The Hunters have become The Hunted

The Masters. Wimbledon. The Kentucky Derby. The British Open. The Indianapolis 500.

These are the greatest sporting events in the world. These are the events that every player dreams of winning and trains a lifetime to do so.

These are the events that transcend their sport and that mean more to those who conquer their challenge than whatever season-long championship the event may be a part of.

These are the best of the best.

But these events didn’t become iconic sporting competitions just because someone said they were. None of these events simply started out as the lifetime goal of every athlete simply because the events founders decreed them as such. They each have a history. They each have years and decades, some more than a century, of athletes sacrificing and honing their craft to be the very best of the very best when it was time to perform. They are each steeped in tradition.

Without their tradition, each of these competitions is just another event.

With all the talk recently of powerful IndyCar owners clamoring for guaranteed starting spots in the Indianapolis 500, it is heartbreaking to see the writing on the wall of perhaps the most cherished of Indianapolis 500 traditions.

Of all the great Indianapolis 500 traditions – the milk, the wreath, the balloons, the eleven rows of three starting the race, the qualifying format, the Borg-Warner Trophy, and on and on – the one tradition that has always endured the test of time, really the ONLY tradition that actually goes back to 1911, is that each driver had to qualify for the race. No one, not a single one of the 771 drivers to have qualified for the Indianapolis 500, has ever been guaranteed a spot in the race. They have each had to qualify. Each has had to be one of the fastest 33 drivers to complete a qualification attempt on the clock, whether there were only 33 cars entered for the event or there were 117 cars entered as in 1984 (even though “only” 87 cars actually showed up).

(Now, before I get comments about how some drivers bought their way into the field, let me say that even in those cases, it was the car that qualified, not the driver. Some recent examples – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2011, Alex Tagliani in 2009, Bryan Herta in 1995, and Scott Goodyear in 1992 and again in 1994 – both drove the race in cars that had qualified, which was technically within the rules in each of those years. For decades, it was the car that qualified, not the driver. Only in very extreme circumstances did a car qualify and then have to be replaced due to crashing prior to the race. I believe the last time that happened was in 1986 when Roberto Moreno and George Snider had to start in back-up cars from the rear of the field after their cars were crashed on Carburetion Day.)

For many drivers who have shown up at the historic gates on West 16th Street, it was never truly about winning the race. Sure, every driver and team wants to win and dreams of winning, but for many, winning was never a realistic goal. It was simply about qualifying. Drivers, owners, crew members, and families staked their professional careers, and often their personal fortunes, on just qualifying for the event. Making the Field of 33 meant you were one of the best. It meant you had beaten out other drivers and other teams who had also given it their best. It meant when the chips were down and it was time to show your hand, you had a hand good enough to earn a seat at the table.

When Willy T. Ribbs qualified in 1991, the emotion of just making the race (as simply a driver, never mind the fact he was the first black driver to do so) literally brought him out of the cockpit as he rolled down pit lane on his cool-down lap to the adoration of thousands of fans. After blowing an obscene number of Buick engines during the month, he didn’t have enough speed in practice, and the man he needed to go faster than was Tom Sneva – the man who had broken the 200 mph barrier, the 210 mph barrier, and who had won the 1983 Indianapolis 500. And yet Ribbs was able to miraculously hold the car together and find the speed when it counted to earn his way into the starting field. The video of his car rolling down pit lane after his run was completed is one of the most iconic images in the 110-year history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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On the flip side of the coin has been the heartbreak of countless drivers who have missed out. Volumes of photographic journals could be made from images of drivers who gave their very last ounce of effort only to fall short. Former champions such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Jr., Bobby Rahal, Tom Sneva, Rodger Ward, and others have joined longtime veterans like James Hinchcliffe, Pippa Mann, Paul Tracy, Salt Walther, Gary Bettenhausen, Jim Hurtubise, and scores more. Each of them had to earn their place in the Field of 33 to start their story race day and each had fallen short. Each had to wait no less than 365 days to try again. For many drivers, their chance to try again never came.

The requirement to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 regardless of your past days of glory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or on the national championship trail has been a hallmark of the Indianapolis 500 since the very beginning. The methodology of qualifying has changed since the inception, but the requirement to do so has not. Nobody has ever won the race without having to qualifying, and by God, nobody should ever have such an opportunity to do so!

If the winner does not drink milk after the race (looking at you, Emmo!), his victory in the race is not diminished. If the balloons are not released before the race during the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” the victory is not diminished. If the cars started in rows of two rather than rows of three, the victory is not diminished. If the Borg-Warner Trophy is melted down and the winners’ faces are no longer are cast in silver, the victory is not diminished. Each of these traditions are valuable to the event, but the lack of any of them would not alter the legitimacy of the race.

If all 33 positions are no longer up for grabs and a starting position is guaranteed just by showing up when others go home though they were fast enough to qualify, the legitimacy and the sanctity of the race is diminished and the race itself is devalued. Let me say that again… if qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 is devalued, the Indianapolis 500 in and of itself is devalued.

