INDIANAPOLIS – Bobby Rahal knows what it is like to be a full-time -racing competitor who failed to make the field for the Indianapolis 500. It was 1993, and Rahal was the defending CART champion but had issues with his TrueSports chassis and was bumped out of the starting lineup.
Despite that, Rahal firmly believes the Indianapolis 500 should remain a race without guaranteed starting positions. It should be a race that teams and drivers earn their way in based on time and speed, not protected by full-time participation in the NTT IndyCar Series.
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On March 8, team owner Roger Penske told a group of reporters including NBC Sports.com that teams in the IndyCar Series “Leaders Circle” program (top 22 full-time teams in points) should have assurances of racing the Indy 500.
At Long Beach on April 14, fellow team owner Chip Ganassi also expressed support for guaranteed starting positions. Team owner Michael Andretti also was strongly in favor later that week, saying it was important to guarantee sponsors that their investment would ensure participation in the Indy 500.
“As much as it would be nice to have that guarantee where we don’t have to worry about it, especially as a long-term, seasonlong entrant, I think that is not loyal to the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the history of the 500,” Rahal said Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I think the way it is, is the way it should be.
“I think clearly, spectators have made their voices pretty clear on that. Let’s just go qualify and go racing.”
Many fans are enraged at the very idea that Roger Penske would want guaranteed starting positions, considering he was part of the teams in CART that boycotted the Indianapolis 500 beginning in 1996 over the “25 and 8 Rule.”
That was when Tony George’s Indy Racing League was in its first year of existence, and George, whose family owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway, guaranteed 25 positions in the 33-car starting lineup for full-time IRL teams.
CART boycotted and created the U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway to run head-to-head against the Indy 500 on the same day, starting a split between the two series that began in 1996 and lasted until unification in 2008.
Fans have vociferously, and profanely, offered their opinion against any “guaranteed starting positions” for the Indianapolis 500. They believe the drama of “Bump Day” is one of the tremendous lures to making the field for the “World’s Greatest Race.”
“I think now the fastest 33 under the current system make it,” Rahal continued. “Having been on the bad side of that situation, some would say in 1993, I can tell you for a team it’s gut-wrenching, particularly given the effort. Everybody puts forth a lot of effort.
“Inevitably in the good old days, there were a lot of people that would go home very disappointed.”
As late as 2017, this was not an issue as there were just enough entries to fill the field of 33. But with the increased growth of the NTT IndyCar Series, there is more interest and more entries at Indy.
There were 35 entries in 2018 and the big shock came when regular entrant James Hinchcliffe failed to make the field of 33 along with popular Indy-only entrant Pippa Mann.
This year, there are 36 entrants vying for the 33-car starting lineup.
“I think it’s amazing that we’re in the situation we are now, where we have more than the 33 entries,” Rahal said. “I think that signifies the commercial viability of the series because we have sponsors and teams willing to enter and participate, new teams participating. Personally I think it should be the way it’s always about, that the fastest 33 and that’s that.
“Again, I got to tell you, last year I was not sleeping well the night before qualifying because it was looking a little bit marginal. Obviously, we had no problem in the end. That’s part of the lore, mystique of the Indy 500, you got to suck it up and get it done on qualifying day.”
Rahal’s son, Graham, is one of the team’s drivers along with 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato and third driver Jordan King all have to earn their way into the 33-car starting lineup.
“When dad missed in ’93, he was the champion in ’92, and obviously last year it very easily could have been us,” Graham Rahal replied. “I really, really, really was nervous that it was going to be us. In the end, it was Hinch (James Hinchcliffe). That was an extremely unfortunate situation, one of the biggest names in the sport sitting on the sidelines.
“As far as I see and understand in this world, things have to be earned, never just given. If you guarantee spots, it just follows the path of, in my opinion, a lot of society, which is that you don’t have to earn it, you can just get it.
“I don’t stand by that. To me, you got to go out there and work for it. Our teams work awfully hard. We worked awfully hard last year, and it could have been us. Yeah, would it be hard on United Rentals, on every partner that we have that puts a lot into this? For sure. But it’s the name of the game and you got to earn it.”
Those who want guaranteed starting positions use the argument that missing the 500 could cost the team its sponsor. Bobby Rahal quickly shot that down.
“All you have to do is look at history — Roger Penske didn’t lose his sponsors when he didn’t qualify in 1995,” Rahal said. “I didn’t qualify in ’93 and I got a three-year extension from Miller Brewing Company, thanks to Dick Stroup, head of marketing.
“Last year with Arrow (Hinchcliffe’s sponsor), Arrow didn’t walk away. In fact, they expanded their involvement with (team owner) Sam Schmidt. I don’t know of any of our sponsors thinks everything is a guaranteed, it’s a given. I think they understand.
“As a driver in 1993, I’ll never forget sitting up in our suite, watching the pace lap, all our sponsors there, I belong here, not up there. It was an emotional time. That’s your obligation to your sponsors. You make the best of it and go on.
“I don’t see many sponsors out there, if they were true partners with the teams, they’re with, that would walk away if you had an issue in qualifying. I think most would say, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
Penske has not changed his opinion, however. Despite it going against the definition of competition, he believes it is important to protect teams and sponsors and help the series grow.
“I think the people who invest in the sport and are building the sport today to where it is, I think we have great momentum from the press, from our TV partners, to commit to the full season, not have an opportunity to race here (is not a good situation),” Penske said. “I think in today’s world; things might have been different when there were 50 or 60 cars trying to qualify in the previous years.
“But under the current situation, I think we have to have — if you’re going to commit and run the whole season, you should have an opportunity to run in this race. There’s going to be people bumping this weekend, which is good. At the present time, that would be my position.”
But, wouldn’t that go against the tradition that has made the Indy 500 great?
“Well, there’s a lot of traditions that change here, right?” Penske responded. “They have a road race here, (they’ve had) a Formula One race, a NASCAR race here.
“To me, it’s a sign of the times.”
Ganassi was also asked his latest feelings on the issue and appears to have modified his opinion.
“My position is it should be the fastest 33,” the team owner said Friday. “I’m not saying it’s not going to be that. There is a scenario where it won’t be the fastest 33. I just think that’s not right. I think it should be the fastest 33.”
“I think it’s one or the other,” Ganassi said. “If you don’t have the fastest 33, then I think you should have guaranteed spots. If you do the fastest 33, you don’t need that.
“I never said 25 and 8 or anything like that. It’s just the way I feel. If it’s not the fastest 33, then the full-season participants should have some guarantee. If it’s the fastest 33, then I’m fine with that.
“Does that answer your question clearly?”
Loud and clear.
And, one more point. The entire debate about this does not apply to this year’s Indianapolis 500. The rules are already in place for this year. Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles is firmly against any guaranteed starting positions.
It remains a very polarizing topic, especially considering who is in favor of the idea.
Bump Day at the Indianapolis 500 should be the ultimate in drama – risk vs. reward.
There can’t be real drama without real consequence, however.