Indy 500: Steve Knapp Named Indy Rookie of the Year

26 May 1998

Steve Knapp
INDIANAPOLIS - Steve Knapp, whose only past involvement with Indy-style cars was as a team test coordinator, today was named valedictorian of the classy rookie class that competed in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

Knapp, 34, from Salem, Wis., was chosen 1998 Bank One Rookie of the Year by a select panel of national media and racing officials following his brilliant drive from 23rd to third place in the 82nd running of the race. Only veterans Eddie Cheever, 1990 rookie of the year and winner Sunday, and 1996 Indy 500 champion Buddy Lazier beat Knapp to the checkered flag. Cheever, Lazier and Knapp were the only drivers to complete all 200 laps.

He becomes the 51st driver to be cited either as rookie or co-rookie of the year since the award was established in 1952. He succeeds Jeff Ward, who also finished third in 1997.

Knapp was honored at a special awards ceremony held prior to start of the annual Victory Banquet on Monday night at the Indianapolis Convention Center. He received a check for $10,000 and a beautiful trophy from Bank One, which has saluted the top rookie and the other newcomers each year since 1979.

Six of the eight rookies in Sunday's race finished among the top 12 in the final standings. Behind Knapp came: Robby Unser, Albuquerque, N.M. (fifth); Andy Michner, Ann Arbor, Mich. (eighth); J.J. Yeley, Phoenix, Ariz. (ninth); Jimmy Kite, Stockbridge, Ga. (11th); Jack Hewitt, Troy, Ohio (12th); Stan Wattles, Sewall's Point, Fla. (28th) and Donnie Beechler, Springfield, Ill. (32nd).

Knapp drove the Primadonna Resorts/Miller Milling/ISM G Force/Aurora/ Goodyear car. His deal with the team didn't come together until a couple days before the Rookie Orientation Program started in mid-April after "some feverish phone calls." His only experience in an Indy-style car had been 64 laps at Las Vegas last November, earning his Indy Racing League driver's license in a car co-owned by his cousin Tom Knapp.

Steve Knapp worked with Mario and Michael Andretti during test sessions for the Newman-Haas CART team from 1989-92. Both Mario and Michael also were rookies of the year in the "500." Mario won in 1965, and Michael shared the award with Roberto Guerrero in 1984.

"That was real interesting," Knapp said about that period of his racing career. "I pretty much ran the test team. I did everything from wrenching on the car to getting the parts made to driving the truck, setting up the pits, the whole deal.

"Michael always knew I wanted to (drive at Indy). But Michael wanted me to stay and work for him. That's kind of a two-sided deal. They're great people. Mario is still the best test driver in the world in my book. I look at that part of my life as something that I wouldn't trade for anything."

The lure to drive, though, was stronger than his desire to continue with the Newman-Haas team.

"This was always a goal of mine since I was a little kid," Knapp said of racing in the Indianapolis 500.

Carl Haas, co-owner of the Newman-Haas team, supported Knapp's road-course racing in the late 1980s. Knapp and his wife, Bobbi, then started a business building engines for the U.S F2000 series. He felt that was the only way he could leave his "office" and go racing, but it took four years to find that freedom.

In 1996, Knapp finally was ready to go racing again. He became partners with friend John Miller, and they bought two U.S. F2000 cars. Knapp quickly proved he had the right stuff in that series by winning the championship. Last year he moved up to the KOOL/Toyota Atlantic series and placed sixth in the season point standings.

Both series provided him experience on oval racetracks.

Knapp, a native of Minneapolis, came to Indy with full confidence that he could do well.

"Obviously, there are people (rookies) thinking along the lines of you've got to make the show and everything," he said. "Honestly, I'm thinking that if I get some more running here, I'm going for the pole in qualifying."

That didn't quite work out for Knapp as he turned four laps at 216.445 mph, good for a spot in the middle of the eighth row. That row was filled with rookies for the second consecutive year.

ISM Racing chief mechanic Gary Armentrout set up the car so that it ran in the race almost as fast it qualified. By Lap 10, Knapp already had moved up to 17th. He climbed to 13th after 20 laps and seventh by Lap 30. He was seventh at the halfway mark and reached third by Lap 120. He fell to sixth by Lap 140 but clawed back to third by Lap 160, holding that spot until the finish.

"The team did a super job, and the car was really good," Knapp said. "It's been a blast."

Knapp and his wife are parents of one son, Logan.

Editors Note: The images displayed in this article (plus many more) can be viewed in The Racing Image Galleries and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.

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