For all the hard feelings and political maneuverings caused by the Original Open Wheel split of 1978, one of the best consequences of CART’s formation was that the Indianapolis 500 was no longer a direct part of the national championship series (though points from the Indianapolis 500 continued to count toward the CART championship). Given that the 500 continued to be sanctioned and run by USAC (in spite of constantly shooting themselves in the foot long prior to 1997), the set of rules for the 500 did not have to directly coincide with those used for the balance of the IndyCar season. This allowed the 500 have to have unique aspect in terms of participation, technical specifications, and operations that may or may not have exactly aligned with the rest of the races on the CART calendar.

Then, in 1994, Tony George sought to gain control of American Open Wheel Racing with the formation of the IRL, which brought the Indianapolis 500 under the same jurisdiction as his national championship. There were still special rules the IRL could use for the 500 (such as qualifying and operational procedures), but from that day forward, the Indianapolis 500 and the Indy Racing League’s (and later INDYCAR’s) fortunes were again directly linked together.

Without rehashing the causes and events of the Great Open Wheel Civil War of 1996, suffice is to say the most controversial decision, and perhaps the final straw that ultimately broke the rival factions apart for the next 12 years, was the so-called “25/8 rule” that George and IRL put in place for the 1996 Indianapolis 500. In an effort to protect the fledging new series, the IRL guaranteed 25 of the 33 spots in the 1996 Indianapolis 500 to full-time IRL entrants who had competed in the first three races of the season so long as they could meet a minimum speed requirement during qualifying. Predictably and understandably, the cars owners of CART were irate and immediately announced not only a boycott of the 1996 “500” but that they would in fact stage their own 500-mile race at Michigan International Speedway on the same day at the IRL would run the Indianapolis 500. IndyCar racing was entering the darkest period of its existence, and the 25/8 rule put it there.

It’s easy to look back now and say CART owners could have or should have swallowed their pride, showed up at the first three IRL races to secure as many spots as they wanted in the 500, and thwarted Tony George’s plan. They were, and are, however, a prideful bunch who justifiably felt A.) they had been greatly wronged, and B.) that Tony George was holding the Indianapolis 500 hostage, using it as a pawn for his personal gain.

The point of this history lesson is not to debate the causes of The Split or try to convince anyone of who was wrong and who was right. Instead, the point is simply to acknowledge that the 25/8 rule was considered such an egregious betrayal of everything the Indianapolis 500 stood for that car owners such as Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, and Carl Haas (who ran Michael Andretti’s car at that time) were willing to walk away from the greatest race in the world and play their part in tearing apart IndyCar racing in protest of the rule. The 25/8 rule of guaranteed starting positions was a terrible decision in 1996, and implementation of this or any variation of this rule in the future would be just as terrible!

Given the stratospheric budgets and talent pools that the CART teams had in the mid 1990s, it is not difficult to see why Tony George felt he needed to protect the teams who were part of the IRL. With 33 positions open for grabs, it’s likely the Indianapolis 500 would have been largely dominated by CART teams. Teams like Scandia Racing, Treadway Racing, Pagan Racing, Hemelgarn, and so many others who made up the field in 1996 would have again been fighting for the last positions while Penske, Ganassi, Newman Haas, Player’s Forsythe, and so on would have run the table. The CART teams were considered the hunters. And the hunted need protection from the hunters who weren’t part of the full-season IRL.

Fast forward 23 years, a reunification, and a generation of lost opportunities later, the same owners who were protected against – namely Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi, along with now-owner Michael Andretti – suddenly think it best to guarantee their spots into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The same men who 23 years ago felt they were being persecuted and unfairly kept from having a fair shot at qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 are now wanting the same protections they previously felt were so unfair. The hunters now feel they have indeed become the hunted.

I’ve read the stories and seen the quotes. I saw Michael Andretti recently say in an Indy Star article, “It’s way different. That was to try and keep the CART guys from coming over and all of that stuff. It was political reasons for all that stuff. Here, it’s about the survival of the sport. Big difference.”

To me, that’s just spin. Michael is using specifics words to try to suggest the general concept isn’t the same. What he is really saying agrees with my argument. What he is really saying is, “That was to try to keep the non-IRL guys from taking spots from the full-time IRL guys.” What he’s promoting now would be, “This is to try to keep the non-IndyCar guys from taking spots from the full-time IndyCar guys.” See the difference? Yeah, me neither.

I absolutely understand the economics of IndyCar racing are far, far different in 2019 than they were in 1996. In the mid-1990s, IndyCar racing was on top of its game and rivaled the biggest racing series worldwide. Car counts were high, budgets were through the roof, competition among chassis, engines, and tires were going crazy, and crowds were massive. It was the best of times for IndyCar racing, and the budgets were easy(er) to come by. In today’s climate, IndyCar racing often fails to make a ripple in the mainstream sports landscape, and securing full-time, big dollar budgets in significantly more difficult. It might be better than it has been, but it’s still very difficult. I get that, and I am completely sympathetic to the owner’s plight.

