They are careers that began in vastly different places in a variety of ways but have met at common crossroads: full-time rookie seasons in the NTT Indy Car Series.
The road for Felix Rosenqvist began on the ski slopes of his native Sweden; a young alpine racer who fell in love with the need for speed.
“It’s kind of similar,” the driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 10 NTT DATA Honda explained. “It’s all about speed and lines. But I had a friend in skiing that introduced me to running go-karts and that’s what I’ve done ever since.”
Since trading his ski boots for racing shoes, Rosenqvist (left) has never looked in the rear-view mirror. Currently sitting 11th in the championship standings, Rosenqvist’s career has taken him to a handful of different series, including Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires and Formula E, where he compiled over 50 wins and 30 poles.
The road that brought him to the NTT IndyCar Series consisted strictly of road and street courses – save for a blip when he drove in Indy Lights’ Freedom 100 in 2016 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
“Road courses are all I’ve done in my whole career,” he told me the day before he suffered an Indianapolis 500 practice crash. “On the oval is where I feel like a rookie.”
While navigating the curves of a rookie season, it’s forgiven if the learning curve seems steep. Patricio O’Ward learned it the hard way, failing to qualify his Carlin entry into the Indy 500. Nonetheless, the first-year driver from Mexico didn’t need the 500 miles to impress veteran teammate Charlie Kimball.
“I’ve been blown away by Pato’s hand speed. I’ve never seen anything like it in a race car,” Kimball confesses. “Once he starts to understand strategy in an Indy car race, the results will come quickly.”
To hear O’Ward explain it, it’s not his hands that drive his race car to the front. It’s, well, his back side?
“Some guys drive with the wheel. I drive with my bum,” O’Ward said. “You get all the feelings, the vibrations. You feel what the bum of the car can give you. That’s how I drive.”
O’Ward has driven to a pair of top-10s in seven NTT IndyCar Series starts, results that have landed him in the coveted Red Bull Junior race team. While the talent that won him the 2018 Indy Lights championship has been made clear, his future is less certain. He does not, however, rule out becoming an INDYCAR mainstay.
“I don’t have anything secure here, but I don’t have anything secure there,” O’Ward recently explained. “INDYCAR gives you the competitiveness Formula One doesn’t have. But, Formula One is Formula One.”
Europe is just one of the places Colton Herta raced before the age of 18. The young Californian first raced in Asia in 2014 before competing in England a year later. After finishing runner-up to O’Ward in Indy Lights last season, Herta became the youngest winner in Indy car history when he conquered Circuit of The Americas a week prior to his 19th birthday.
Driving for Harding Steinbrenner Racing, Herta sits 15th in the championship standings, despite a frustrating stretch in which he finished last in three of four races – including a mechanical issue that relegated him to 33rd place in the Indianapolis 500. Despite the letdown, Herta will still have three more years to attempt to unseat 1952 winner Troy Ruttman as the youngest winner in Indy 500 history. It’s a record Ruttman’s daughter Toddy ensured Herta would come with her blessing should he surpass her late father’s feat.
“That’s super cool,” was Herta’s reaction. “It’s sort of like getting a father’s blessing before marrying her daughter.”
Connecticut’s Santino Ferrucci (left) didn’t win the Indy 500 in his rookie campaign but did leave his mark with a seventh-place finish that earned him Rookie of the Year honors. Ferrucci finds himself sandwiched between Rosenqvist and Herta in the points standings, in 13th place.
Despite a racing career in Formula 2 and a Formula One test, the month of May sold Dale Coyne Racing’s driver on making INDYCAR his long-term destination.
“It’s hard to put into words what finishing in the top 10 in the Indy 500 as a rookie feels like,” the 21-year-old said, admitting simply finishing the race was his primary goal. “I turned this (INDYCAR) into my new goal. Just because of the racing and people and atmosphere, this is where I want to be.”
Like Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson is a Swede who joined the NTT IndyCar Series this year after starting karting in his native country before the age of 10. After matriculating through varies support series, Ericsson began racing in Formula One in 2014 and scored his first points a year later.
The 28-year-old, who now calls Indianapolis home, announced his on-track arrival with a runner-up finish at Race 2 of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear on Sunday. He has a pair of top-10 finishes and currently sits 17th in the standings, driving the No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.
Five rookies, five different backgrounds. Collectively, they’ve caught the eye and respect from among the best in the paddock.
“I think the current rookie class is an amazing representation of the future of our sport,” said Alexander Rossi, now a veteran who was a series rookie just three years ago. “It’s great that seemingly every year I’ve had to up my game even more to win races and poles.”
Graham Rahal concurred. “A talented group, for sure, and all in great positions.”
A talented group, indeed. Navigating new slopes, having graduated from the bunny hills to the most challenging of black diamond courses.
All while putting the NTT IndyCar Series, as well, in great position.
(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)