My, How Things Have Changed!

Posted in IndyCar on April 24, 2019 by Oilpressure

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One of the many things I like and admire about Donald Davidson is his aversion to controversy. During the Month of May, he would much prefer to discuss Sam Hanks or Johnnie Parsons, than he would the circumstances surrounding the 1981 or 2002 Indianapolis 500s or why the 1979 and 1997 races had more than thirty-three starters.

I tend to agree with him. To me, the upcoming Month of May is about celebrating the Indianapolis 500, both past and present. I would prefer to discuss controversial issues in the other eleven moths of the year and focus on more positive topics during May. Lately, there has been a conversation that just won’t go away – so I feel the need to weigh in on it, even though most of you can already guess where I stand on the issue. Fortunately we are still a week from the Month of May, so we can get all of the negativity out of the way now.

One of the most polarizing issues of The Split was the controversial 25/8 rule. Tony George wanted to give his upstart league a chance to be showcased in the 1996 Indianapolis 500. CART wanted to come and race in the “500” that year as they always had. But George came up with a rule that reserved twenty-five spots for the Top-Twenty-Five regular participants in the Indy Racing League, leaving only eight spots for the roughly twenty-five full-time CART entries that included teams like Marlboro Team Penske, Newman/Haas, Target Chip Ganassi, Team Rahal, Galles, Pac West and Tasman; and featured star drivers like Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore.

CART team owners were incensed by this new rule. This was a slap in the face to the spirit and long-standing tradition of the Indianapolis 500, that only the fastest thirty-three cars would start the race. Most of them stuck together and made the difficult decision to not go to Indianapolis that year. Instead they chose to run the US 500 at Michigan on the same day.

This condensed history of The Split is not meant to rile up the masses on that controversial topic. Instead, it is to illustrate the irony contained in comments from the very same owners that were so outraged twenty-three years ago.

I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m a fan of Roger Penske. I know some of you consider him to be the devil, but I think his story and what he has done for racing over the decades is remarkable. But on this particular topic, he is dead-wrong.

Back in 1996, Roger Penske was quoted in talking about the 25/8 rule saying “…at the end of the day, we want to go on a level playing field”; meaning that if the CART drivers have the fastest cars, they should be the ones in the race. I agreed with him at that time and I still do.

Roger Penske knows what it feels like to fail to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. In 1994, two of his cars occupied front-row starting spots on the grid, including the pole, and one of them won the race. In 1995, as the defending pole-winner and reigning race champion; both Team Penske cars of Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi inexplicably failed to qualify.

To his credit, Roger Penske took his lumps. He didn’t try to buy his way back in or do anything to damage the integrity of the race. He and his drivers showed up on Race Day as spectators and handled the situation with class.

Then when Tony George essentially shut out the CART teams with his 25/8 rule, Penske, Paul Newman, Pat Patrick and the other team owners lashed out at how this rule damaged the integrity of the race – and rightfully so. For the first time ever, the race had the potential to not field the fastest thirty-three cars. The slowest speed of the IRL regulars belonged to Johnny O’Connell with a speed of 222.361 mph, which was well above the 220 mph minimum set for the 25/8 rule. Fortunately, the 25/8 rule didn’t come into play since CART did not show up.

But had CART shown up, they could have all gone much faster than the IRL regulars, and all but eight of them would have been sent home. That’s how ridiculous and unfair this rule was, and this was why the CART teams were so furious.

Fast-forward twenty-three years. Now Roger Penske says that there should be guaranteed spots reserved in the Indianapolis 500 for the teams and drivers that compete full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series. Chip Ganassi has recently thrown his support behind Penske in campaigning for the longstanding rules to be changed to guarantee spots in the Indianapolis 500. Michael Andretti chimed in with his support late last week.

This is all in the wake of an IndyCar regular, James Hinchcliffe, failing to qualify last year.

I wish someone could explain to me how this notion is any different than the 25/8 rule that Penske and others complained about so vehemently just a couple of decades ago. Maybe I’m just not very smart, but I can’t see a bit of difference. Even Robin Miller has joined the charge for guaranteed spots. When asked how this differs from the 25/8 rule of 1996, all he could offer up was that the 25/8 rule was for political reasons to keep CART out. He still offered up no real reason why anyone should be guaranteed a spot other than keeping the regulars happy. It almost sounds as if Robin Miller has been (dare I say it?) drinking the Kool-Aid.

