Rookies break out of the gate impressively as Indy 500 festivities begin

INDIANAPOLIS -- Graham Rahal had never taken a lap around Indianapolis Motor Speedway before Sunday. Certainly not in a race car, not in a street car and not on a joyride with his 1986 Indianapolis 500-winning father Bobby Rahal. Nothing.

It would have been understandable if he had felt some goose bumps while putting his Newman/Haas/Lanigan machine through its first paces on the famed 2.5-mile oval during opening day at the Speedway and the first of two rookie orientation days. Instead, he said there was no "wow" moment, no pause for a sense of place, nothing.

"I don't know if that's been because I've been here so many times, I try to always be calm and relaxed about any situation like this," the 19-year-old said. "There wasn't really a moment where I was that nervous or felt that I was under any significant pressure."

That's not exactly behavior befitting a rookie at "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

Then again, this isn't a rookie class befitting recent years in the IndyCar Series.

Thirteen first-year 500 drivers are on the entry list, the most since 13 in 1997 and 17 in 1996, the first two 500s held after the infamous split in the open-wheel ranks.

The IndyCar Series and Champ Car World Series officially came together in late February, ending years of acrimony, and there have been watershed moments already in the 10 weeks since. Tony George and Paul Newman, longtime foes in the open-wheel wars, signed a letter mailed to previous Indy 500 ticket holders inviting them to return to the speedway. On the track, Rahal won on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., a feat notable for both his age and the fact that he was a newcomer to the Dallara-Hondas of the IndyCar Series.

But the pulse of open-wheel racing will always be measured on the flat track at Indy, and optimism for the 500 ruled from the moment the unification announcement was made.

With 36 car-and-driver combinations confirmed for practice and at least a couple of more expected in the coming days, there will be real bumping for the prized 33 spots on the grid. And the rookie class, not always big or terribly strong in the past decade during the split-series era, could do more than just comprise one-third of the field.

It's dangerous to make too many judgments from one day, but one day is done and the so-called rookies fared just fine.

A total of 13 drivers (12 rookies and refresher-course driver Max Papis) turned 661 laps without incident, with 10 of the 12 newcomers completing a required rookie program. The program requires drivers to progress through four phases of increasing speed. (Rookie Mario Dominguez, the only one not to make laps on opening day, is expected Monday.)

Will Power, twice a winner in Champ Car last year and again last month in the series' finale at Long Beach, first got into his KV Racing car just past noon and said he thought, "How the hell do you go flat [on the throttle] here?"

Yet by the end of the day he was on top of the speed chart, running a fast lap at 220.694 mph. E.J. Viso was second on the charts and Power's teammate, Oriol Servia, was third, with both of those Dallara-Hondas over 220 mph.

"We crept up to it and had a pretty safe car at the end, it was pretty solid. I was happy to get flat all the way around, because that takes you to the next level. Now we start trimming out," Power said. "This month is just going to be little steps every day. You've just got to keep working at it, and keep the race in mind."

Several members of this rookie class entertain aspirations of making impacts similar to previous 500 rookies. Marco Andretti ran second to Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 as a 19-year-old rookie. Danica Patrick started Danica-mania at Indy in 2005 by qualifying fourth and finishing fourth, including 19 breathtaking laps led out of the final 29.

Helio Castroneves won the 500 his first time out, in 2001, the foundation of the professional résumé that six years later brought him fame well beyond the track on "Dancing with the Stars."

Juan Pablo Montoya also won as a rookie in 2000, but never returned to the Brickyard to try for another square on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Other rookie classes have been complete nonfactors. Last year had two rookies, with Phil Giebler earning rookie of the year honors over Milka Duno by virtue of a 29th-place finish in the race.

This year's group will fare better just by its numbers, and entertaining even higher aspirations may not seem crazy.

After all, the true "rookie" tag is a misnomer for many. More than half the class are former Champ Car drivers, accustomed to road racing rather than ovals, but Indy's four corners can be kind to those with road-racing chops. Justin Wilson raced Formula One at Indianapolis. Servia tried to qualify for the 2002 Indy 500 for Walker Racing, but failed on Bump Day.

Then you have the likes of Rahal, who practically grew up at the place. Even as a first-timer, he's not afraid to entertain thoughts of drinking the milk or playing a leading role in who does.

"I think so. Already I'm impressed by the speed of the car, of course we've got a ways to go, but at least we've got a long time to do it," Rahal said. "Realistically, we're not that far off.

"We're struggling a little more, obviously, because we're a new team to this league. Danica jumped into a car [at Rahal Letterman Racing] that won Indy the year before [Buddy Rice], so it was very good and competitive. But again, I'm impressed by the pace of the car. If we keep working on it, there's no reason we can't be running toward the front."

The only thing missing on opening day Sunday was the rest of the IndyCar Series, such as prerace favorites like Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon, Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan and series points leader Castroneves.

For the fourth consecutive year, two days of rookie prep are opening the month of May activities. Rookie orientation previously had an April date, but was moved in 2005 when the series raced in Japan the last weekend in April. That schedule crunch didn't exist this year and won't in future years.

On a picture-perfect, sunny weekend afternoon, in a series teeming with high-profile story lines, all the drivers should have hit the bricks at the same time. Instead, that day will be Tuesday. It's a missed opportunity for IndyCar, even if it will be long forgotten by Saturday's Pole Day (ABC, 3 p.m. ET).

So instead, the spotlight was all on the so-called rookies, and for a day they delivered. Whether they'll deliver on May 25 is a question three weeks from an answer, but for one day it didn't sound ridiculous to ponder.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.