By Steve Wittich
Since I (Steve) have been rather noisy on social media about Fernando Alonso winning the Sunoco Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award over Ed Jones, I think I need to explain my thought process in more then 140 characters.
The award was chosen by the media, and for full disclosure, I didn’t receive a ballot. Outside of saying that I was on site at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for all 17,359 laps turned by the 33 drivers, that’s a rant that I won’t into here.
The criteria for picking Sunoco Rookie of the Year sent to the media is as follows:
(a) the driver’s skill
(c) accessibility and conduct during the month
(d) finishing position
I’m going to divide these categories into 25 points each, and allocate points that way.
(a) The first of three highly subjective categories used to determine the Sunoco Rookie of The Year might be the toughest one to determine what a fair allocation of the 25 points should be. That’s because both drivers were very, very skillful.
As a true oval rookie, Alonso kept the car in one piece all month, qualified fifth, ran in the top five for much of the race, and led 27 laps (the third most of any driver).
Jones had made one Verizon IndyCar Series oval start at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this year, as well as a number of Indy Lights oval starts, including one at Indianapolis last year when he finished second by just 0.0024 of a second in the closest finish in the track’s history.
Before considering the teams each driver was aligned with, that accomplishments of Alosno as a true oval rookie would have had me score this category 15-10 in favor of the McLaren Honda Andretti driver.
The 11th place starting spot, and third place finishing position are both the highest ever in the Indianapolis 500 for the Dale Coyne owned team.
But, when you factor in what team each driver was part of, that gap shrinks. This is not a slight on Dale Coyne Racing, what the Plainfield, Ill. team accomplished this month was incredible. But, there is no if-ands-or-buts, at least in my opinion, that Alonso had a massive advantage being aligned with Andretti Autosport, and having five teammates at his disposal including two prior Indianapolis 500 champions and two drivers who had lost a victory on the last lap. Jones, meanwhile, had one of his two teammates change during race week. That makes my final (a) category tally, 13 points for Alonso and 12 points for Jones.
(b) Sportsmanship is another category that is 100% subjective, and also the one that is difficult to judge if you didn’t spend much time watching practice from different locations, listening to the scanner and chatting with drivers off the record.
Yes, Alonso was impressive during his first ever oval event. He was quick to get up to speed, kept the car in one-piece, and ran in the top five for much of the 179 laps he completed. However, that doesn’t take into account the number of ill-timed pass attempts he made into Turn 1 and Turn 3 in the practice sessions leading up to the event. Those moves are fine during the race, but not during practice.
I spent the last hour of each practice day watching in Turn 1, and on numerous occasions, a late pass left a fellow driver fighting to keep their car off the wall after being pushed into the marbles.
The scanner traffic echoed the on-track “happy hour” action with many “not safe for work” exchanges between drivers and their spotters regarding Alonso’s moves.
To their credit, drivers remained fairly silent (on-the-record) about the questionable moves, but were far more vocal off-the-record.
I don’t remember hearing one complaint all month about Jones’ on track comportment, which is amazing for a rookie.
I scored this category 15-10 in favor of Jones.
(c) Up until race day, Alonso would have led this category handily, but in my race-day job as Dr. Jerry “Doc” Punch’s pit spotter for the ESPN/ABC broadcast, I was offered a unique look into his conduct on race day. During the pre-race, I had scheduled an interview with Alonso’s PR staff to coincide with his arrival at the green room 20 minutes before driver introductions. The Spaniard ignored Doc, our camera crew, and the McLaren Honda Andretti PR staff and rushed to the quiet of the green room. It was only after some coaxing with from his PR staff, that he came back outside of the Pagoda to give the interview.
The second instance on race day occurred after the double Formula One champion’s power plant expired with 21 laps remaining. Doc tried to interview Alonso as he walked up pit road, but the Spaniard would not remove his helmet. With dogged determination to “pay off” one of the biggest stories of the month, we followed Alonso into Gasoline Alley, to the Andretti garage, and eventually to the driver’s coach lot, where after some prodding from his PR staff, Alonso, to his credit, did give a very gracious interview.
It’s certainly understandable that Alosno didn’t want to give an interview right after a disappointing end to his maiden Indianapolis 500, and that the norms for media access are different in Formula 1, but brushing off network TV twice on race day will always be considered a big no-no.
Prior to race day, Alonso had done everything that was asked of him, and never once complained publicly, about the massive throngs that followed him everywhere. That is to be highly commended. Outside of the Rookie Luncheon, he took part in every function that was required. And because he went to New York City to do national and international media to help promote the race, missing the Rookie Luncheon was 100% understandable.
Jones was extremely accessible during the month, but wasn’t subject to the same media pressures that Alonso was. One very positive thing to add about Jones, is that on the practice days that school kids were present, he spent a ton of time along the fence at pit road signing autographs.
Prior to race day on Sunday, I would have scored this category 20-5 in favor of Alonso. That’s not because of anything Jones did or didn’t do, it was 100% because Alonso handled a lot of intrusion with impressive grace. However, after Sunday, Alonso received a downgrade, but still lead the category. My final tally was 15 points for Alonso, and 10 points for Jones.
(d) To me, this is the only category that requires zero subjectivity. Jones gets all 25 points. He finished the race in the higher position. To me, it doesn’t matter how or why Alonso didn’t finish, just that he finished 21 places behind Jones. Jones gets 25 points, and Alonso gets zero points.
Using the categories given to the media, I have Jones winning the Sunoco Rookie of the Year prize by a score of 65 to 35.
Change on of the categories to impact, or clicks, or words written, and Alonso might be in the picture, but using the criteria dispensed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR department, it shouldn’t have even been close.