who eventually will crash at IMS… or so goes the saying, anyway.

Aleshin, the Russian rookie, seems to be flirting dangerously with that line of ridiculously fast and ridiculously close to hitting the wall. Huertas is more methodical in his development, but the Colombian rookie has expressed that Turn 1 has been the toughest for him thus far.

Aleshin described that the schedule this month for drivers, especially ones who have never been through the process of the month of May before, is absolutely draining – but worth it.

“If you were to see my schedule, I promise you that you wouldn’t want to be a racing driver,” he opined. “It’s been tough. I have no time to myself at all, but this is good. It shows how important this race is, how much press attention it has, how many spectators are coming. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Davison, the Australian, described that as rookies, while they are here to learn and develop, they’re not here to simply ride around and fill the field of 33.

“Initially in the ROP, the speed and the G’s felt a little foreign,” he said. “But I quickly got used to it. Then, you’re almost to the point where doing 230+ mph feels slow. We’re not here to circulate. We’re here to get a result in an ideal world.”

Here’s a quick bullet point primer on all seven, as they seek the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in IndyCar’s most prestigious race.

  • Kurt Busch, Las Vegas, Nev., No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. Starts 12th; 2013: NASCAR
  • Jack Hawksworth, Bradford, England, No. 98 BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian Honda. Starts 13th; 2013: Indy Lights
  • Mikhail Aleshin, Moscow, Russia, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. Starts 15th; 2013: Formula Renault 3.5 Series
  • Carlos Huertas, Bogota, Colombia, No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Starts 21st; 2013: Formula Renault 3.5 Series
  • James Davison, Melbourne, Australia. No. 33 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet. Starts 28th; 2013: IndyCar (two starts)
  • Martin Plowman, Tamworth, England. No. 41 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Honda. Starts 29th; 2013: FIA World Endurance Championship
  • Sage Karam, Nazareth, Pa. No. 22 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing/Kingdom Racing with Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Starts 31st; 2013: Indy Lights

Even with half the purse and no fans, Indy 500 still has major team value

Indy 500 purse fans
Joe Skibinski / IndyCar
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Even with reportedly half the purse and no fans in attendance, NTT IndyCar Series driver-owner Ed Carpenter believes it remains “absolutely critical” to hold the 104th Indy 500.

“Far and away it’s what makes and breaks our season as teams,” the Ed Carpenter Racing namesake told reporters during a Zoom media availability last week. “It’s the most important event to our partners. It 100 percent sucks not having fans there and not even being able to have the experience with our partners in full being there. But it’s necessary.

“We’ve got to look at all the hard decisions now of what we have to do to be in a position to have fans in 2021. It’s critical for the health of the teams that we have this race to make sure we have teams back here next year. That sounds a little dramatic, but that’s the reality.

HOW TO WATCH THE INDY 500 ON NBCDetails for the Aug. 23 race

DAILY INDY 500 SCHEDULEClick here for all on-track activity in August at Indy

“We live in not only a very volatile world right now, but our industry and motorsport in general, it’s not an easy business to operate. When you lose your marquee event, it’s a lot different than looking at losing Portland on the schedule or Barber. They’re in totally different atmospheres as far as the importance to us and our partners.”

Robin Miller reported on RACER.com that IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske told team owners last week the purse for the postponed Indianapolis 500 was slashed from $15 to $7.5 million. Miller reported holding the Aug. 23 race (1 p.m. ET, NBC) would be a $20 million hit to the bottom line.

Carpenter still is supportive of Penske’s “outstanding job” of leading the series through the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Even with a 50 percent purse reduction, the Indy 500 remains the linchpin of teams’ economic viability.

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The schedule has taken many hits with the cancellation of races at Barber Motorsports Park, Circuit of the Americas, Detroit, Portland International Raceway, Laguna Seca and Toronto, and another race weekend doubleheader at Mid-Ohio has been indefinitely postponed.

That leaves the 2020 slate at 12 confirmed races of an original 17, which has raised questions about how many races teams need to fulfill sponsor obligations.

“It’s a moving target,” said Carpenter, who announced the U.S. Space Force as a new sponsor for the Indy 500. “I think we’ve been pretty blessed as a team with the level of commitment of our partners and their understanding of COVID-19 and the impact on our schedule, our contracts.

“All of it is out of our control, out of the series’ control, the promoter’s control. At the end of the day is there a firm number (of races) I can give? No. But definitely every one that we lose, it does make it harder to continue having those conversations.

I think everyone’s as confident as you can be right now with what we have in front of us with what’s remaining on the schedule. Things are so fluid, it changes day-to-day, let alone week-to-week. We just have to take it as it comes. Right now the focus is on the 500 and maximizing this month to the best we possibly can given the situation.”

That’ll be hard this month for Carpenter, who grew up in Indianapolis and is the stepson of Tony George, whose family owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway for decades.

Having spent a lifetime around the Brickyard, Carpenter will feel the ache of missing fans as he races in his 17th Indy 500.

Ed Carpenter, shown racing his No. 20 Dallara-Chevrolet at Iowa Speedway last month, led a race-high 65 laps and finished second in the 2018 Indy 500 (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“Over that time you develop relationships that are centered around standing outside of your garage in Gasoline Alley,” he said. “It stinks, it sucks that we don’t get to share that passion we all have that is the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately it’s the reality we’re in right now.

I think this is the best that we can do unfortunately. Without a doubt it’s going to be a different environment. You’re going to be missing the sounds and a lot of the sights and colors. For sure I’ve thought about it. It’s going to be a different morning, different lead-in to the race. After 16 of them, you have a cadence and anticipation for the buildup. That’s all going to be different this year.

“I’m confident it’s not going to affect the type of show we put on or the excitement and how aggressive we are fighting for an Indy 500 win. It’s still going to mean the same thing. We’re just not going to have our fans to celebrate with after the fact. But it’s going to be historic.”