Thursday, December 1, 2022

Youthful Rookies Eager to Prove They Belong in Indy 500

The rookie class for the 106th Indy 500.
The majority of the rookie class of the 106th Indianapolis 500 with (left to right) Kyle Kirkwood, Callum Ilott, David Malukas, Devlin DeFrancesco, Christian Lundgaard and Romain Grosjean. Image courtesy of Chris Jones / Penske Entertainment

There are seven total rookies for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500, but the youngest four are the truest form of being an inexperienced driver at the highest level.

A trio from the United States and a pair that have moved within the past year from Europe to have their opportunity in the NTT IndyCar Series. They’ll be rolling off in this order, David Malukas, Callum Ilott, Devlin DeFrancesco, Kyle Kirkwood and Christian Lundgaard.

Part of a two car team that have been fast since the first practice in the month of May, Dale Coyne Racing and Co.’s Malukas will start 13th. Being the best of the rest on last Saturday’s qualifying that set positions 13th to 33rd.

Malukas’ teammate who is a two-time Indy 500 winner, Takuma Sato topped three practice sessions himself and commented on how they are trying to get their youngster ‘up to speed’ on multiple occasions.

“I have never ever raced that long (500 miles),” Malukas said. “So I don’t know we will see if I’m ready, I definitely think I am. We’ve done one full stint or two full stints in a practice session that we had and I felt very easy. We did 30 something laps which is roughly where a stint was going to be at. I felt very fine, physically, mentally I’ve also felt very good. Of course we have to do seven of those, but I think we’ll survive I think it will be good.”

From the other side of the pond, Ilott is racing for the smallest team in the series of Juncos Hollinger Racing. That isn’t as much as a disadvantage compared to his peers as the No. 77 Chevrolet has been on the up in these last few races.

Ilott, as it is typical for Europe’s drivers, is not acclimated to oval style racing. Not only that, but there is that customary switch that it takes when coming to race in the USA.

“I’ve studied the history more and more as I’ve grew to understand,” Ilott said. “Because a lot of the heroes out here I had very little idea of back in Europe. So I spent a while learning why, who and how. Coming here and everyone’s expectations of it are so high, it only raises my expectations for everyday. Yeah, probably after when you take it all in you’ll see how big it is. At the moment, I don’t know what to expect. I understand a lot of people, amazing flyovers, the memorial side of things as well. But I think afterwards I will give you a definitive answer on that.”

On the opposite side of being a single car team, Devlin DeFrancesco is with one of two five car teams for this weekend. Andretti Autosport is no stranger to fielding five teams and DeFrancesco has had three of his four teammates who have multiple 500 starts.

The 22-year-old Canadian spent sometime of his junior years of racing outside of the USA and made a switch heading to a career in IndyCar. DeFrancesco didn’t have a stellar second race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway but looks to build on that and turn that around on another oval.

“Yeah, Texas was a big learning experience,” said DeFrancesco. “It wasn’t really from a lack of speed, it was for getting greedy too early. I was moving forward, moving forward, we had a great car. Got too greed too early and that happened so. Hard lesson learned early, but a good lesson going into my first 500. We’ll have another race like that going and the same mistake won’t be made and a strong finish will happen. That’s what has been took away, reflected on it and reflected on it with my guys and my crew and move forward from it.”

The hottest rookie entering the season, Kirkwood was a standout driver throughout the Road to Indy. With the Freedom 100, the Indy Lights race at Indianapolis, not being on the schedule for three years.

The AJ Foyt Racing driver gets the opportunity to run on the historic Brickyard.

“A little bit like finally I’m here,” Kirkwood said. “The Freedom 100 was supposed to happen the year I was racing that was 2020 and everything got pushed on a hiatus to 2021. So April was the first time I had ever been around the Speedway in any sort of car and the first I even walked it, I never walked the entire speedway. The first time I went on this track was in an IndyCar.

“That’s the way Roger (Penske) wants it, I understand that. Like I said, the Indy car is literally built for this place, so I understand that’s the only thing that should be going around this place. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s even made this opportunity and this time more sweet with the time that I’ve had to wait.”

Along with Ilott, Lundgaard is the definition of a European junior spending his career all on road courses. Lundgaard will start lowest out of all the rookies in 32nd, but has the experience of his two Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammates, Graham Rahal and Jack Harvey, to lean on.

The caveat is that the 20-year-old will become the first competitor from Denmark in the famous race.

“I haven’t grown up in the culture,” Lundgaard said. “I didn’t really, necessarily know how big of a part of the whole culture in America it’s been. So now coming over here, experiencing it and being the first Danish driver to do it is very special for me. I hope in the future we’ll have a big group of Danes over here.”

Matt Narváez
Matt Narváez
Matthew is a NASCAR contributor apart of the team. A fan of racing since 2011, he has had passion for sports journalism since 2015 and is a current Mass Communications student at the University of South Florida.

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