They may be called “rookies,” but the new drivers this season in the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES already have shown plenty of promise and potential.
Oliver Askew, the 23-year-old from Jupiter, Florida, and last year’s Indy Lights champion, leads a very tight INDYCAR Rookie of the Year race. Arrow McLaren SP driver Askew has a one-point lead over Spain’s Alex Palou, a 23-year-old who drives for Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh.
Rinus VeeKay, 19, of The Netherlands is third, but the Ed Carpenter Racing driver has already scored a top-five finish in the GMR Grand Prix on July 4 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Dalton Kellett is the other rookie driver competing in INDYCAR in 2020, but he drives a limited schedule for AJ Foyt Racing, which limits his ability to contend for the rookie championship.
Another young driver, 21-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, is fourth in the overall standings, but he competed in seven races in 2019 and isn’t eligible for this year’s rookie championship in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. But O’Ward will be eligible for the Rookie of the Year Award at the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, scheduled for Aug. 23, since he failed to qualify for last year’s race.
“I had no idea about being able to run for Indy 500 Rookie of the Year until you just told me,” O’Ward said. “That’s pretty cool. Other than that, I did too many races to be counted as a rookie in the series, but I still count myself as new to the series with a lot to learn yet. I think it’s pretty cool. I don’t think there is another word to put on it. It’s something cool to do.”
A very busy August schedule with two doubleheader weekends and the double-points Indy 500 means lot of points will be available over the next month.
It will also be a chance for the rookies to shine in the series.
“That’s the goal from the start of the year, to win Rookie of the Year,” Askew said. “We are on our way to be able to do that.
“As far as Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500, we have a pretty good shot at that, as well. We finished inside the top 10 and the podium on every single oval race this year. I feel really comfortable on them. I was able to win the Freedom 100 last year, which doesn’t say a whole lot because the Indy 500 is way more competitive.
“But I know the track. I have the team behind me, the right engineers, the coaches, Gil de Ferran and Robert Wickens, really good people to lean on. Robert was in my shoes as a rookie, he had more experience coming from DTM, but he has been a really good asset.”
Wickens is a former INDYCAR star who was injured in a serious crash in 2018 at Pocono Raceway. Unable to return to the race car because of his injuries, Wickens remains a valuable member at Arrow McLaren SP working with both Askew and O’Ward.
“It’s been really valuable because Robert has very recent experience in an Indy car,” Askew said. “There aren’t many people out there that have very recent experience and are willing to share it. I’ve known Robert for a couple of years before the opportunity came about. We raced against each other in karts as he was getting ready for the DTM season before the 2014 season. He has a been a great friend and great to have on my radio and intercom on the tracks we have been to this year.”
Askew began the season with a ninth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway in the delayed season opener. He crashed in the final turn on Lap 34 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in the July 4 GMR Grand Prix and finished last in the 26-car field. He struggled in the Road America doubleheader, finishing 15th and 21st, before a big rebound the following weekend at Iowa Speedway.
Askew claimed his first INDYCAR podium with a third-place finish in the Friday night contest and came back to finish sixth in the second race of the doubleheader in the Iowa INDYCAR 250s.
While Askew is part of a talented tandem of young drivers at Arrow McLaren SP, the same applies for Dale Coyne’s team. Palou’s teammate is 22-year-old Santino Ferrucci of Woodbury, Connecticut, the 2019 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.
“It’s been fun,” Palou said of teaming up with Ferrucci. “We’ve been really, really busy these days and not able to share a lot over the weekend because the time we have on the weekends, we have been with engineers. But he has become competitive. He was good at Indy GP while I was struggling, but when we went to Road America both cars were really good and were making progress every time, just like Iowa.
“I think we needed time. The first part of the season, we struggled for whatever reason, but now we know each other, know how to play our strengths and will have a good August. I think also, Santino was good at Indy GP and Gateway, and I will get more feedback from my teammate. That will be really nice.”
Palou was fast at Texas but crashed in the race and finished 23rd. He finished 19th at the GMR Grand Prix before showing his tremendous potential in the first race of the Road America doubleheader.
The Spaniard started 14th and finished third. The next day, he backed that up with a seventh-place finish.
Palou was 11th and 14th, respectively, in the two races at Iowa Speedway.
“Now, it’s time to push and get better results,” Palou said. “Doubleheader at Mid-Ohio, double points at Indy, and doubleheader again at Gateway – it’s going to be an interesting August, for sure.”
Palou arrived in INDYCAR with an impressive resume in international racing in Europe and Asia. But there was one series he believes best prepared him for his INDYCAR opportunity.
“Super Formula, for sure,” Palou said. “In Europe, they don’t teach you as much to get ready. INDYCAR is so competitive and so close. You have pit stops with refueling, three or four pit stops during a race, and in Europe, you don’t learn that. You are thinking about the tires.
“I went to Japan, and they have refueling. Normally, it’s one pit stop in the race, but you have different compounds of tires. The cars are similar in speed. They have a really competitive series, as well. They have Japanese drivers that have been there for 15 years.
“Here, it is a much higher level.”
As for VeeKay, he is excited at the possibilities of success in the 104th Indianapolis 500 because he drives for one of the fastest teams at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ed Carpenter Racing.
“I feel very confident,” VeeKay said. “I know what the team has done in the past few years. The car will just be great, and it will make driving a whole lot easier and a lot more fun. It will be a very good week.
“We have talked about Indy already. Indy is the priority. Everyone is looking forward to that race. I have some tips and tricks already from Ed, but the most learning will come from the practice sessions before the race.”
Also, the INDYCAR Harvest GP on Oct. 2-3 is scheduled to be a doubleheader, and that gives VeeKay confidence of two more chances at a good finish after his fifth-place effort on July 4.
“Indy has been my best track so far in INDYCAR,” VeeKay said. “It’s the only race I’ve been lucky. Two extra races at Indy is a great alternative, and it’s right in our backyard.”