Brilliant Move Or Shameless Publicity Stunt?

We all awoke to the same announcement on Wednesday morning; two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso will skip the Grand Prix of Monaco and run the Indianapolis 500 instead. Like most of you, I thought it was a hoax of some kind. But we all now know that it turned out to be true.

In case you were visiting another planet over the last couple of days and didn’t hear the news; McLaren’s Fernando Alonso will forego what is arguable Formula One’s biggest race – the Grand Prix of Monaco, so that he can take part in the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport.

It doesn’t hurt that McLaren is running a Honda engine, as is Andretti. It also probably helps that McLaren is already off to a disastrous start for 2017. Alonso won the World Championship while driving for Benetton in 2005 and 2006. It is already painfully obvious that he will not win a third championship this season, as he has not yet scored a single point after two races. That performance might partially explain why McLaren and Honda are so willing to have one of their drivers miss F1’s biggest race.

After the initial shock wore off Wednesday morning, it didn’t take long for the Legions of the Miserable to ooze their way out of the woodwork and start raining on everyone else’s parade.

I guess I’m either naïve or stupid. I tend to take most things at face-value as they are presented to me. I don’t take the time to look for an ulterior motive on why something that sounds great is really bad.

To be honest, I was shocked to see the wide range of reactions that I saw throughout the day on Wednesday regarding Alonso running the “500”. The spectrum of responses ranged from phrases like “brilliant” and “inspired” on one side; to “yawn”, “desperate”, “shrug” and “lame publicity stunt”on the other. In case you haven’t guessed by now, I tend to lean more towards the side that calls this a brilliant move.

To me, this is big – really big. It’s not as big as when Nigel Mansell came to CART in 1993-94, but it’s big. The difference is that Mansell was the reigning World Champion when he left Williams in F1 to come to Newman/Haas in CART. Plus, Mansell was coming as a full-time driver. Alonso is more than ten years removed from his last World Championship and he is just coming for one race.

But to miss their premier event to come run Indianapolis is nothing to yawn about. This is a huge deal.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or just shake my head at those that write this off as a publicity stunt. Guess what? The whole reason that the Indianapolis 500 ever existed is to be one gigantic publicity stunt. It was founded to be a showcase for manufacturers to compete against one another. It was the birthplace to the notion of “Winning on Sunday to sell on Monday”. I am as much of a traditionalist as anyone when it comes to the history of the Indianapolis 500, but to say that the event is above being a publicity stunt is laughable. The entire event is about publicity.

Wednesday night, I was seeing comments comparing IMS officials to PT Barnum. I’m always accused of trying to hold back progress in the name of tradition. It’s true that I am a traditionalist. But we are in a different era, an era unlike any we’ve ever seen before. There is more competition for attention than there has ever been among major sports and sporting events, and other forms of entertainment. That’s why there are now Carb Day concerts and Legend’s Day concerts during the weekend leading up to the “500”.

Doug Boles doesn’t need to schedule a big-name concert to lure me to IMS. I’m already coming. But I’m the exception and not the rule. The younger generation demands more. Having a century-old race on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is no longer enough.

It’s the same with TV viewers. Die-hards like me are almost offended that IMS feels the need to entice anyone to watch on television. The fact that it’s the Indianapolis 500 is reason enough for them. While that logic applies to me personally, I recognize that the vast majority of potential viewers do not hold this event in the same elevated esteem that you and I do. If you’re sitting still and not constantly trying to find new ways to bring in more attendees and viewers, then you will be left behind.

This is a great story and will be the story for the Month of May. There are so many subplots to it. For the next six weeks, we will be hearing the feel-good story how Stefan Wilson selflessly gave up an almost certain ride in the “500” with Andretti Autosport so that Alonso could be brought in. He figured that the good of the sport outweighed the good of Stefan Wilson. My hope is that he might get any remaining Chevy ride that might still be available and if not, I sure hope he gets a premium seat in next year’s race (or season).

There will also be the justified debate on whether Alonso can quickly adjust to the cars and this style of racing. His background certainly suggest he could easily succeed if given enough time, but is a private testing day and a week of practice enough to fully prepare him for the subtleties of oval racing at 230 mph? Nigel Mansell learned the hard way at Phoenix that when trying to regain control of a car – you never turn right on an oval. Mansell did and it bit him. I do have concerns that in a critical moment, Alonso might revert to his instincts and drive like he would in Formula One. There are no gravel pits or runoff areas when you make a mistake in the Indianapolis 500 – only an unforgiving concrete wall or a partially forgiving SAFER barrier.

