What’s the NTT IndyCar Series without a little bit of drama?
As usual, it’s drama we can do without. During the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend, groundswell started that Team Penske owner Roger Penske was on record as saying that full-time entries should have a guaranteed spot in the Indianapolis 500. As the week progressed, fellow owners Michael Andretti and Chip Ganassi chimed in by saying, hey, that’s not a bad idea!
Where this conversation got started is anyone’s guess — although I think it’s not really that hard to figure out — is in response to last year when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ driver James Hinchcliffe missed the show. And, lest we forget, having a car bumped out of the 500 is something Penske and Andretti have experienced.
In 2011, Ryan Hunter-Reay was bumped from the field and Andretti Autosport struck a deal with AJ Foyt Racing to put Hunter-Reay and his sponsor, DHL, in the race, something Michael Andretti said was what kept DHL in the sport. Of course, anyone who has followed the sport since the CART days remember 1995, when all three of Penske’s cars were on the outside looking in. They just packed up and went home and their main sponsor, Marlboro, stayed with the team until 2008 when tobacco regulations made them leave the sport.
In Hinchcliffe’s case, his main sponsor, Arrow, stayed with the team, and even doubled down on their investment to the point that they have an ownership stake in the team.
It’s pretty easy to see the owner’s side, whether you agree with it or not. They have an investment, and they want to protect it. Sponsors are hard to come by, and building relationships and brands take a lot of time and money. There is probably a little bit of ego involved, too.
It’s also easy to see the other side, too. The Indy 500 is all about tradition, and many are upset that another tradition would be replaced. I think in a lot of people’s eyes, it also seems like a NASCAR-ish move, and any move towards that land is bound to spark outrage.
It also brings back bad memories. I won’t dwell on the past too long, but there’s still something that stings from what happened almost a quarter-century ago. The 25/8 rule was a big part of what facilitated the divide that existed in open wheel racing for the next decade and beyond, and nobody wants to see history repeated.
Both sides have valid points. You don’t mess with tradition, and is there is one thing that IndyCar fans, and especially Indy 500 fans are all about, it’s preserving those traditions. But you can’t deny that there is a business side, and no matter what we think, that has to be taken into consideration.
I think what else we have to keep in consideration, though, is that at it’s core, the Indy 500 is still a competition. It’s still about people trying to make their car go faster than the other guy. It crowns a champion, it pays out prize money and it awards points toward a season-ending championship. For that reason, no one’s spot in the field should be guaranteed.
Qualifying for the race should be the hardest thing a driver has ever had to do in their lives, and winning it should take a Herculean effort from everyone involved with the team. That’s what this race should be. It’s about lining up the 33 fastest qualifiers and spending the next 500 miles finding out who is the best. If you can’t be one of the best 33, so be it.
Because that’s sports! The 2007 New England Patriots went 18-1 and didn’t win the Super Bowl, and the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors went 73-9 during the regular season only to blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their success didn’t guarantee them anything except a chance to win a championship, and they competed on a level playing field with everyone else.
When did we decide that racing should be different? It’s one thing that as a racing fan frustrates me to no end. I go to lots of Chicago Cubs games every year, and my only expectation is to see a baseball game. Hopefully the Cubs win, of course, but what I mean is that when we go to baseball games we aren’t conditioned to expect a walk-off finish, or home runs or spectacular plays. And if the Cubs win the first two games of a three-game series, the rules aren’t changed to level the playing field for the third game.
Oh yeah, and baseball players don’t try to argue that their minor league numbers should count too. Sorry, I had to!
That’s not what racing is any more, and decisions like this take us further and further away from the purity of it. While Mark Miles and Doug Boles say this topic isn’t even on the table for 2019, I anticipate that it will become a rule sometime down the road. While the sky won’t fall when that happens, it will be really unfortunate, as we will go another step beyond pure sport.\
If it happens, hopefully it stops there.
Pit Lane Parley
Host Mike, Jess and Matt have Mark Miles on as a guest in this week’s episode. Miles discusses his thoughts on the guaranteed entry talk as well as many other IndyCar-related topics. Check it out here on iTunes.
Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media