INDIANAPOLIS – Last year, the Indianapolis 500 rookie class had a ton of attention. “Fernando Mania” had struck the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway when the popular Spaniard touched down stateside to compete in the world’s biggest race. He had a solid month, qualifying fifth and leading a ton of laps. Unfortunately, his engine would blow before the end of the race.
But, another rookie in Ed Jones would finish an impressive third in his Dale Coyne Racing entry.
Now, with a rookie class consisting of Robert Wickens, Matheus Leist, Zachary Claman DeMelo and Kyle Kaiser, they were flying under the radar the last two weeks. That’s why with what they did this month, it was considered a success in my mind.
Wickens, started 18th and found the backstretch wall this past Monday, rallied to be the top finishing rookie in his class with bringing his No. 6 Honda home ninth in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500. Wickens, even led two laps and was in the hunt to win in the end. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong end of strategy.
Despite that, he charged 10 spots over the final 10 laps to leave Indy with wanting more.
“It was an emotional roller coaster today,” said the Canadian. “I thought we had a great car, but we just couldn’t progress. We would make some moves forward with the strategy, and then we would get a yellow that would put us at the back again. Hats off to the Lucas Oil SPM boys – we had great pit stops all day. Finally, at the end we could let loose and pick people off, and we went from 19th to ninth in the last 10 laps. Today was a lot of fun. I’m leaving here feeling like I want more, but a top-10 finish as a rookie in the Indy 500… it’s hard to complain.”
Speaking of Canadian rookies, Claman DeMelo started 13th and brought his No. 19 Honda home 19th, one lap down. But, the Dale Coyne Racing driver who was driving the car that Jones finished third in last year, led seven laps on Sunday and had a stout effort in a race that he initially wasn’t even supposed to be racing in.
“It was a cool experience getting to race the No. 19 Paysafe car at the Indy 500,” said DeMelo. “I really enjoyed my time. As much as I wanted to do better we went for it, we gambled, and it didn’t work, but I’m happy we went for it. That’s what the sport is about, and we took a risk. I finished the race, I got a lot of experience under my belt and it will benefit me a lot when I come back next year. I think one more yellow and we would have had a better result. From the crowd, to everything, it’s been super surreal. I loved it. I enjoyed the whole month and I can’t wait to hopefully be back next year.”
Leist didn’t lead a lap, but he was the best rookie qualifier as he started the day in 11th. He’d remain in the top 15 for most of the afternoon, eventually bringing his No. 4 Chevrolet home 13th. That has him pleased with his result, as he called the race the most toughest of his young career thus far.
“First Indy 500 done – I’m pretty happy with the performance – managed to complete the whole race and it was probably the most difficult race I’ve ever done, you know,” said the Brazilian. “Pretty difficult, pretty tricky and the car was changing a lot from one stint to the other so it was a long day. I’m happy for the team, I think we deserved it and I’m looking forward to the next race now.”
The fourth rookie in Kaiser saw a mechanical failure on Lap 110 as he’d finish 29th. But, he had a solid month too in earning a 17th place starting spot and gaining valuable experience this month.
“Obviously, a disappointing end to what I think could have been a really good race,” said the only American rookie. “All month has been pretty amazing. We have fought our way back from a lot. We got the car pretty good and had an amazing qualifying and a really good starting position for the race. We fell back in the beginning of the race with a bad pit stop on my part, but we were fighting back. We got one lap back and I know we were going to get the other one back. We had a really good race car. We were hanging with guys that were running up front and we were fighting through the field. We are not 100 % sure what put us out of the race, but we know that it was out of our control. I am just very happy with everything this month. It was a great experience. I was improving and I learned so much. I can’t wait to be back next year. I want to say thanks to the team and everyone on the team for doing their part and bringing me a great race car. I also want to thank NFP for their support and family and friends that came out to make this day possible and to cheer me on.”
To have three of the four finish and all four keep it out of the wall on a rather treacherous day is impressive. When drivers like Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais all found the wall by themselves, for none of the four to wreck on Sunday and to finish as well as they did was a great sign for the future of this series.