But beyond that, I see nothing negative at all about this move – no matter what the legions of miserable cynics say. This is not like when a forty-seven year-old Jean Alesi came out of a six-year retirement to drive a Lotus for nine laps in the 2012 Indianapolis 500 before being ordered off the track for being a hazard. This is a legitimate driver, who is known and respected the world over that is driving for the team that won last year’s race. Yes, he is on the downside of his career, but he is fulfilling a lifelong dream. Better to do it now while he is still a very active driver, than to come out of retirement and shake off the rust before learning a new discipline.

Is this a publicity stunt? Why, yes it is. That’s the point. It is one big publicity stunt that was designed to generate a lot of publicity for Honda, the Indianapolis 500, the Verizon IndyCar Series and even Formula One within the US. Whether this was the brainchild of McLaren’s Zak Brown, IndyCar’s Mark Miles, Honda or some combination of all three with Alonso’s desire to run the “500” sprinkled in for good measure – I’m of the opinion that this is just short of genius. It’s a win-win for all parties involved, including the fans. Yes, Stefan Wilson loses out in the short-term; but I have an idea this move will pay dividends for him in the long run as well.

For those that have snickered at this deal, well I don’t know what to say. If they are waiting for the present-day version of Sir Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Sir Jackie Stewart to come before the Indianapolis 500 can be validated – they may be waiting quite a while. Drivers like that aren’t walking through the door anytime soon.

While I love to reminisce and romanticize about the glory days of the sixties, I recognize that that was a very special point in time that will never be repeated. To set that as your standard will make you grow old and bitter. I prefer to look at the Indianapolis 500 of today and embrace how far things have come from the days of Racin Gardner, Dr. Jack Miller (the Racing Dentist) and Dennis Vitolo – just twenty years ago. Do you think Fernando Alonso would skip Monaco to race against the likes of those drivers? Probably not.

So congratulations to Fernando Alonso, Andretti Autosport, Honda, McLaren, IndyCar, IMS and anyone else who benefits from this move. I’ll tell you who else is going to benefit from this – the fans.

George Phillips

Please Note:  We will be traveling over the weekend to spend Easter Sunday with my mother, who will be turning 93 this summer. Since I don’t want to spend the weekend behind a keyboard, there will be no post here on Monday April 17. I will return here on Wednesday April 19. I hope everyone enjoys their weekend!

24 Responses to “Brilliant Move Or Shameless Publicity Stunt?”

  1. I wish this kind of thing would happen more often. I hope Fernando Alonzo has a great experience doing this and most of all a whole lot of fun. Like George said this is a win win for everyone involved. A perfect follow up to the 100th. I was reading the comments, people saying things like, “he won’t be able to handle ovals” c’mon man! He is a world campion and he drives F1 cars that’s all that needs to be said.

    • You are so right too about the Indy 500 being one huge publicity stunt. That is exactly what it is, and it only happens once a year.

  2. You’ll have to put me in the category of “who cares.” Now I do like that drivers from other disciplines want to compete in the 500, or attempt to qualify. That is like in the old days. But if you are looking for impact, a Nascar driver today would have a bigger impact on the race. Look at how that works every time a driver tried to run both Indy and Charlotte in the same day. It’s big news.

    I honestly don’t think there are enough F1 fans in this country to make this a big deal.

    Dr. Jack Miller. The Racing Dentist. That was actually cool. It was like in the old days when anyone could build a car in their garage and try to qualify for the 500. And he was a little better than the anti-Tony George Cart fans ever wanted to admit.

    • Dr. Jack’s best points finish was 23rd, which he managed twice (the ’96-97 season, and then again in 1998). In ’96-97, he finished behind six drivers who missed more races than he did (he missed the opening two rounds). In 1998, he made all the races but one, and again finished behind six drivers who missed more races. He only managed to qualify better than 15th once (an 11th) and his one career top-10 finish (at Charlotte in 1998) was 14 laps down (though he did manage a 12th at Texas that year, where he was only 7 laps down).

      Not that Dr. Jack ever had anything like top line equipment, but he was…not very good.

  3. S0CSeven Says:

    Alonzo needs a challenge that he’s not getting from the back of the pack in F1 and to fulfil a dream.

    McLaren sells road cars. Very expensive road cars. Massive publicity, hell yes.

    The whole thing works for me.

  4. Bruce Waine Says:

    McLaren majority shareholder Mansour Ojjeh says that a works IndyCar operation remains a possibility in the future after the British marque confirmed its return to the Indianapolis 500 on Wednesday.

    McLaren last raced in the Indy 500 in 1979, but confirmed that two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso will pilot an entry supported by Honda and Andretti Autosport in 2017, missing the Monaco Grand Prix in the process.

