Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Doing It Right

Yes, this is another post about Fernando Alonso's Indianapolis 500 attempt but what else do you expect? The man is providing us with abundant fodder and not just about himself but also about motorsports in general. Alonso's attempt transcends modern motorsport. It is erasing the lines of specialization and why drivers either do or don't take a seat behind something new and unknown.

For years, when NASCAR drivers have been asked about attempting the double of running the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the same line is used over and over. Drivers say they want to "do it right." That is understandable. These drivers are professionals. They don't want to half-ass it.

Kasey Kahne expressed interest in the double prior to the 100th Indianapolis 500 last year and reportedly he was talking with teams to get it done. We know it never happened and Kahne said, "It actually was more about the team and being in the right spot and things like that."

Kyle Busch won the Brickyard 400 last July and he has said he would like to attempt the Indianapolis 500 just like his brother Kurt did. On the likelihood of him doing it, Busch said "I'd certainly look at it if the opportunities presented themselves in the right order." What is against Kyle Busch ever doing the Indianapolis 500 is his current team owner Joe Gibbs has no desire to see one of his drivers attempt the double.

Kurt Busch could have attempted to make his own bit of history this May after he won the Daytona 500 in February. Only Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt have won both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 but Busch shot down attempting this year's race on March 3rd saying "it will be difficult at this point, with a Daytona 500 win, and the emotions and the amount of responsibility that comes with it." Busch cited Ford executives calling him and asking when he would have been available to join them at the company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan (although Busch could have said he wasn't available the entry month of May and used some of his leverage to attempt Indianapolis).

Five days before Alonso announced his Indianapolis 500 entry, Chip Ganassi shot down Kyle Larson attempting the race this year and said too often the groundswell for Larson and other NASCAR drivers to attempt the Indianapolis 500 comes in April or May, basically the 11th hour to get a deal done. However, Larson has been saying to Ganassi he would like to attempt the Indianapolis 500 for at least three years so its not like Ganassi hasn't ever had sufficient time to put a ride together for Larson.

With Alonso announcing his deal on April 12th, he is kind of debunking all of the above about "doing it right." Alonso didn't announce his deal months in advance. He will attempt the race with the defending Indianapolis 500 winning team in Andretti Autosport and he will have 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time IndyCar champion Gil de Ferran as a coach with Michael Andretti calling his race and Eric Bretzman as his engineer. Bretzman won three IndyCar championships as Scott Dixon's engineer and he was Dixon's engineer when he won the 2008 Indianapolis 500.

Alonso is doing it right but there are a few things we need to consider about putting together an Indianapolis 500 attempt "the right way":

Poor Results Don't Mean You Did It Wrong
Alonso could qualify 19th and finish 16th and he still did it the right way. Just because you didn't win or didn't finish in the top five or top ten doesn't mean you did it wrong. Alonso has done all the right things. He put the pieces around him to succeed. He met with the team this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, he has his schedule set up and he will have his own test day May 3rd at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He is with a top team, he has top drivers and personnel around him to help him out and he is doing all he can to learn about the intricate things about IndyCar. Just because you do all that doesn't mean you are guaranteed to win or be in the top five. Racing isn't as easy as that.

The Pieces Are There
Gil de Ferran has come out of the woodwork to help Alonso out and if it wasn't de Ferran, there are a handful of other former or non-active IndyCar drivers who could have helped Alonso if need be. Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner, has worked in recent years with Ed Carpenter Racing. Andretti Autosport could have brought Townsend Bell in to be a driver coach for Alonso (although I would like to see Bell still in a car and I hope Juncos Racing has his number). Ryan Briscoe could have been brought in to help Alonso. If you have the right connections and can make the right phone calls, a decent support staff can be put together for an Indianapolis 500 attempt.

More Good Options Than Bad
Every driver says they want to do it with the right team but there are more good teams than bad teams. There are eight full-time IndyCar teams. Six of those eight teams have had a top five finish in the Indianapolis 500 since the beginning of the DW12-era in 2012. One of the two teams not to have a top five finish in the Indianapolis 500 in that time is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which won pole position for last year's race and had James Hinchcliffe up front for the entire race and he likely would have finished in the top five had Alexander Rossi and Charlie Kimball not been able to stretch their fuel for 36 laps. This is also not mentioning that Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has had a top five finish in the Indianapolis 500 since 2012. The one outlier is A.J. Foyt Racing, which hasn't had a top ten finish in the Indianapolis 500 since Darren Manning finished ninth in 2008.

There are better options than others. I can understand a driver wanting to be with Penske, Ganassi or Andretti over Foyt or even Coyne but Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing are all respectable teams and even Dreyer & Reinbold Racing is a good team to be associated with and in the current state of IndyCar all four of those teams could win the Indianapolis 500.

Could Always Be Done Better
In life, you could always do better and the same would be true for an Indianapolis 500 attempt. If you finish 12th, you could always have done better. Even if you win you could have done better. Alonso at some point in the days after the Indianapolis 500, should he qualify, will likely be coming up with ways he could have done this attempt better whether it would be getting more track time or trying a different set up or talking to his teammates more or being more aggressive during the race. The same would be true if any of the NASCAR drivers attempted it. I am sure Kurt Busch looks back on his 2014 attempt and thinks of at least two or three areas he could have improved on.

Doing it right comes down to how much you want it. If Ganassi thinks Larson needs more than two months of preparations than he could announce May 29th, the day after this year's race that Larson will attempt the 102nd Indianapolis 500 and have him testing cars at Pocono, Indianapolis and other ovals over the course of the next year to prepare him. Heck, the Gateway IndyCar race occurs on a NASCAR off-weekend later this August. I am sure Larson already plans on racing that weekend. Why couldn't Ganassi make it the first step to Larson's Indianapolis 500 attempt? After all, if Ganassi wants to "do it right" with Larson, getting him into an IndyCar race nine months prior can only be viewed as "doing it right." Doing it right all comes down to how much Ganassi and Larson really want to do it.