Monday, May 26, 2008 Updated: May 27, 10:22 AM ET
Most rookies drivers found Indy tough to solve on first attempt
By John Schwarb Special to ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- The recipe was in place for a caution-filled Indianapolis 500, the most prominent ingredient being the race's largest rookie class in more than a decade, many of them refugees from another racing series unfamiliar with tests such as 200 laps around a 2.5-mile oval.
Ryan Hunter-Reay found things to his liking at Indy, finishing sixth to earn Rookie of the Year honors.
Sure enough, Sunday's race was a messy one with 69 yellow-flag laps, the most since the 85 in 1992. But the blame could be spread well beyond the eight drivers and seven first-time 500 starters who transitioned over from the Champ Car World Series.
All in all, that contingent fared pretty well for a maiden journey at Indy, with a few laps led and three drivers on the lead lap at the end of the long day. And there was even a hunger to return for more oval-track racing.
"I was very happy to bring the car home. I think that's a big plus for the team," said Enrique Bernoldi of Conquest Racing after finishing 15th, the last car on the lead lap. "Now can we can work on it and get even better."
Lead-lap finishers Bernoldi, Oriol Servia (11th) and Will Power (13th) graduated at the head of the transition-rookie class, though not at the top of the overall rookie bunch. That honor went to Rahal Letterman Racing's Ryan Hunter-Reay, sixth in his first 500 after an impressive race that started in the 20th position.
But there was no shame in staying out of trouble and coming within earshot of a top-10, the goal that many rookies had in mind.
"Yeah, I was so close to a top-10. I'm just really happy. Eleventh was a good race from where we started," said Servia, who started 25th on the grid for KV Racing Technology. "We had a very good balance in the car, and we were just lacking a little bit of speed but I'm just really happy. We had great stops, great restarts and good balance. We know we have a little bit of a disadvantage on development, and it is what it is, but we're happy. We're happy with the result and my first Indy and the team's first Indy."
Power, an Australian, experienced the lows of Indianapolis on May 16 with a practice crash, and afterward openly discussed the mental side of racing at Indy and the fear of disaster. He finished far from trouble in his first race and could finally exhale.
"I'm really happy for the guys; [we] finished in a good position for us," said Power, Servia's teammate at KV Racing. "We moved 10 places up [from a 23rd starting spot], so I'm just exhausted."
Others sputtered in the early going with signs of first-timer inexperience at Indy. Bruno Junqueira led Laps 10-11 when staying on track under the day's first caution for debris -- but it was his debris, namely a right-side mirror. He was ordered to pit and replace it.
Junqueira came in as the one Champ Car regular with 500 experience, having raced four times previously with two top-5s and the 2002 pole position. But his Dale Coyne Racing team made a rookie mistake in being unprepared for the fix, having to dispatch a crew member to the team's garage for a spare. Junqueira lost 15 laps while on pit road and finished 20th.
"It's very frustrating to be leading the race and have to pit, and the team's not ready," Junqueira said.
Dale Coyne Racing could at least go home with only mirrors to fix before the IndyCar Series' next race Sunday (ABC, 4 p.m. ET) at Milwaukee, Wis. The two-car team of Newman/Haas/Lanigan racing will have a much longer week while fixing two Dallara-Hondas crashed in the 500.
Graham Rahal, the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, and Justin Wilson were two of the more highly touted rookies in the class, with good cars all month, solid qualifying efforts and high hopes for race day. Yet neither finished the race.
When I came driving [down the frontstretch] the first time, it was amazing. I've never been to a place like this before. I just watch it on television sometimes. It's really impressive to be here; it's a pleasure.
-- Mario Moraes
The 19-year-old Rahal was the youngest driver in the field and the first one out, crashing on Lap 37. He drifted too high into the exit of Turn 4, working around traffic including the slowing-to-pit car of Alex Lloyd, and slammed the outside wall.
"[Lloyd] was really slow and I was trying to be patient there because [fellow rookie Mario] Moraes kept coming down on me," Rahal said. "So finally I got the opportunity to get by those few guys and I thought our car was pretty good."
Wilson felt the same about his No. 02, cruising through the first half of the race in what he said was a comfort zone. But comfort can be fleeting at Indy, and on Lap 133 his day was over with a spin of his own doing between Turns 1 and 2.
"I thought everything was fine but as you start to come out of the corner I felt the back light up, so I was out of the throttle and it just slowly came around," Wilson said. "Next thing I know, I'm going backwards."
Wilson finished 27th, one spot behind another rookie, E.J. Viso, who retired with gearbox issues.
Moraes was the other rookie to lead laps, three under caution from 136-138 when he stayed out while leaders pitted. The 19-year-old Brazilian of Dale Coyne Racing was the third-youngest driver to lead the 500. Only Josele Garza in 1981 and Marco Andretti two years ago were younger, by a handful of days.
Moraes finished six laps down in 18th, but was running at the end and soaked up the entire 500 experience.
"When I came driving [down the frontstretch] the first time, it was amazing," he said. "I've never been to a place like this before. I just watch it on television sometimes. It's really impressive to be here; it's a pleasure.
"We made what we were looking for: to finish the race. It doesn't matter what position."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.