By Frank Santoroski, Contributing Writer
As the teams and drivers prepare for a new season, one of the most exciting aspects of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series is going to be the impressive class of Rookies for the new season.
Looking down the list of entries there are no Francesco Dracones or Milka Dunos out there, but a field packed with talent from top to bottom. In that field, there will be three young drivers competing for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors.
Having been raised in suburban Indianapolis, 24-year old Conor Daly has had racing on his mind as long as he can remember. He is a second-generation racer, the son of Derek Daly, who competed in Formula One and CART from the late 1970s through the 1980s.
Beginning racing in karts from a young age, Daly moved up to the Star Mazda Series where he took the season championship in 2010. From there, he split his time between racing in the States and racing in Europe. He won races in both GP-3 and in Indy Lights with his sights set on the Verizon IndyCar Series.
In 2015, he got some seat time in IndyCar subbing for Rocky Moran in Long Beach, and then with three starts filling in for the injured James Hinchcliffe at SPM.
The 2016 season will see Conor Daly have his first full-time ride in the series driving the Dale Coyne Honda powered car. While the Coyne car is a far cry from a seat at Penske or Ganassi, the full-season ride gives the young Daly a chance to show what he can do behind the wheel week in and week out.
And, with the competitive nature of the IndyCar Series, the Coyne cars are not immune to winning races. Former drivers Justin Wilson, Mike Conway, and Carlos Huertas have all taken Dale Coyne cars to victory lane.
Daly looked mature and confident behind the wheel in his limited 2015 schedule, and I am looking forward to see how his 2016 season plays out.
Max Chilton, a 24 year-old racer out of Great Britain, will make his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in 2016 behind the wheel of the fourth Chip Ganassi Racing entry. This is a ride that some had hoped would go to young American driver, Sage Karam.
Chilton was able to bring on board some funding that Karam could not, so the Briton got the nod. Chilton has a racing background that includes two seasons of Formula One for the Marussia team.
When the Marussia team folded in 2014, Chilton spend a partial season in Indy Lights with Carlin Motorsports with the plan of moving up to IndyCar in 2016.
Chilton had previously worked with the Carlin Team in the European GP2 Series.
With Chevrolet Power, the Chip Ganassi team is a favorite for the Championship. Chilton will undoubtedly benefit from the knowledge of his experienced teammates, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball.
Chilton has to ability to be impressive right out of the gate, particularly on the street and road courses. He does, however, have an oval win on his resume, at Iowa in an Indy Lights car. The only issue may be the fact that, historically, success in the Ganassi organization does not usually filter down to the fourth car.
The third driver competing for Rookie of the Year honors will be Alexander Rossi. The 24 year-old American driver realistically faces the steepest learning curve of any of the Rookie class.
Rossi geared his entire career toward Formula One from an early age. A semi-finalist in the Red Bull American F-1 Driver search, Rossi hasn’t raced in an American based racing series since running Formula BMW in 2008, and he’s never raced on an oval.
After spending three seasons as a Formula One test driver for both the Caterham and Marussia teams, Rossi’s dreams of competing in Formula One were realized in late 2015 when he had five starts in the Manor entry.
As quickly as his dream came true, it evaporated in an instant when Manor signed the well-funded Rio Haryanto to the seat that Rossi was hoping for.
This coincided with the merger of Bryan Herta Autosport into the Andretti Autosport team.
While Rossi faces a steep learning curve, he couldn’t be in better hands with the Andretti team. Rossi will be paired with Tom German, former technical director at Penske, as his race engineer, and will have three solid teammates, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz.
Despite the daunting task ahead of learning a new team, a new car, and new race tracks just weeks before the season-opener, Rossi may turn out to be the most exciting of all the 2016 Rookies.
In addition to the three driver’s with full-time schedules, we will see partial schedules from two of the brightest stars to come out of the Mazda Road to Indy program.
Indy Light’s standout, Spencer Pigot, will run a second Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Honda in at least three 2016 races.
Third generation racer, Matthew Brabham, will occupy the second entry at KVSH Racing for the Month of May.
The Verizon IndyCar Series kicks off its 2016 season with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg the weekend of March 13.
Image: Chris Owens/INDYCAR