Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Five Thoughts Five Days Prior to the 101st Indianapolis 500

Only a few days now...
A lot has happened at Indianapolis Motor Speedway despite preparations for the Indianapolis 500 being reduced to a little over a week. Race day is a few days away and the cars won't return to the race track until Carb Day practice at 11:00 ET on Friday. This down time allows us to look back at a few things that occurred over a busy qualifying weekend.

That 33rd Spot
Sébastien Bourdais' accident on Saturday put IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 lovers in an existential crisis. Not about safety or speed but about the field of 33.

It was clear Bourdais wasn't going to be able to continue and that car was done but it left a haunting feeling of what happens if only 32 cars complete a qualifying attempt all month? That ended up happening and the possibility of having fewer than 33 cars line up for the race for the first time since 1947 seemed like a very real possibility.

Thinking about it Saturday night I accepted 32 starters was very possible and I didn't fret about it. One, it was going to be the first time in 70 years 33 starters didn't happen. It wouldn't be the end of the world. Two, the entry list was only at 33 entries but despite the struggle to get enough cars for bumping there is enough interest in doing the Indianapolis 500 that we are going to have at least 33 entries for next few decades without any problems. Three, if it is going to end having it end because the 33rd car had an accident and a team couldn't repair the car is the way to do it. It gives you the caveat of having 33 entries but as with all forms of motorsports force majeure got in the way.

Then I thought about just allowing the #18 Geico Honda for Dale Coyne Racing into the race despite the entry not completing a qualifying attempt. The Indianapolis 500 has had starters before that had not completed a qualifying attempt, Ralph Mulford in 1920 and Jack Curtner in 1922. That's not even mentioning Alex Tagliani, who last year completed an attempt on Saturday but spun on his Sunday qualifying attempt and is listed without an official qualifying speed so it's been done before. I thought it wouldn't hurt anyone if the car was just slotted in 33rd position on the grid and sure enough that is what was decided and I don't mind it.

I understand the idea that every car has to complete a qualifying run but the 33rd entry is there and ready to go. There isn't a 34th entry coming along at the 11th hour to fill the grid. What does IndyCar stand to gain by not allowing this car to race? If anything, it only would have ended up hurting Dale Coyne Racing. The team already has to write off a car and its top driver is done for the season. What is there to gain by deciding not to allow that car to start and withhold at least $225,000 in prize money?

Some are concerned that this sets a future precedence in case there aren't 33 entries that all it will take is adding cars once qualifying is all over. I get that but this isn't a team seeing that the field is stuck on 31 or 32 entries and decides once qualifying is over to enter the race with an entry or two and IndyCar tacking those cars onto the end of the field. This car is a full-time IndyCar competitor, was out on track all week and arguably was the fastest entry all week.

If there had been 34 entries then Dale Coyne Racing would be shit out of luck but there weren't and this odd and unfortunate scenario adds to Indianapolis 500 lore. James Davison gets an opportunity to pull a Denmark by winning the Indianapolis 500 without even qualifying and from 33rd on the grid nonetheless.

Enticing Bumping
The easiest solution to this weekend's qualifying scenario would have been if the entry list had 34 cars or more. It would have been a case of Bourdais' accident making it easier for the rest to make the field, as it would have been one fewer car to worry about.

However, bumping is difficult because of the limited engine leases and chassis and let's face it, it makes no financial sense to be bumping cars. This year's race has two new teams on the grid. How would it be beneficial if Harding Racing had not made this race? The team would have been dead on the spot had the last qualifying attempt been completed and its entry with Gabby Chaves been outside the 33 fastest times and IndyCar needs new teams.

With that said, I don't like that the Indianapolis 500 has become a handout race where all the entries are guaranteed a payday and can pussyfoot it during qualifying. A 34th entry would keep everybody honest and teams can't afford to ride around and hope a 219.282 MPH four-lap average gets them in the field. It wouldn't and people love competition. Unfortunately in competition people have to lose but what if there was a way teams could still benefit even if they are bumped from the Indianapolis 500?

The Premier League in England has something called "parachute payments" for the teams relegated each season. This year Hull City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland were all relegated from the Premier League and not only are they no longer in the top-flight of English soccer but next season won't get the equal slice of the television money, which was £85,000,000 per club for 2016-17. However, the Premier League will distribute to those three clubs over the next few years some of the television money, otherwise known as "parachute payments" to help those clubs transition and be able to keep players, staff and cover other expenses.

What if for the Indianapolis 500 there was prize money for the 34th, 35th and 36th fastest qualifiers that way missing the race wouldn't be a crippling blow especially to new teams trying to get into the series? On top of that additional prize money for those three teams what if those team were also allowed to enter three races later in the season with no entry fees charged and tire allotment for the weekend covered by IndyCar? It goes against the ethos of bumping but IndyCar needs to be forward thinking when it comes to getting new teams into the series. It can't afford to kill its young once it comes out of the womb.