On page 239 of the marvelous book, Beast, which chronicles the top-secret development of the Penske-Ilmor Mercedes-Benz 500I, used in the 1994 Indianapolis 500 – there is a quote attributed to being an inside joke at Team Penske during those hectic days of development. The quote is “This is racing. If you want a guarantee, go to Sears and Roebuck”. The irony in reading that quote is not lost on IndyCar fans today.

This past weekend, I watched the historic Bump Day from 1993, when Bobby Rahal, the reigning CART champion was bumped. Even though it took place twenty-six years ago and I knew the outcome (because I was watching it on TV live when it happened), it was still suspenseful to watch. Had Hinchcliffe been guaranteed a spot last year, do you think many people will be still watching the 2018 replay twenty-six years later, if he took the spot of Conor Daly because Hinch was a series regular and Daly was not? I doubt it. How historic would Bump Day 1993 have been had Rahal been given Kevin Cogan’s spot because he got a provisional spot for being a past champion? I don’t want to see Bump Day come down to a last minute battle between Jay Howard and James Davison for the last one-off spot up for grabs, when all the regulars had to do was show up.

Which brings up another question. How many one-off teams will enter if they know there is no way they can pull an upset and out-qualify a Santino Farrucci or a Matheus Leist? Instead, they will be battling among each other. Is there enough incentive in that to justify the expense if there are more than thirty-three cars entered?

Those in favor of such a rule change say that in this economic environment, we just can’t afford to upset sponsors by sending their car home. Well, it didn’t seem to affect Hinchcliffe’s sponsor, Arrow Electronics. Last year, Arrow sponsored the No.5 car of Hinchcliffe. This year, Arrow has stepped up and sponsored the Hinchcliffe car along with the No.7 of Marcus Ericsson. And if, or when, Robert Wickens returns to the cockpit – they have already said they will sponsor that car too. As an added bonus, the team is now called Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. I have an idea Sam Schmidt didn’t decide to do that out of the goodness of his own heart. It doesn’t appear that getting shut out of last year’s Indianapolis 500 did anything to damage the sponsor’s relationship to Hinchcliffe or his team.

Pippa Mann failed to make the race as well, but she secured a ride for this year’s race earlier than most of her previous rides. Not qualifying last year obviously did little damage to her future prospects of landing future rides. Some may argue it helped to draw attention to her plight.

As for the Indianapolis as a whole, did the possibility of a regular driver not making the race damage the integrity of the event? It doesn’t appear so ratings-wise. Ratings for Bump Day in 2018 were ten percent higher than the previous year. Why? Because there was intrigue that a regular driver may not make the field – and one didn’t. If there is no danger in the name drivers missing the race, will people still tune in? Not as many, because there will be no drama.

I felt bad for both drivers that day for different reasons. I’ve always liked Pippa Mann and always considered her a good ambassador for the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar in general. I felt for her in the press conference afterward. James Hinchcliffe is another good ambassador and a fan favorite. He had already been dealt one cruel blow at that track, when he almost lost his life in 2015 and was out for the remainder of the season. Although he’s never won a championship, he tends to always be in the hunt. But his championship took a fatal blow by failing to qualify for a double-points race.

Although I felt bad for both drivers, did I once think that they should do away with bumping or reserve a guaranteed spot for regular drivers? Not for one minute.

Fortunately, we won’t have to worry about this for 2019. IndyCar CEO Mark Miles has already gone on record as saying that even though he thinks the Leader Circle teams should get every consideration; he also thinks the DNA of the Indianapolis 500 is that you have to qualify. I could not agree more. But what about next year or the years after that? As time goes on, more and more voices from the IndyCar paddock are coming out in support of this slap in the face to tradition. How long will Miles be able to maintain his stance? When Roger Penske wants something, he usually gets his way (i.e. double-headers at Belle Isle the weekend after Indianapolis).

I’ve seen where some fans say we should drop the debate for now, since Miles has said it won’t happen this year. I completely disagree. I think Miles is trying to gauge fan reaction in case they want to make a change for next year. If we say nothing now, I think we could fully expect to see guaranteed spots for next year or soon thereafter. When that happens, the Indianapolis 500 will be just like any other race. It will no longer be special.

