With the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season cresting into its second act, its sparkling rookie class can begin to claim familiarity with the planet’s most diverse racing series.
Over the past four months, Max Chilton, Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot and Alexander Rossi have competed across the country on permanent road courses, temporary street circuits and high-speed ovals alike. While each has scored at least one top-10 finish, the infamous learning curve has undoubtedly forced all four to continually adapt their craft.
The quartet is locked into a battle to see who will win Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the Verizon IndyCar Series for 2016. By virtue of his magical win at May’s Indianapolis 500 that provided double the normal points, Rossi (above) leads the rookie standings after nine races with 257 points, followed by Daly (186), Chilton (149) and Pigot (97). But with seven races remaining – including another double-points affair in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to close the season – anything can happen.
IndyCar.com asked each rookie to assess his performance thus far, as well as what they have learned and what they are looking forward to in the final races.
Max Chilton, No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet:
“It’s a good time to ask me about a midseason review because we’ve done one ourselves,” Chilton said. “I’m one of those people who believe you create your own luck, but we’ve had some (bad) luck which was not my fault, which was not the team’s fault, it’s just the way it’s gone. I think the second half of the season is where our focus is now. We’re going to treat every race as it comes.”
Chilton spent two years in Formula One before driving for Carlin Racing last year in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, claiming victory at Iowa Speedway. This year marks his first full season stateside, which he admits has opened his eyes.
“I love the people and the fans and the tracks,” Chilton said. “They’re awesome.”
Chilton claimed a best finish of seventh on the mile oval at Phoenix, but varying factors have kept him from better results. He sits 19th in the championship standings.
“In this championship, you have more experienced drivers than any other championship in the world, in my opinion,” said the 25-year-old Briton. “It’s not as easy to jump in and be at the front as it is in some other championships, but that makes it more thrilling when you have good days.”
Conor Daly, No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality/Dale Coyne Racing Honda:
“It’s been a season of ups and downs,” Daly said. “I think we’ve had really strong race cars at every race. Overall, it’s been good.”
Competing in his first full season in the United States since 2010, the obsessively patriotic 24-year-old American has a best finish of second in the first race of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans. He also finished sixth in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the second Detroit race, and was headed for a top 10 in last weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America before a broken suspension piece ended his day in the Turn 1 tire barrier.
“How to work the race, how to use your overtakes, how to manage the race – that’s been a big learning experience,” said Daly, who has led 33 laps and sits 15th in points, “and just getting the speed out of the tires in qualifying. That’s one thing that is my main goal to continue to work on.
“We’ve got a trophy (for finishing on the Belle Isle podium). We’ve got three top-six finishes, which I think is strong for at least the first half.”
Spencer Pigot, No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka/Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet:
Pigot cut his racing teeth successfully climbing the ranks in the Mazda Road to Indy, winning 24 races in the three development series and earning four Mazda scholarships. The 2015 Indy Lights champion began his rookie Verizon IndyCar Series season with three races at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing before being named to drive the remaining road/street events for ECR starting at Belle Isle.
The 22-year-old Orlando native is fresh off notching a career-best ninth-place finish at Road America.
“So far I think it’s been good,” Pigot said. “We’ve had some good performances, some could have been better, but overall I’m pretty happy with it.”
Being a rookie on a partial schedule – no ovals the rest of the season – makes for a lot to absorb in a short amount of time.
“Hard to put it all into words,” Pigot said. “Pit stops, the strategy, learning about the (alternate) red tires. There’s so much new stuff in INDYCAR compared to Indy Lights or anything I’ve ever raced before.”
Still, the he looks forward to getting back to the track. “We go to some pretty cool places the second half of the year, so I’m really excited.”
Alexander Rossi, No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda:
Rossi’s story will forever be told as the rookie who won the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil running on fumes, but his first season has been a whirlwind.
“I think the biggest adaptation has been the car,” said the 24-year old Californian, racing in the United States for the first time since 2008. “The Firestone tire has a much different kind of working range than what I’m used to. The ovals have been something that have been a pretty steep learning curve, and I mean as I’m saying that, all the tracks that I haven’t been to before. I’ve only been to three that we’ll be racing at this year.”
Rossi sits 10th in the championship but is only 25 points out of the top five. He hopes to use the improbable win at Indy as a springboard for the remainder of 2016.
“To win the 100th was a huge confidence boost for everybody,” he said, “and we’re trying to carry that forward through the rest of the year. I’m very much looking forward to Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Sonoma will kind of be my home race, and we had a test session at Watkins Glen and it was just an awesome track to drive. It’s great that the series is returning there after quite a long break away.”
Watch a final retrospective of Rossi's Indianapolis 500 win here: