Learning on the job
Indy rookies taking their lumps on famous oval
INDIANAPOLIS (CNNSI.com) -- Nicolas Minassian smiled the first time he tested on an oval track.
Nazareth Speedway's tricky little layout, just under one mile, wiped that happy look right off his face. Now he and five other Indianapolis 500 rookies face a major test in Sunday's race on a much faster 2.5-mile oval.
"Driving on an oval looks simple watching from Europe on television," the Frenchman said. "You look at the television and you think, 'You just turn left.' Then you go out on the oval and you find it takes courage, technical ability, a good team, everything."
Minassian is joined as a rookie in the 85th running of Indy by fellow CART drivers Helio Castroneves and Bruno Junqueira, as well as Felipe Giaffone, Cory Witherill and Jon Herb.
Among them, only Herb, who is from Wisconsin, has spent most of his career on tracks with four left turns. Witherill came from an off-road racing background, while Minassian and the other three rookies, all Brazilians, were weaned on road racing in their native countries and Europe.
Herb and Giaffone are Indy Racing League regulars; Witherill, who ran last year in Indy Lights, has one IRL race under his belt; Minassian and Junqueira are rookie teammates in CART with Chip Ganassi Racing; and Castroneves, a regular in CART for three seasons, drives for Team Penske in the rival open-wheel series.
Johnny Rutherford, a three-time Indy winner and now a driving coach for the IRL, along with four-time race winner Al Unser Sr., said this year's class of rookies is strong.
"Obviously, they have impressive racing dossiers," Rutherford said. "All of them came here with a lot of experience, but not a lot on superspeedways like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"This is the ultimate, and all of them seem to respond the proper way. Now it's just a matter of experience. I could talk to them until race time and it wouldn't substitute for racing here."
Still, Rutherford, who worked with the drivers during the mandatory rookie orientation session earlier this month, added, "I alerted them to the things that will happen out there. When it happens, I hope they'll say, 'Oh, that's what he meant.'"
Herb has driven stock cars, sprint cars and sedans.
"I'm still learning about driving on ovals, so those other guys have a big learning curve," he said. "But they seem to be making a real good transition."
With their limited oval experience, Ganassi, who won here last year with Indy rookie Juan Montoya, decided to replace Minassian and Junqueira with CART veteran Jimmy Vasser and former IRL star and current NASCAR Winston Cup regular Tony Stewart.
When Vasser, last year's seventh-place finisher at Indy, and Stewart made it into the 33-car lineup with ease, the car owner changed his mind and gave his rookies a chance. They responded by getting their cars up to speed almost immediately and qualifying just as easily as their new teammates.
"Those guys responded like champions," Ganassi said. "We didn't think they had enough oval experience for this place, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. This will be great experience for both of them."
Minassian crashed during the orientation at Indy and again in Japan after finishing 18th in Nazareth.
"I like ovals, but you have to not underestimate the task of driving on them," he said. "You're not allowed any mistakes and I've made a couple of mistakes already.
"Your body feels it when you hit the wall," he said with a wince.
Junqueira, last year's European Formula 3000 champion [Minassian finished second], won the pole at Nazareth in his first oval race. He was fifth on the grid last Saturday in Japan and was the fastest of the first-year Indy qualifiers at 224.208 mph.
"I'm really comfortable racing by myself on the ovals," Junqueira said, grinning. "It's very different when you have cars around you. I think I have a lot to learn, but I'm trying hard."
He managed a seventh-place finish at Nazareth, but spun and was knocked out of the race last weekend on the first lap.
"I made a mistake in Japan," he said. "I hit a bump hard and lost control. You can't afford that kind of a mistake here.
"I think this race I have to learn and learn and learn and be on the lead lap after the last pit stop. It is a hard race."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.