I know some will say that the new qualifying format of the past few years has already violated the spirit of the tradition of the fastest thirty-three making the field. With thirty cars locked in from Saturday’s qualifying, that leaves only three spots left on Sunday. With six cars going for three spots, the possibility exists that the thirty-fourth car could actually be faster than the car in the thirtieth position – but that car will be sent home.

The Indianapolis 500 is and has been a pure meritocracy for decades. If you are fast enough, you can qualify. It doesn’t matter if you are a series regular, a past-champion or some has-been former star now on a team with a shoe-string budget. If you can go fast enough to qualify – you’re in. If you can’t, you’re out. Yes, the points count towards the championship – but the Indianapolis 500 is a stand alone event that is not about the points. Do any winning drivers get out of the car and exclaim “Wow! I just scored a hundred points toward the championship!”? No. The thrill is beating the fastest thirty-two other cars in the world’s biggest race. What has made this the biggest race? Traditions. If you want to help out the full-time teams, get rid of the double-points. That way, the hit of not making the race is not near as hard against those going for the IndyCar championship.

I’m more than just a little stunned at the reversal of some of the former CART owners and drivers, who were so adamant on the evils of the 25/8 rule back in the nineties. Hypocrisy is never a boost to one’s credibility. How do they really expect us to take them seriously? I’d be curious to know the stance of the one full-time IRL owner from those days still left in the series – AJ Foyt. Say what you will about Foyt, but there is never a question on where he truly stands. You may not like what he says, but at least he’s consistent. He never talks out of both sides of his mouth, as some car-owners are now doing.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen many of our Indianapolis 500 traditions fall by the wayside. Fortunately, IMS President Doug Boles is a traditionalist and he is bringing some back, as he can – like the homage that Jim Philippe used to recite in pre-race ceremonies. But other traditions have gone away. And don’t even get me started on the possibility of the pre-race balloons being axed. But having the tradition of only the fastest thirty-three cars start the race is one too sacred to ever let go of, regardless of the ironic and hypocritical remarks from some of the sport’s most powerful people.

George Phillips

A Question From a Reader

Posted in IndyCar on April 19, 2019 by Oilpressure

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Earlier this week, I received an e-mail from a longtime and loyal reader. He began by saying that he had started to put his question out on my site as a comment for how boring the racing was at Long Beach. But he decided against posting it publicly, out of fear that his question would be viewed as a “troll-like” comment and he would receive some unwanted backlash. I can completely relate to that.

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Should IndyCar Change the Rules?

Posted in IndyCar on April 17, 2019 by Oilpressure

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When we were at Barber Motorsports Park a couple of weeks ago, there was a Saturday press conference that Susan and I both attended. It featured Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles, and IndyCar President Jay Frye. There were no bombshells planned for the gathering, but more of a chance for the media to ask questions of the two of them.

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Random Thoughts on Long Beach

Posted in IndyCar on April 15, 2019 by Oilpressure

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If you are a longtime fan of the NTT IndyCar Series and you were disappointed in what you saw yesterday in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, then that’s on you. If you’ve been watching Indy cars at Long Beach for very long, you should have known what you were going to get. Yesterday’s race was fairly typical for Long Beach. It was a parade-like race with little passing that is usually won in dominant fashion. More times than not, that’s how it plays out at Long Beach; so no one should have been surprised yesterday.

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Long Beach Preview

Posted in IndyCar on April 12, 2019 by Oilpressure

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For the first time this season, the NTT IndyCar Series has races on back-to-back weekends. Just a few days ago, the series was set up in the deep south in Birmingham, Alabama. Just like that, they picked up and moved everything to the west coast and set it all up again to be ready to go for the first practice later this morning.

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A Good Time Was Had By All

Posted in IndyCar on April 10, 2019 by Oilpressure

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By Susan Phillips

On Qualifying Day at Barber Motorsports Park, George and I usually watch qualifying from the stands in the Fan Zone. We climbed aboard the tram and shortly after we got on, a couple with a young child got on the tram and sat across from us. They had a dazed look about them and I could tell the little girl was starting to get bored. The tram stopped at the Museum stop and they looked at each other and questioned if they should get off at this stop or was there more to see.

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Random Thoughts on Barber

Posted in IndyCar on April 8, 2019 by Oilpressure

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First of all, I must put out the disclaimer that I am typing this out on Sunday night in the car as Susan drives us back to Nashville, so there may be more than my usual amount of typos. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

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