Dario Franchetti (left), Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson will be rookie drivers in this year's Indy 500. (IndyCar photo)

A Stacked Rookie Class

One of the great aspects throughout the history of the Indianapolis 500 has been the big-name drivers from all over the world who compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as rookies.

It doesn’t matter what a race driver has accomplished, every Indy 500 tyro has had to put the yellow stripe on the rear gearbox or rear wing. It signifies their inexperience in one of the riskiest races on Earth.

The rookie crop for the 106th Indianapolis 500 includes one of the all-time great drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Four of Johnson’s 83 NASCAR Cup Series victories came in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But this May, the 47-year-old Johnson is a rookie, driving the No. 48 Carvana/American Legion Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I’ve been to the track plenty, but I’m just so fired up,” Johnson said. “I’ve never wanted to compete in a race so badly as I did watching the Indy 500 last year. I knew it would take me one way or the other, either in or out, and after watching the first car go by, I looked at Steve Letarte, we were both working for NBC, and he goes, ‘OK, what happened? Do you want in or out?’

“I said, ‘I want in,’ and he just started laughing.

“I’m excited to be doing it.”

Romain Grosjean was one of the fastest drivers in Formula 1, even if his cars were not.

In a 10-year career in Formula 1 career driving for such teams as Renault, Lotus and Haas F1, Grosjean made 179 starts and scored 10 podium finishes.

Despite severe burns to his hands in a near-fatal crash in Bahrain in 2020, Grosjean joined the NTT IndyCar Series with Dale Coyne with RWR.

In just his third IndyCar start, Grosjean won the pole and finished second to Rinus VeeKay in the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last May.

Team owner Michael Andretti took notice and hired Grosjean to drive the famed No. 28 DHL Honda with a multi-year deal at Andretti Autosport. Grosjean replaced 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and will be a rookie in this year’s 500.

“It’s a big event,” Grosjean said. “Everyone talks about it a lot. I’m excited as everyone is to be in May, but I’m as well super excited to get competing in all the races. I believe the Indy 500 as long as you haven’t discovered it you don’t really know what it is, so it’s hard to be excited for something that you don’t know. But also, I know what everyone tells me about it.

“I was lucky to get my rookie orientation program done in early October. That went well. I enjoyed the place. Last year in the bus, I’ve been living a lot of time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I absolutely love the place. I’ve got a good record with it with two podiums. Hopefully, that keeps going, and that will be great.”

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will be driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in his first Indy 500. (IndyCar photo)

Christian Lundgaard of Denmark is just 20 years old and will be a rookie driver in the Indy 500. He is a full-time competitor in a third Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda.

Lundgaard is the son of European Rally champion Henrik Lundgaard and followed his father and older brother, Daniel (2017 Danish F-4 champion), into motorsports through karting where he won Danish and European titles.

He was an Alpine F-1 junior racer who spent the last two seasons in the FIA Formula 2 Championship, claiming two wins and six podiums in 2020. Lundgaard won SMP and Spanish F-4 championships and scored a win in F-3.

Callum Ilott is another young driver. The native of Cambridge, England, is 23 and has so far been impressive on the street and road courses for Juncos Hollinger Racing, which is competing in every IndyCar race this season.

Ilott is a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy, and he served as Scuderia Ferrari’s test driver and one of Alfa Romeo’s reserve drivers in 2021. He also raced in the 2021 GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup with Iron Lynx and co-drove an Iron Lynx Ferrari 488 to a class podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Former Indy Lights driver David Malukas is the youngest rookie in the field, just a few months younger than Lundgaard. The 20-year-old drives the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports Honda.

He is a first-generation Lithuanian American and the only son of immigrants who moved to Chicago in 1991. Malukas inherited his father Henry’s love of racing and watched his father race at Road America.

Another rookie is Kyle Kirkwood of Jupiter, Fla. He is driving the famed No. 14 Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Racing.

Kirkwood is the only driver to win championships in all three divisions of the Road to Indy ladder system, capturing the titles in consecutive seasons: USF2000 in 2018, Indy Pro 2000 in 2019 and Indy Lights in 2021.

He won 31 of the 50 races that comprise the three Road to Indy championships. He also drives the No. 14 factory Lexus entry for Vasser Sullivan Racing in the endurance rounds of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Devlin DeFrancesco drives the No. 29 Honda for Andretti Autosport. The 22-year-old from Toronto is also an Indy Lights graduate.

He has raced and won in North American and European karting, captured the Spanish F-3 title in 2017 and won the rookie-of-the-year crown in Indy Pro 2000 in 2020.

DeFrancesco was born 15 weeks premature and spent the first four months of his life in an incubator at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. He was issued last rites many times in the event he didn’t survive. Now, he and his family regularly support the hospital.

Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean is replacing Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay for this year’s running. (IndyCar photo)

That’s six rookies, including two that are very high profile.

In recent years, there have been some high-profile rookies attempt to make the 33-car starting lineup, including two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso, who led 27 laps in 2017.

Alonso failed to make the field in 2019. After a mediocre performance in 2020 when he started 26th and finished 21st for Arrow McLaren SP, Alonso has not been back to the Indy 500.

NASCAR Cup Series star Kurt Busch competed for Andretti Autosport in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and finished seventh. He was the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.

Danica Patrick was a rookie sensation in the 2005 Indy 500, becoming the first female driver to lead the Indy 500.

Four-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves is the last rookie driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2001.

Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indy 500 as a rookie in 2000. He was the defending CART champion.

Nigel Mansell created “Mansell Mania” in 1993 when the reigning Formula 1 champ left the world championship to compete in CART with Newman-Haas Racing. Mansell finished third in the 1993 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie and won the CART championship.

NASCAR’s Bobby Allison competed in the 1973 and ’75 Indianapolis 500s for Team Penske. His brother, Donnie, was the 1970 rookie of the year when he finished fourth for A.J. Foyt Racing. He won the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race the next day.

How does this rookie class compare to others? Consider the rookie class of 1966.

The winner of the race was rookie Graham Hill, who was the 1962 Formula 1 champion. He won the F-1 title again in 1968 and is the father of Damon Hill, who also won the Formula 1 title.

USAC midget ace Mel Kenyon finished fifth and three-time Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart came home sixth.

Other rookies in the field included Carl Williams (16th), Gary Congdon (25th) and Cale Yarborough (28th).

Yarborough won three NASCAR Cup Series titles and 83 races in the series.

Three-time USAC sprint car champion Larry Dixon, who made 105 Indy car starts in his career, finished 32nd in his rookie Indy run in 1966.

Rookies who failed to make the field in 1966 were Jim Adams, Gary Bettenhausen, Ronnie Bucknum, Jack Conely, Dick Fries, Masten Gregory, Dick Gulstrand, Bob Hurt, Bruce Jacobi, Ron Lux, Mike McGreevey, Hal Minyard, Dave Paul, Art Pollard, Red Riegel, Sammy Sessions, Gig Stephens, Bob Tattersall, Greg Weld, Billy Wilkerson and NASCAR’s LeeRoy Yarborough.

A lot has changed in the last 56 years, but it’s pretty hard to top the rookie class of 1966.

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