This was not an easy year for the rookies. Every rookie in INDYCAR has to adapt to the new car, even those who came up the ladder. This year though 2020 threw a couple of twists at them. This wasn’t the INDYCAR of 2019 with some slight modifications, the Rookies were now with an Aeroscreen that no one had used before. Of course a schedule changed by COVID-19 hindered any on-track or off-track practice and preparation. As the season came to a close the series had a clear Rookie of the year, but three others that also deserve to be reviewed. We had it all in the rookies: mistakes, disappointment, and redemption.
Dalton Kellett. It has never been clear to me why A.J. Foyt racing picked him up as a driver for the 2020 season. His time in Indy Lights wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t stellar. He finished seventh both in 2018 and 2019. Then in 2020 he raced for A.J. Foyt for most of the road and street courses. He never placed higher than twentieth the whole season. He ultimately finished with a rank of twenty-sixth, but this was a shared ride so it skews the points.
Truthfully I had high hopes for Alex Palou this season. While he did not come up the Road to Indy, his experience had been mainly in open-wheel series. A solid background with great showings among the various levels. This past year was his first year ever racing on ovals. It was a mediocre year for Palou. He had a third-place finish at Road America and qualified seventh at the Indianapolis 500. A lot of hopes were on great placements on the road and street courses in the season, but he had a mixed bag of results. As indicated, a good finish at Road America but other road courses he was knocking to get into the top 10 mostly. All in all, Palou finished sixteenth.
I really like Oliver Askew. As a driver I think he was going to have great growth potential, and the times I’ve gotten to talk with him, he’s got a great personality. This season was just unfortunate for him. He came into the season the Indy Lights champion from 1029. Started strong finishing ninth in Texas, and then a third place and a sixth place finish in Iowa. Now, as we’ve all come to learn, his hard crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Indy 500 left him with a concussion. Knowing that, his results for the Bommarito 500 and Mid Ohio races make more sense. It was that concussion, and the subsequent silence from Askew, that unfortunately led him to be seeking a new ride in 2021. He did finish nineteenth overall in 2020.
Rinus VeeKay had the redemption arc of the season. We all got very nervous after the Texas Motor Speedway races when he crashed the car, in the exact way that Team Owner Ed Carpenter told him to avoid. That’s a hard thing to come back from. However he did just that! The season quickly turned around for VeeKay. He earned a Top 5 finish at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, the second race of the season. He came back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May and earned a place in the Fast Nine Shootout, the only Chevy powered car. He ultimately started the race in 4th, becoming the fastest rookie in the field and the fastest qualifying result by a teenager. He followed up his showing at the Indianapolis 500 with a fourth place finish at the Bommarrito 500. Returning to IMS for the Harvest GP he got his first pole, led his first laps of an INDYCAR race, and earned his first podium finish. A solid year, including a great introduction at the Indianapolis 500. VeeKay deserved his title of Rookie of the Year. He’s also Chevrolet’s first Rookie of the Year since 1992. Very Impressive.
The 2021 crop of rookies, so far, also look interesting. We did not have INDY Lights running in 2020 so teams aren’t promoting from that series. Instead, as of right now, we have Jimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin with the rookie mantel. Both are far from rookies in their prior racing fields. I suspect there will be a quick learning curve and a lot of enjoyment watching them next year.