- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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What exactly constitutes a rookie driver? At the Indianapolis 500, it's clear-cut -- a rookie is a first-time participant in the Memorial Day weekend classic. But for the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series, rookie status is less concrete.
Just ask Darren Manning, the first-year IndyCar driver. The 29-year old Englishman is eligible for Rookie of the Year honors at Indianapolis, but not for the overall season.
"It's a bit confusing, isn't it?" asked Manning, who will miss out on competing for the $50,000 prize that Bombardier awards to the IRL's overall top rookie. "At least there's 25 grand to play for at Indy (the Bank One Rookie of the Year award)."
The IRL states that a rookie is "a driver who has competed in three or fewer IRL, CART or Formula One races in any one season or five or fewer in (their) career."
The fact that Manning ran a full season of CART Champ Cars in 2003 excludes him from contention for the IRL's top rookie award despite the fact that before joining Target Ganassi Racing in the IRL this year, Manning had only run three open-wheel oval races in his lifetime.
Manning's extensive high-speed experience in open-wheel cars also exempted him from having to take a rookie orientation test, something that every Indy rookie from Jim Clark to Nigel Mansell had to do until recently. The determination of whether an applicant must take such a driver's test is made by the IRL.
The IRL's policy on rookies was tested and quietly modified in 2000 when Chip Ganassi sparked the return of the absent CART teams to the Indianapolis 500. Given that Ganassi's Champ Car driver Juan Pablo Montoya had won seven races (including three on ovals) on his way to the 1999 CART championship, it seemed ludicrous to call him a rookie, so the rookie test was waived. Legend has it that Montoya was foot-to-the-floor flat from the time he left the pits and he famously went on to score a dominant victory in the 500 -- claiming the $25,000 Indy rookie prize in the process. A year later, Helio Castroneves repeated Montoya's feat in his first Indianapolis start.
In terms of how the IndyCar Series has evolved, Manning is by far the most experienced and qualified of this year's rookie crop. He got his Champ Car break by making a one-off start for Dale Coyne Racing on the English Rockingham oval in 2002, and he competed the full CART season for Walker Racing in 2003, finishing ninth in the standings while running the unfavored Reynard chassis.
With CART phasing ovals from its schedule, Manning made only two oval starts during his year in Champ Cars, highlighted by a strong run to fourth place at Milwaukee. His only other prior oval experience was a handful of starts in Britain's ASCAR stock car racing series. It was enough to catch the eye of known talent spotter Chip Ganassi when the death of Tony Renna left an open seat with Ganassi's championship-winning IRL team. Manning has responded well, finishing in the top 10 in all three of his IndyCar races to date.
Ed Carpenter is the only one of the five Indy rookies who came up the old fashioned way, on oval tracks through midgets and sprint cars. Carpenter, who has the distinction of being IRL founder (and Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO) Tony George's stepson, then branched out into the IRL's brand new rear-engine development Infiniti Pro Series in 2003, winning three races including the inaugural Freedom 100 at Indianapolis. Late in the season, he ran three IndyCar Series events for PDM Racing and the 23-year-old made enough of an impression to land the second seat this year at Red Bull Cheever Racing.
You'd think that Larry Foyt, the 26-year-old son of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt, would have risen through the ranks the same way. But Larry took the modern method, starting in karts and Formula Ford 2000 before making a philosophical shift to ASA stock cars. Larry Foyt spent time as an owner/driver in the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series, but last year, A.J. brought Larry into the family fold to campaign a Dodge in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series.
Larry tested an IRL car at Texas and Pikes Peak in the late '90s (passing his rookie orientation test, incidentally) before veering into stock cars. He says the chance to run for his famous father at Indy is a dream come true -- especially since his No. 41 Panoz G Force/Toyota is painted Coyote Orange.
"Indy is everything I thought it would be," he said. "I've been coming here since I was born and when I was growing up I used to wonder if I could I do it. Now I have to get the stock car line out of me. I'm just happy that my dad is giving me the ability to take this next step."
A.J. will probably be horrified to hear that Larry's secret dream is to compete in Formula One. "I'd like to be the first driver to run the Indy 500, the Brickyard 400 and the U.S. Grand Prix -- the Indy Triple Crown," he said.
Mark Taylor is the man who beat Carpenter to the Infiniti Pro Series title in 2003, and the 26-year old Brit also earned a trip to the IndyCar Series. He'll drive the second car for Panther Racing in Menard's colors after that team folded at the end of 2003.
Taylor's rise to the IRL came for the most part in the classic European style. From karts and Formula Fords, he graduated to Formula 3 and won two rounds of the British championship in 2002. Taylor then took a gamble and targeted a career in America, but he promptly won the IPS and cemented a spot in the big league.
Super Aguri Fernandez Racing's Kosuke Matsuura is another product of Formula 3, albeit the German championship, where he won two races in 2002. Matsuura moved on to Formula Renault V6, where he was again a race winner. Former F1 driver Aguri Suzuki went into partnership with Adrian Fernandez to form an IRL team with the eventual goal of putting his protégé Matsuura in the car, and after a year warming up with Roger Yasukawa in 2003, the 24-year-old Matsuura got the nod. He has shown some speed so far this year but his rookie mistake put Sam Hornish Jr. in the wall in Japan.
Forty-five-year-old Marty Roth is the least experienced of this year's rookie crop, and the Canadian had the dubious distinction of being the first driver to spin at the Speedway in official practice. Roth competed part time in the defunct Indy Lights series and he joined the Infiniti Pro Series in 2003, finishing a season-best fourth at Chicagoland Speedway.
Roth is the only rookie who hasn't completed the final phase of his orientation, which requires a series of laps over 210 mph. Roth's best lap before he spun on Monday was 204.173 mph.
"We may be a real small team but we have a lot of experience and I think we can produce," Roth said. "It's good to get the spin out of the way and that's the best way to do it -- without hitting anything."
Luis Diaz (Target/Ganassi Racing) and Jeff Simmons (Foyt Racing) completed their rookie orientation during testing in late April and are eligible to try to qualify for the 500 if they are able to land rides.
John Oreovicz covers open wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.