Rossi on yard of bricks. Photo: IndyCar

The 100th Indy 500 rookie class boasts five fascinating stories

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INDIANAPOLIS – This year’s rookie class for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is a nice average of the classes from the last four years since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012, and comprises five distinct talents all with something of note to prove.

In Max Chilton and Alexander Rossi, there’s two Formula 1 refugees who’ve found a home in IndyCar, who’ve both punched above their weight thus far in a full season and are starting to come into their own in meshing with their teams.

Meanwhile in Spencer Pigot and Matthew Brabham, there’s a pair who have spent the last four years since 2012 battling between themselves in the Mazda Road to Indy. Both have two championships (Pigot 2015 Indy Lights, 2014 Pro Mazda; Brabham 2013 Pro Mazda, 2012 USF2000) but are only just at the beginning of their IndyCar careers.

And in Stefan Wilson, there’s the undoubted emotional favorite of the five drivers. While Wilson’s ’500 debut is in large part a tribute run to the memory of his late older brother Justin, it’s still an incredible comeback story for Stefan on his own – he hasn’t been in an IndyCar since 2013, and hasn’t run a full season in anything in five years.

Any of the five would be a worthy Sunoco Rookie of the Year award winner for this year’s Indianapolis 500, the 100th running of the sport’s most prestigious race.

And while the race itself may be fought among the traditional two big teams – Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing Teams – it’s fair to say the ROTY honors for the year are incredibly wide open.

“It is a great rookie class with five of us out there this year,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “And all established drivers and all on good teams. So whoever wins rookie of the year is going to deserve it.”

Added Chilton to NBC Sports, “It is a strong year. I don’t think there’s this many years to have this many rookies. In the season obviously Spencer’s not doing the full year, nor is Brabham.

“But in this race there’s five of us. It’s a good size of the grid. And they’re all proven. They’ve won championships or on ovals before. No one can predict it until the last 10 laps, and even then you don’t know.”

Rossi at the yard of Bricks. Photo: IndyCar
Alexander Rossi at the yard of Bricks. Photo: IndyCar

Chilton and Rossi have been perhaps inextricably linked this year, probably because both have entered into IndyCar under similar circumstances.

Both sought the F1 path, got there, found the sledding tougher at the team formerly known as Marussia and have since come back Stateside. Chilton spent 2015 in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires learning the ropes while Rossi returned to America after a long European bow, easily becoming the best American abroad and the only one to obtain an F1 Superlicense.

While they were perhaps judged for lack of understanding the nature of what they were getting themselves into in IndyCar – and admittedly, I was an early critic – their adaptation and greater appreciation for the series itself and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is obvious.

It’s apparent that by looking at them, the Chilton and Rossi of three months ago have evolved into drivers fully engrossed, fully capable of performing and fully locked into a great battle not just for rookie-of-the-year honors but greater outright results in the series.

Rossi, in particular, has not only accepted the challenge of IMS, but also embraced it. He’s been the strongest rookie thus far this month and was unlucky to get bounced from the Fast Nine Shootout right at the gun on Saturday. But he’s been clean, consistent and fast thus far.

“It felt fast. It was definitely eye-opening in terms of not having any kind of prior comparison to a place like this,” Rossi said after Monday’s first post-practice press conference.

“I was glad we got through ROP without any issues.”

After qualifying 11th, best of the rookies, Rossi added, “Eleventh was one away from what we could’ve hoped for after yesterday, so we’ll take it.”

Chilton at speed. Photo: IndyCar
Chilton at speed. Photo: IndyCar

Chilton added, after stepping up from Indy Lights, “You have to drive it completely different because the speeds are greater, the rate and turn-in points are different. I’m really glad I did that last year because I wouldn’t have had that baseline I did previous.

“You’ve gotta learn to appreciate this place, but not be afraid of it.”

He said that earlier in the week, but found out how hard this place bites in pre-qualifying practice Saturday morning. A heavy crash in Turn 2 forced his team to a backup car, but Chilton got it in the field on Sunday and will start 22nd.

Brabham's funny face. Photo: IndyCar
Brabham’s funny face. Photo: IndyCar

Brabham and Pigot are in tougher part-time situations this month. Both had the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis as a tune-up, and Pigot also ran the season opener at St. Petersburg.

