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Full-time entries deserve guaranteed starting positions in Indy 500, owners say

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Three of open-wheel racing’s most prominent and powerful team owners have recently made public comments in support of full-time entries receiving guaranteed starting positions in the Indianapolis 500.

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti, the three major team owners in the series who own a combined nine full-time entries and have won eight of the last ten Indy 500s, have all recently come out in support of the idea, stating that they believe that if a team is willing to spend the money and resources to compete full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, then it should be guaranteed a position in the event.

“I think a full-time team that starts day one and runs the full season and commits with the same driver, I think they have to have it [ a guaranteed starting position],” Penske said.

“I remember back in the days at Daytona, they’d come in with cars, and if you didn’t qualify, you’re spending $10,000 to give some backmarker to give up a spot. To me, it’s a whole different world. We don’t have 45-50 cars coming. I don’t think it’s a vote of the teams. I think the people who manage the series have to understand the impact. Some of the same people they’re calling on to support the TV package and other things, next week, their car doesn’t make the Indy 500. It’s a ricochet that goes across the whole season. I hope they understand that.”

When asked by reporters at the Grand Prix of Long Beach last weekend, Chip Ganassi stated he agreed with Penske.

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“He knows what it’s like not to be in that race,” Ganassi said. “Thank God I don’t know what that’s like. But obviously I agree with him. When you’re making a commitment all year for the series, a commitment is just that.”

Unlike NASCAR, which uses a charter system that promises a starting position in all 36 Cup Series events to teams that own a charter and show up to each event, INDYCAR does not have any system in place that guarantees starting positions in any race. The series does offer the ‘Leader’s Circle’ program, which promises a set amount of prize money to full-time entries. However, the program offers no promise of a spot on the grid in any race, with teams expected to make their way in on time.

Though DNQs are very rare in IndyCar racing outside of its biggest race, the Indianapolis 500 features a unique qualifying system that has seen many big-name drivers and teams miss the race over the years.

Indy’s qualifying system has seen various changes in recent years, but one tradition has always remained the same: Bumping. Unlike other events, Indy 500 qualifying allows drivers and teams who did not initially make a qualifying run fast enough to make the race to go out again and try to post a faster four-lap average speed.

Should a team post a time faster than the 33rd and final car on the grid, the said driver/car combination is “bumped” from the starting grid, and unless the bumped car goes out again to make an even faster run to make the field again, the whole team will generally find themselves watching the 500 from the stands.

This unique qualifying system adds an element of drama to race qualifications, and has resulted in several big-name drivers and teams failing to qualify for the biggest race of the year. In 1993, then-defending CART champion Bobby Rahal failed to make the field. Two years later, the Team Penske duo of two-time Indy champ Emerson Fittipaldi and defending race winner Al Unser, Jr. failed to make the field. Just last year, 2016 Indy polesitter James Hinchcliffe was bumped from the field.

Though Hinchcliffe’s sponsor, Arrow Technologies, responded to the situation with grace, the possibility of not making the 500 certainly keeps teams and sponsors on edge.

Michael Andretti recently cited 2011 qualifying in an interview Thursday with the Indianapolis Star as an example of a potential doomsday situation for a team and sponsor.

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With Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay and sponsor DHL bumped from the field, Andretti quickly scrambled together a deal with A.J. Foyt Racing to buy out and place Hunter-Reay into and DHL logos onto one of Foyt’s entries, stating that DHL “probably wouldn’t be in the sport today” had RHR and DHL not took the green flag in the 2011 race.

With the three most successful owners in the series lobbying for the change in rules, one has to wonder how INDYCAR will respond. NBC Sports recently reached out to INDYCAR management, who stated that no changes will be made for 2019 qualifying and that no further comments would be made at this time.

Hulman and Co. CEO Mark Miles spoke with the Indianapolis Star Thursday to offer his thoughts on the issue:

“Look, If I’m a car owner, a full-time car owner, I make a significant investment in racing in the IndyCar Series, and the most important event of the year is the Indianapolis 500. So I’d want to know I’m going to be able to race in it — just like I know I’m going to be able to race at Long Beach or any other IndyCar event if I should turn up, if I’m a Leaders Circle team. I understand that. It’s not illogical.

“One of the reasons this event is what it is, is because it has a brand. It has traditions. It has a tradition that means something to fans. And we believe a big part of qualifying is the drama around the possibility that a car isn’t going to get in. Whatever car. We try to consider all the points of view and decide what we ought to do.”

Though the Indy 500 will not have not have guaranteed entries in 2019, the idea could become a reality sometime within the next few years, and it would not be the first time it had happened.

In 1996 and ‘97, the then-new Indy Racing League, headed by then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George, created the “25/8 rule” to discourage competitors from the rival CART series from cherry picking the 500 and not running other IRL events. Widely disliked by fans, the 25/8 rule promised starting positions for the top 25 teams in the IRL points standings, with the remaining eight starting positions open to any other competitors. The rule was discontinued after the 1997 season.

Not many IndyCar drivers have publicly expressed their opinions on the matter, but 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi recently expressed his take on the issue, stating to IndyCar.com that he understood both sides of the argument.

“From a selfish perspective, you’d like that security,” Rossi said, “but from a purist’s standpoint, I think there’s validity to bump day and the fans being able to witness that. It should probably stay the way it is.”

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Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

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“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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