By: Tony DiZinno, IndyCar correspondent
- Five first-timers make their Speedway debut
- Talent, branding keys to receiving opportunities
Batch of newcomers seek Indianapolis success
On the eve of their first Indianapolis 500, the five rookies in the 2011 field of 33 drivers are just ready to receive the green flag and get racing.
A hodgepodge of practice, qualifying, media and social obligations has taken them far and wide across the state of Indiana and in some parts, out of the state or country.
Getting away helps clear your head, and then you’re better prepared
One of a pair of calm and collected Californians, plucky, straight-shooting Brits, or an eccentric, entertaining Canadian will walk away with this year’s Rookie-of-the-Year honors and perhaps a greater prize depending on where they finish.
All five, J.R. Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball, Pippa Mann, Jay Howard and James Hinchcliffe, are graduates of the Indy Lights series. That’s where the similarities end.
Hildebrand steps into the seat vacated by Dan Wheldon at Panther Racing for his first full season after making his debut in two road course events last season. The fastest rookie qualifier, the Sausalito, Calif. native rolls off 12th.
“From the get-go, it’s been a pretty smooth month,” the 2009 Indy Lights champion said. “Having Buddy (Rice) around has just added how good it’s gone. He’s pointed out a lot of little things, as little as paying attention to the wind sock (in turn one). We’ll shoot to make up some ground and then settle in, since duration is the biggest difference this year.”
Kimball replaced Hildebrand at Andretti Autosport last year in Indy Lights. His notoriety is his ability to race with diabetes, taking insulin as made by his primary sponsor, Novo Nordisk. A background of racing in karts and Formula 3 in Europe produced some success before he returned to the U.S. in 2009.
Driving for Chip Ganassi Racing and starting 28th, Kimball’s rookie run at the 500 has been aided by two-time race champion Arie Luyendyk. Besides driving tips, Luyendyk provided some friendly advice on how to handle the down time and rain that has been omnipresent throughout the month.
“Standing around in the rain, I got some good advice from Arie,” Kimball said. “He said, ‘It’s going to rain. You live 20 minutes from here. Go home. Get away!’ When you sit in the truck, you’re climbing the walls after six hours. Getting away helps clear your head, and then you’re better prepared.”
Two previous fruitless months of May provided Englishman Howard the necessary agony and frustration to help prepare him for what he deemed a “drama-free” month. The 2006 Indy Lights champion qualified relatively under the radar for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, in a joint entry with Sam Schmidt.
Pulled from his car for a sponsor in 2008, and then withdrawn from the field after expecting to get bumped last year, Howard avoided further disappointment with a trouble-free run to 20th on the grid. His biggest challenge on Sunday might not have anything to do with his car.
“The biggest challenge … I know I’m gonna pee in the seat, that’s for sure,” he opined. “I have the smallest bladder in the world! I guess on some of these other ovals, you push 110 percent all the time. This will be a little more disciplined. Three hours or more is a long time.”
Fellow Brit Pippa Mann of Conquest Racing didn’t need to be descriptive about her internals, but nonetheless had a series of intelligent answers to questions about not only her first 500, but first IndyCar race altogether. She starts inside row 11, in 31st.
While she is the first English woman to ever qualify at Indy, she downplayed that as the only reason she is here.
“As long as I’m here on merit, I’m not sure (being a woman) matters,” she said. “A niche will pay attention for the Brazilian drivers, just as a niche of Scots will pay attention for Dario (Franchitti). Me being a female is the same as Dario being Scottish — if people want to get behind me because it’s a part of who I am, then that’s absolutely fantastic. But when the helmet goes on, you can’t tell if it’s a Scot or a Brazilian.”
Me being a female is the same as Dario being Scottish.
Finally, James Hinchcliffe. Mann discussed how imperative building a brand and marketing oneself is in today’s economic climate, as drivers not only have to show their talent, their personalities and eccentricities along with their checkbooks.
One could say “Hinch” is a model of that. Newman/Haas Racing’s native Canadian has built a decent following via social media through his “Hinchtown” platform and giving fans a frequent insight into his world. It’s only taken a handful of IndyCar races to realize what a valuable addition he has been to the series, since he races cars on the days he’s not engaged in mayoral activity in Hinchtown.
“You have to be thinking ahead,” he said. “It’s been tremendous. Social media has been really good for us. A lot of you saw the whole ‘planking’ explosion — and this (scar) is healing nicely, looking better. Fans love having that access, and we love getting to know our fans. Those help build the brand and fan base, that’s an important part of our sport.”
Five freshmen made it in this year, but Indianapolis slayed Dragon Racing rookies Ho-Pin Tung and Scott Speed along with Dale Coyne full-season rookie James Jakes.