The Best First Time-The Rookie of the Year Award

Photo- The original Stark and Wetzel rookie of the Year Award,  presented from 1952-1979.

Like any new members of a fraternity, rookies at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have  to go through an initiation. At the Speedway, it’s the rookie test.  For the 500 a rookie is anyone who has not driven in a race at IMS previously. It didn’t matter if the driver was a world champion, stock car veteran, sprint  or midget champion, they were rookies the first time they got in a car at IMS.

The Rookie test used to consist of four ten lap phases with speed gradually increasing at each interval. Currently the test is three phases. Not everyone passed, and they were told to get more experience and try the next year.

In 1952, Stark and Wetzel, a meat packing company in Indianapolis, began sponsoring the Rookie of the Year Award to the rookie who had the best overall month. Much of the time the highest finishing rookie received the award, but sometimes the fastest rookie qualifier got the honor. The trophy came with a cash prize. Art Cross was  the first winner of the trophy pictured above. He started 20th and finished fifth.

Stark and Wetzel sponsored the award through 1979. From 1980-1988, American Fletcher National Bank gave the prize. Bank One, which absorbed AFNB, was presenting sponsor from 1989-2004. From 2005-2013, JP Morgan Chase had its name on the trophy, and from 2014 through last year Sunoco gave the award.  For this year Speedway LLC has its name on the trophy.

Winning Rookie of the Year award did not necessarily indicate a great future in racing or the 500. Parnelli Jones, co- Rookie of the Year in 1961, was the first award recipient to win the race. Only nine Rookies of the Year have won the 500 after receiving the award. Three rookies who won the race, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, and Alexander Rossi, took home the ROY trophy as well as the Borg Warner Trophy.

Graham Hill won in his rookie race in 1966, but the Rookie of the Year award went instead to Jackie Stewart.

In recent years the award has seemed to devolve into a popularity contest where media interaction counts more than on track performance. Kurt Busch and Fernando Alonso come to mind as two I felt weren’t the best performing rookies or perhaps should have shared the award with another driver. But I’m still waiting to receive voting privileges.

This year’s winner? It’s too early to make predictions, but there are some heavy contenders. Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, and Felix Rosenqvist come to mind. This year it may be decided by qualifying and race performance.