Wednesday, May 4, 2016

In 2016, The Indianapolis 500 Is Not the Greatest Race in the World

As Sebastián Saavedra threw in the towel on AFS Racing's attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, it became clear the Indianapolis 500 (the race many believe, foolishly or not, is the greatest race in the world) is no longer worth a roll of the dice. Teams would rather not give it a go than face an uphill battle at a chance to be a part of a race that was once great, if not the greatest in the world.

Saavedra said there isn't enough time yet qualifying is three weeks away. Three weeks! There was once a time when three weeks was plenty of time. Deals would be finalized hours before a qualifying attempt. Year-old cars were a norm to fight to make the Indianapolis 500. Now, a team and driver don't want to go out and give it a shot with year-old bodywork. Making the Indianapolis 500 use to be hitting the jackpot and winning the race was dying and going to Heaven. Now, starting the race doesn't cover the costs and to break even teams need to finish in the top two.

The Indianapolis 500 has been stuck in the past for the last thirty years, if not more. Spectators still show up but that doesn't mean every thing is hunky-dory. The Indianapolis 500 was a meritocracy. It wasn't about being one of the first 33 people to get an engine lease or chassis deal. It was about getting the 33 fastest cars regardless of what it took, even if it meant putting a bus engine in a car. People would throw the kitchen sink at making the race. A team might have been a 250-1 underdog to win the race and likely wouldn't even make it a full 500 miles but they were going to give it all they got.

Teams and drivers would come from around the world to the Indianapolis 500 to give it a go with no clue what would happen. Now, no chances are taken. No driver is intrigued enough to come across the pond and throw caution to the wind to try and make history. If there is any positive to take away from this is it's that drivers are still interested in competing in the Indianapolis 500. We know Saavedra was working on it. We know Katherine Legge wants to give it a shot, same for Gabby Chaves and James Davison and Brian Vickers. Hell, even Mario Domínguez came out of nowhere and is trying to fund an attempt. I am sure there are another half-dozen drivers who want to be at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in line to qualify in a few weeks. It's not just drivers that want to be at Indianapolis. Teams want to be there as well. Michael Shank Racing, Carlin and Grace Autosport all have been rumored to be working on Indianapolis 500 deals.

The odds of Saavedra, Legge, Chaves, Davison, Vickers or Domínguez winning the Indianapolis 500 might be slim to none but why should that stop them from attempting to qualify and why should that deem their absence not important? If the Indianapolis 500 was just about the drivers who could win on paper then only 12-17 cars would enter each year. No one wants to see that. The beauty of sports and the beauty of the Indianapolis 500 is we never know what will happen. A driver might be a long shot to make the race but put together a magical four laps and end up in the race. That's what is the Indianapolis 500 is about. It's about trying to beat the odds regardless of what is written on paper.

The problem is the means are not there for these drivers to try and the economics don't make any sense. If IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway want the Indianapolis 500 to at least challenge again to be the greatest race in the world it needs to look to be more inclusive and more affordable for teams or the race needs to pay more to start. If it is going to cost around a half-million to run a car for one-race, the prize for starting should be high enough to cover the costs. Money just doesn't fall from the sky and to increase the purse something will have to be done, such as selling title sponsorship to the race and not at a hometown discount to a local company.

Nothing will change under the status quo. A few regulation changes could make it possible for the handful of wishful drivers above to actual attempt to make the Indianapolis 500 by turning a four-lap qualifying run instead of scrapping pennies together and more inclusive regulations could encourage more teams and drivers to show up during the month of May. It may even bring drivers from around the world to the Indianapolis 500.

I really don't want to write about the Indianapolis 500. At least not like this. I don't want to write about the wishy-washy state of a race that was once great. Teams deciding the Indianapolis 500 is not worth the time and effort cannot be good enough for those in charge of the series and the Speedway. The Indianapolis 500 was the greatest race in the world for most of the 20th century but to make it back to that mountain top the Indianapolis 500 needs to enter the 21st century.