However, devaluing the starting positions for the Indianapolis 500 is not the way to bring increased value to the owners of today’s IndyCar teams. It was wrong for NASCAR to guarantee it’s biggest drivers spots in the Daytona 500, and it would be wrong for INDYCAR to do likewise for the Indianapolis 500.

Qualifying procedures for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 were announced on February 28 of this year. Every team was apprised of the current format and started from equal footing of knowing the rules. No team should be unaware of the rules. No team should fail to know what time practices are, how long they have to practice, or what time qualifications conclude. There are no excuses.

Last year, James Hinchcliffe and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing failed to make the field for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 because they were not prepared and ready to do so. Did they have some bad luck by being forced to make their first qualifying attempt immediately after the rain on Saturday? Sure. But they had a second chance to qualify and didn’t have the car in shape to do so. They thought they would then have a third shot to qualify but, inexplicably, they didn’t know qualifying ended at 5:50 rather than 6:00. In the end, they were on the outside looking in. Thirty three teams knew the rules and the procedures and had their cars ready to go with sufficient speed when it was time to go. Hichcliffe’s team was not one of those 33 cars, and he ended up watching the race from the sideline. And yet, Arrow stood by the team’s side, eventually substantially increasing their involvement – and investment – with SPM to its team title role today.

In 1995, Roger Penske’s team had the same amount of time as everyone else to get their cars up to speed and qualify for the race. The team consisted of the winners of the previous three Indianapolis 500s and should have had no problem qualifying for the race. They got beat. They got beat badly. They out-strategized themselves and chased the rabbit down the hole for too long. When the final gun sounded, Emerson Fittipaldi was bumped by Eddie Cheever and Little Al didn’t have the speed to qualify. With four wins between them, including Unser as the defending race winner and national champion, Team Penske of 1995, of all teams, would have been worth of a guaranteed starting spot. But Roger Penske knew his team had not been good enough in those days and he respectfully honored the way Month of May played out. Penske did not ask for a winner’s provisional or try to buy other cars to get his drivers or his sponsors into the race. And yet, Marlboro stood by the team’s side for another 14 years until 2010, long after the ramifications of not qualifying in 1995 had passed.

We can continue going down the list of drivers who have been bumped who could have made the claim they deserved a guaranteed spot. Bobby Rahal was the defending national champion and a former race winner when he was bumped in 1993. A year later, he came back and was on the verge of being bumped again when he had to abandon the woefully underpowered Honda engine because a guaranteed spot was still not his. Seeing the writing on the wall and knowing his sponsor would not look kindly upon being left out for a second year in a row, Rahal made the changes necessary (in this case hopping into a Penske-Ilmor) to get into the field and keep his sponsor happy. Miller stood by the team’s side for nearly another decade as an invaluable sponsor.

In the same story linked above, Andretti claims that after Ryan Hunter-Reay was bumped from the field in 2011, he found it necessary to buy a qualified car for RHR (in that case, it was the qualified car of Bruno Junquiera from AJ Foyt Racing) or DHL would have been gone as a sponsor. Perhaps that is the case. It is my firm belief, however, that no sponsor should ever be sold on the basis of a guaranteed spot in the Indianapolis 500. If that is the case, the sale of the sponsorship has been done wrong. Just as Miller, Marlboro, and Arrow hung around with their teams after bitter disappointments at Indianapolis, one would have hoped that DHL would have done likewise. Quite honestly, I greatly appreciated the candor of Arrow last year when they said they did not want the notoriety and bad feelings that would have come from buying out a qualified car at the expense of another sponsor and driver who had successfully qualified.

It’s difficult to say where this topic will go. Owners such as Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti have a lot of pull when it comes to the direction of IndyCar racing, and they are all already on the record as saying entrants who commit full-time to the NTT IndyCar Series should be given protections for its biggest race. Even Robin Miller, who I never would have dreamt would go for this idea, has come out and said it might be time. Thankfully, while Andretti has suggested that INDYCAR President Jay Frye is on board with guaranteed entries, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles suggests that might not be entirely true.

But while the owners are for the protected starting spots, IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 fans are vehemently against it. A very unscientific Twitter poll by the Indianapolis Star recently suggested that 85% of fans (out of over 1,600 responses) do not want to see entrants guaranteed a starting position in the Indianapolis 500. I’m honestly surprised 15% were in favor.

Mark Miles has said there is no chance there will be a change in this year’s rules to allow guaranteed starting positions to full-time IndyCar regulars. He would not make such a commitment to future years though. As such, it feels like the writing is already on the wall in spite of the overwhelming statement from fans as being against the idea. If, or perhaps when, that day comes, it will be a very sad day for fans and a true stain on the great institution of the Indianapolis 500.

2 thoughts on “The Hunters have become The Hunted

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