Strange little word, isn’t it? Its spoken origin date to the late 1860s, thought to be an alteration of recruit, used strictly in military terms. It first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1892 via Rudyard Kipling’s “Barrack-Room Ballads,” a collection of poems and songs about British military life.
It wasn’t until the 1940s, though, that the word turned almost exclusively to sports, specifically American baseball. Jackie Robinson was the first player to receive baseball’s official rookie of the year award, but it had been an unofficial award for years prior. In its plainest form, rookie means novice. In more modern parlance, it means newbie.
Which brings us to the word’s modern standing in motorsports. Rookie in racing means, essentially, new to class. This is, after all, a sport that considered Nigel Mansell a rookie in 1993 at the age of 39. Nobody comes from zero experience to the top professional levels of racing. Novices don’t exist, but those new to a specific form of motorsport certainly do.
This year’s collection of rookies in the NTT IndyCar Series is a clear example of that meaning. None of the four full-time, first-year IndyCar drivers -- Felix Rosenqvist, Santino Ferrucci, Colton Herta and Marcus Ericsson -- is a newbie. And all are good, and all are experienced. But they are all new to this particular type of racing.
And, going into the final four races of the season, all are in the mix for the rookie of the year award. After his frantic runner-up finish at Mid-Ohio, Rosenqvist has moved into the top 10 in overall points, leading the rookie class. Ferrucci is 13th overall, Herta 14th and Ericsson 15th. Combined, they have 21 top-10 finishes, seven top-fives, two poles and a race win (and Rosenqvist nearly made it two with his late charge at Mid-Ohio).
For perspective, take a look back at 1964, which is considered one of the best rookie classes in Indy car history. That year, Mario Andretti won rookie of the year in the USAC Championship Car series. He wasn’t alone in the rookie classification. Al Unser, Gordon Johncock and Joe Leonard also were rookies that year. Not a novice in the group. Together, they won 122 races and 10 championships over the course of their careers.
The best newcomers have the ability to adapt to what’s different about their newly chosen form of racing. More recent examples include Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan -- road racers with little oval experience who adapted quickly to ovals, eventually becoming exceptional on them. That’s what we’re seeing in 2019. Accomplished pros, new to this particular form of racing, adapting quickly to venues and situations to which they’re unaccustomed.
Strange little word, indeed. It insinuates inexperience and imperfection. Everywhere but racing, anyway. Regardless of who wins this rookie award, its impact is already known: This class has a future, and it has the ability to change this form of racing for decades to come.
It’s a great time to be a rookie. It’s also a great time to be a fan of them.
The NTT IndyCar Series returns to action Aug. 18 with the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. Television coverage begins at 2 p.m. on NBCSN.