I’m just going to keep on the trend of talking about Fernando Alonso’s surprise news that he would be competing in this year’s Indy 500. As I talked about it yesterday’s History Lesson, he is not the first Formula One driver to make the hop across the pond and he is certainly not the first rookie to ever compete. How Alonso will do is still to be seen, but he joins a good slew of drivers who, upon their rookie debut, made some pretty stellar headlines.
5. Jim Clark and his Lotus Stun – I’ve already talked about Clark’s mastery of the 500 in the mid 60’s, but when he first showed up to the 2.5 mile oval in 1963, he was doing something that no one had ever seen before. Yes, he was a Scotsman diving into a field that was primarily made up of Americans, but more importantly, he was driving a Lotus which placed the engine in the rear of the car, a contradictory design to the front engine roadsters driven at the time. The car was innovative, the driver was spectacular and on his first out at Indianapolis, Clark placed a well deserved 2nd place.
4. The Flying Scot Pushing the Car Across the Line – Jackie Stewart followed in his mentor and fellow Scotsman, Jim Clark’s, footsteps in 1966 by entering himself in the 500 mile race. Stewart, who was already a mainstay on the F1 circuit, joined Jim Clark and Graham Hill in the field of 33. Stewart was more than solid throughout the race, placing himself in P1 with the laps winding down. However, with 8 laps to go, a broken oil pump forced him out of the race. But not deterred, the young Scot pushed his car over the line, finishing the lap he was on and netting him, not only rookie of the year honors, but 6th place.
3. The Curse is Almost Broken – We’ve all heard of the Andretti curse. We all know what horrible luck befalls anyone named Andretti when they come to Indy. But, perhaps one of the most heartbreaking manifestations of the curse was Marco Andretti’s near win in 2006. Marco drove, by all means, what was a near perfect race. He was in the front or near the front the entire race. With the race winding down, we saw what was one of the greatest displays of fatherly affection since the Unsers took to the track (Michael blocked for young Marco, trying to keep Sam Hornish Jr. off his son’s tail). In the end Marco lost the race, getting passed with a mere 450 laps to go. It was heartbreaking, gutwrenching for Andretti and Indianapolis fans everywhere, but it does not discredit one hell of a drive from the youngest driving member of the Andretti clan.
2. Rossi Wins on Zero Fuel – It was only last year, but it was one for the ages. A perfect end to the most historic race Indianapolis has ever seen, the 100th running. Rossi was strong all day, but in the closing stages of the race, he looked as if he was falling back. Most of us, including me, thought this was due to a car setup problem. But, what it was, was Rossi and team leader Bryan Herta calling one of the most brilliant strategies Indy has ever seen. Rossi put himself in a position where, with a little under a lap to go, he was in the lead by half a lap. And wouldn’t you know, it? He crossed the line in P1, with literally no fuel left in the car. Now, many out there may point to Rossi winning on strategy, not driving, but I encourage any of them to try to drive the way he did and still remain competitive. He had to drive, with Herta in his ear, telling him exactly when to lift and when to push, keeping a constant eye on the fuel gage. And he had to do all of that while still remaining racy and being competitive. It was, without fail, one of the best rookie outings Indy has ever seen.
1. Montoya Blitzes the Field – The year 2000 saw Indianapolis competed in the height of the IRL/Champ Car split. There has been plenty that has been written about the split, I will inevitably go into it at some point, but all that matters, in relation to this article, is that there were two different open wheel series running at the time and that the IRL had owned Indianapolis (and were the only ones competing at Indianapolis) for the past several years. Enter Chip Ganassi and Juan Montoya (yes, at the time he had not started using his middle name). Ganassi and Montoya were Champ Car drivers who decided to purchase a spec Indycar chassis and run Indianapolis. And run they did. While Montoya may not have qualified on the pole, he qualified 2nd, he soon streaked out to the lead and never, ever looked back. He led 167 of the 200 laps. He was never really threatened for the lead, only cycling back in the field because of pitstops and being challenged, briefly, by his teammate Jimmy Vasser near the end of the race. In the end, he ended up winning the race by a grand total of 7 seconds over Buddy Lazier. Montoya was the first rookie winner since Graham Hill in 1966. His 83.5% of the race led is the 4th highest percentage in history, a feat that has not been anywhere near matched since and you would have to go back to 1970 to find anyone who could have beat it (Al Unser led 95% of the race). Montoya truly blitzed the field and whatever the politics of the time were, it was one hell of a race for a 500 rookie.
Will Alonso be able to place himself on this list? Maybe. Ask me in May