An issue with this would be the overall Indianapolis 500 purse would have to go up and that is easier said than done. If we are going to start paying three non-qualifier than the prize for making the race is going to have to go up significantly and likely have to be doubled so the least a car can take home for starting the race is $400,000 and if the floor is going to go up than the ceiling has to go up as well and the winner and the rest of the top five is going to have to receive more as well. Hopefully, the upcoming television deal for 2019 and beyond will help but I doubt any network is going to throw gobs of cash at IndyCar and we are taking about a multi-million cash infusion into the purse for one race.

It might be easier said that done but IndyCar needs more entries and this is one way to support teams who want to come in but are afraid of the ramifications if they struggle with growing pains at the start.

Why Does Fernando Alonso's Result Have to be a Measuring Stick for IndyCar?
I have been thinking about this a lot for the past month. Is Fernando Alonso winning the Indianapolis 500 good for IndyCar?

For exposure? Yes. For credibility? Maybe not. A driver with no oval experience comes in and wins the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt. It only adds to preconceived notions that IndyCar isn't as good as it is made out to be.

But then I thought why does Fernando Alonso's result dictating what kind of series IndyCar is? Not only is it a disservice to Alonso's talent as one of the best of all-time but also plenty of drivers have come from across the pond to IndyCar and not wiped the floor with the competition. Yes, Alexander Rossi won the Indianapolis 500 last year but the driver who spent most of his abbreviated Formula One career at the back of the order in a Manor did anything but dominate in his rookie year in IndyCar and his former Manor teammate Max Chilton only had two top ten finishes his entire rookie season in IndyCar.

Rubens Barrichello was respectable in his only year in IndyCar but never once stood on the podium and finished 12th in the championship. Takuma Sato has spent all of his seven years in IndyCar being a slightly below-average driver.

I am tired of Alonso's Indianapolis 500 attempt being turned into a barometer of how competitive or difficult IndyCar is as a series. I am tired of any success Alonso has being spun as a poor reflection of the state of IndyCar.

Speed Draws
The crowd was noticeably up for qualifying this year and without a doubt the man mentioned above had a hand in that bump and Mr. Alonso advancing to the Fast Nine session only helped draw more people out for the Sunday evening session as the rookie had a shot at pole position.

Something else might have played a hand in more people coming out for qualifying weekend and that is speed. We love speed. We love watching it. We love the sound of an engine at full song. We love the drivers on the edge.

While Scott Dixon's four-lap average of 232.164 MPH for pole position wasn't new, this type of speed isn't something we are familiar with. Yes, Arie Luyendyk set the track record 21 years ago at 236.986 MPH but that run is more of an anomaly than we all realize. Scott Brayton won pole position the year the track record was set but was more than three miles per hour slower than Luyendyk. Dixon's time would have put him sixth on that grid.

Nobody was making the Dutchman sweat yesterday but I think the current speeds are within the ballpark of where IndyCar should be. You need a speed that is getting people on edge and 225 MPH isn't fast enough. The limits need to be pushed and breaking the track record should be a goal. I have said this before but there is a limit of how fast you can go but IndyCar has to get to a place where the track record is in danger as it will be something people will be dying to see in person.

Overlooked Nuggets of Notoriety
Even though there were only 33 entries there are still so many things that get overlooked in the one week of practice and one qualifying weekend.

First off, Ed Jones will start 11th and he has been quick all month. Dale Coyne Racing was lost on ovals the last few years and the team likely would have been a legitimate contender had Bourdais not been injured but that is not to say Jones has no shot of winning. He is in the first third of the field and if he can stay up with the big boys anything is possible. Jones has been impressive everywhere he has gone this season and the de facto IndyCar Rookie of the Year is shaping up to have a bright career.

While Jones looks promising, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was disappointing in qualifying as none of the team's three cars made the Fast Nine one year after winning pole position and having two cars start seventh and tenth. SPM even had the speed in the days leading up to qualifying but it didn't come out on Saturday.

I want to give a shout out to Harding Racing as it announced it will be at Texas and Pocono later this season, hopes to be full-time next year and Gabby Chaves has a two-year deal with the team. It's been a respective debut for the team. Juncos Racing has looked good as well all things considered even though Spencer Pigot and Sebastián Saavedra will start on the final two rows. Buddy Lazier deserves some credit as the 49-year-old wasn't the slowest qualifier either day and he starts on row ten. He likely won't win but perhaps he could run longer than he has in his first three starts with his own team.

I was talking to a few of my friends last week and they are watching IndyCar a bit more than before. They are mostly NASCAR fans but are dabbling with IndyCar. They said they are getting used to looking at the cars and how unlike a stock car where they know where to look for the number and sponsors it is a little bit more difficult with an IndyCar. The one thing they said to me was how they like how the numbers are on the back of the rear-wheel guards. I didn't tell them that the new universal aero kit coming next year will likely mean that spot for the number will go away but the lack of real estate for the numbers is something IndyCar should consider when adopting the new kit and perhaps something could be done to give the cars a prominent place for the numbers. My friends also said they like the leader light system.

That's all I got.