Beyond the Indianapolis 500 though, they don’t have any further starts guaranteed, althought the possibility exists you could see Pigot for further races at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Four years following their epic scrap at the USF2000 race at Lucas Oil Raceway for the win – Pigot ultimately prevailing over Brabham – they’re now vying for the same title this year.

“We had a crazy year in USF2000,” Brabham told NBC Sports about Pigot during INDYCAR Media Day back in February.

“We’d always been rivals. It didn’t matter the year or series. We were close. We had similar paths, fighting out in Mazda Road to Indy.

“It’s pretty ironic that, now you mentioned that, from that IRP oval race (in 2012) and then the next year, in Pro Mazda, it was me and him again. Now for rookie-of-the-year, I didn’t foresee it, but it’s cool. We joked at Cape (Motorsports) we’d be racing together the whole way, and now we are.”

Brabham is the embodiment of the spirit of the Brett “Crusher” Murray-led PIRTEK Team Murray, which shares a KV Racing Technology technical alliance. The Australian team’s brought a lot of fun to the Speedway this month and is also racing for a good cause, the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation.

Pigot, meanwhile, feels more prepared now having had a couple weekends under his belt – and he’s already fit in well with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team.

“Coming into this weekend I felt a lot more confident and comfortable,” Pigot told NBC Sports after finishing 11th in the Grand Prix. “I didn’t have question marks about what it feels like to do the whole race, or what it’s like in the long run. I knew more things, and it showed a bit in the race.”

Pigot recovered from this crash. Photo: IndyCar
Pigot recovered from this crash. Photo: IndyCar

His month on the oval got off to a rough start with a heavy crash on Wednesday, May 18, which forced the team to a backup car after his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing primary chassis was tubbed. But he made it back out after a great buildup job by the crew of a new one.

“I feel fine physically. Just feel bad for the guys,” he said. “I’m not really sure what happened there. Before I knew it, I was facing backwards.”

Brabham qualified 27th, Pigot 29th, for the race.

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Where Wilson differs is in his recent experience by contrast to the others.

Chilton, Rossi, Pigot and Brabham have all raced regularly each of the last several years.

By contrast, Wilson’s first appearance in an Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America race earlier this month at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca driving with GMG Racing marked his first time in a racecar in more than a year.

He hasn’t raced a full-time season since Indy Lights in 2011 – then in the series’ old car. His last Indy Lights oval start came at Fontana in 2012.

“Last year I didn’t drive a single car. There were times when I’ve been like, ‘What am I doing here? Am I past my welcome? Am I going to get a shot?” Wilson pondered.

“Am I ever going to get this shot, or should I be doing something else with my life?’

“I didn’t want that to be the case, but when you’ve been sitting on the sidelines for as long as I’ve been it’s easy to get those questions in your mind. It’s good to get this opportunity and see.”

Wilson, in the third KVRT entry, will start 30th.

Hopefully, the path for this year’s top rookie ends better than the either of the last seven top rookies.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was the 2008 top rookie (but wasn’t really a rookie in North American open-wheel racing), is the last Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year to have gone on and win a race in IndyCar. Of course, “RHR” has also bagged the 2012 series title and 2014 ‘500 race win, so he’s the recent gold standard for freshmen going onto bigger or better things.

Since 2009, top rookies have been Alex Tagliani, Simona de Silvestro, JR Hildebrand, Rubens Barrichello, Carlos Munoz, Kurt Busch and Gabby Chaves.

Of that lot, only Munoz still has a full-time ride since, although several other rookies have debuted in the interim and maintain their presence in IndyCar (Charlie Kimball and James Hinchcliffe were in the 2011 ’500 to name a couple). Chaves is also working towards continuing beyond the month of May with Dale Coyne Racing. Tagliani and Hildebrand have become regular Indy-only additions to the field of 33.

With only Chilton and Rossi confirmed for the rest of this year, the other three will be looking to secure a rookie of the year title they can hang their hat on for the future.

Meanwhile either Chilton or Rossi could take the first step in matching Chaves’ feat achieved last year, top rookie in the Indianapolis 500 and the series, in the same season.

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500