When you're a rookie at the Indianapolis 500, it's all a bit intimidating and overwhelming.
Just ask James Hinchcliffe who's not only starting his first Indy 500 on Sunday, but also making his debut in an IndyCar oval race at the famed - and sometimes unforgiving - 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Add the month of practice and qualifying, publicity appearances, 100 years of history following you around, and ever-present pressure to perform, and a driver's first Indianapolis 500 experience becomes more than a bit daunting.
"It's a whole new level of commitment to an event that is unlike anything I've ever experienced before and it's unlike everything else out there," said Hinchcliffe, 24, of Oakville, Ont.
"There was certainly a lot of mental preparation just to get ready for his event because it's so long, so big and so important to so many people and its reach is so global. Experiencing all that for the first time is something else and pretty special."
As an added bonus, Hinchcliffe's rookie start comes on the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500, which went in 1911. This year's race is the 95th edition because the race did not run during the years the U.S. fought in the two world wars.
While he may be green when it comes to Indy, a big plus In Hinchcliffe's corner is his Newman-Haas team, which has plenty of experience at the Brickyard, although it has never won the race in the 19 years it has had a car in the field at Indy.
Canadian Scott Goodyear, who has started 11 Indy 500s and finished second twice, feels the squad will help the rookie find his feet in the race, and not allow him to lose his head should things go awry.
"The team's experience is a huge plus: The ownership group has been there for so long, the engineers, the mechanics, and the media person, they all have been there and aren't going it for the first time," he said.
"You use up so much energy just by not knowing what you are doing and he hasn't had to live through all that. And that's a big bonus, plus he has Oriol Servia as a teammate and he's very smart and he's been around this a long time."
Goodyear said Hinchcliffe has already proven he's fast, so that should not be a problem in the race. Indeed, he has garnered praise from several IndyCar drivers, including two-time Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti, who said he was impressed by Hinchcliffe's performance and pace as the young driver prepared for the big race.
Asked what advice a double 500 winner would give the Canadian, Franchitti joked: "I think I need to tell him to slow down."
"He's been fast and consistent the while time so far and he's learning very quickly - I can't say enough about the job that he is doing. It's very, very impressive."
While Franchitti insisted that rookies have won the race before, Hinchcliffe has set his sights on a good finish in his first Indy 500. That, he hopes, will put him in the driver's seat for Rookie of the Year honours. Obviously, he'd love to win in his first visit to the Speedway, but the odds of that happening are slim at best. In the first 94 races, rookies have won only eight times.
"Whatever happens, we were here, we did it, we had a very competitive qualifying effort for my first year here and I think there are many positive things to take away from this month even if we go out on Lap 1," he said.
"We want to have a nice consistent run, we want to try to be mistake free on the track and in the pits, and just run our own race and be there at the end. If we finish near the back of the lead lap or the back of the cars running, I don't think that would be something too unexpected or not to be proud of as a rookie."
The last rookie driver to win Indianapolis was three-time 500 champion Helio Castroneves, who took his first victory at the Brickyard in 2001. A year earlier, Juan Pablo Montoya won the race as a rookie. Before that, fans have to go back to 1966 when the winner was Indy rookie Graham Hill, the 1962 Formula One world champion.
Hinchcliffe qualified his No. 06 Sprott Dallara-Honda 13th for his first Indianapolis 500 and will start on the inside of Row 5. His four-lap average qualifying speed of 225.572 miles per hour was better than 20 of the 33 cars entered in the race.
With qualifying done, Hinchcliffe essentially starts the process all over again because a whole new set of circumstances come into play once the green flag flies.
"The race is going to be one of those things that you have to go into with an open mind. You can prepare and get tips from other drivers, but nobody can learn for you and so you just have to go out and experience it," he said.
"I'm trying to go in with as few preconceived notions as possible and really just learn and experience as we go, and I think that's the right way to approach it."
That said, the team will stay on the cautious side and try to make sure that Hinchcliffe makes it to the end.
Now that he's in the race, 1969 Indy 500 champion Mario Andretti had some simple advice for Hinchcliffe and all the other rookies in the field: Stick with what got you here.
"As a rookie, obviously you come here with some experience from somewhere else and the reason you are here is that you've done pretty well, so don't change anything," he said.
"Do the teams that go to the [National Football League championship deciding] Super Bowl change all their plays and do things differently from the way they did them all season? No, because they are not going to win if they do that. So, you have to keep doing the things that got you there and that's really all that you can do. Everything else will just happen."
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