    McLaren has history at the 500, winning the race in 1974 and 1976 with Johnny Rutherford, and Ojjeh is pleased to see his company making a return this year.

    “Even though I’ve been a major shareholder and director of McLaren for more than 30 years, I arrived after our first IndyCar era had come to an end,” Ojjeh said.

    “Nonetheless, I’ve attended the Indy 500, and I came away hugely impressed by the scope and scale of this enormous and well-organised event, and the sheer enthusiasm of the hundreds of thousands of fans in attendance.

    “I’m pleased and proud that we’re about to embark on a new IndyCar era for McLaren, this time with Andretti Autosport and Honda.”

    While Alonso’s entry to the 500 will be a one-off for 2017, Ojjeh said that the could not rule out a works IndyCar operation in the future as McLaren continues to evaluate all of its racing programmes.

    “The Indy 500 is the only IndyCar race we’ll be entering this year, but we may possibly repeat that in years to come and it’s just possible that we may even run a full-works McLaren IndyCar operation at some point in the future. We’ll see,” Ojjeh said.

    “Equally, we may potentially enter the Le Mans 24 Hours again some time – we won it outright in 1995 with our iconic McLaren F1 GTR – but to be clear we have absolutely no definite plans to do so at this stage.”

  5. I’ve been giddy about this all week. The people who aren’t very happy about this, I’m convinced, will just never be happy about anything IndyCar-related again, short of the ghost of Rich Vogler showing up at IMS on May 15th, sticking a car on the pole and then winning after leading every lap. Which, I mean, is a thing that I’d also like to see, but I don’t have my “happiness bar” set quite that high. This May should be a hell of a lot of fun.

  6. Once and for all, let’s stop the thought to change the time or day that The Indianapolis 500 is run to accommodate NASCAR and the “double.” The 500 stands on its own and this proves it. As for thinking that having a “Cup” driver in the field I think it would be more prudent for NASCAR to have an IndyCar driver in their field. “Their” ratings are the ones that are falling.

    I also see this as a huge push for some very much talked about “International” races. Yep, this is huge and I have my tickets!!

  7. I could not care less about whatever the “legions of the miserable” have to say about this. I do not visit their cubicles.
    IMHO this does not have to be framed as “Brilliant Move, Shameless Publicity Stunt” or the greatest thing since Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream. To me it is just “one of them racin’ deals.”
    Of course it will give IMS some good pubicity as May approaches, and it will give Curt Cavin and various bloggers and bloggerettes something to write about. I will file this disclaimer: I have no interest in F1 racing or F1 drivers.

    • As the Geekster stated above, the “legions of the miserable” will never be happy with any Indycar related news and developments. That is why they are miserable. They are the folks you move to the other end of the bar to get away from.

  8. “I’ve won the Monaco Grand Prix twice, and it’s one of my ambitions to win the Triple Crown, which has been achieved by only one driver in the history of motorsport: Graham Hill,” Alonso said. “It’s a tough challenge, but I’m up for it. I don’t know when I’m going to race at Le Mans, but one day I intend to. I’m only 35: I’ve got plenty of time for that.”

    I take Fernando at his word that this is, indeed, the reason he is running the 500 rather than some publicity stunt.

  9. Indyspeeddmon Says:

    I keep seeing that others wish it was a NASCAR driver and I can’t help but laugh. Yes that brings some interest to the show but only from a small portion of the country that follows that series. Formula 1 is the 7th most popular sport in the world (based on the website I checked) and will bring a lot of much needed eyeballs to see how it all plays out. The numbers cannot even be compared. In terms of publicity having Fernando is great for IndyCar and the Indy 500.

    • Those “others” like to live in their little bubbles.Kind of describes mainstream America. Don’t like them furinners comin over here, got no interest unless it’s Kurt Busch.

  10. billytheskink Says:

    IMS officials, who are in the business of selling tickets and pleasing fans, should take it as a complement that they are being compared to PT Barnum, who is famous largely because he was good at selling tickets and pleasing fans.

    I am very much looking forward to seeing Alonso at Indy. I will never fail to find drivers switching disciplines interesting, whether it’s Fernando Alonso or Bryan Clauson or Kurt Busch.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      After reading the opinion, “IMS officials, who are in the business of selling tickets and pleasing fans .. ” , the thought came to mind that it might be rephrased to reflect the current business priorities, “IMS officials who are in the business of selling tickets, making money, and pleasing the front office……

    • I totally agree with you. I voted Alonso coming to Indy as a brilliant move.

  11. At first, I thought this was a delayed April Fool’s joke. Then, it turned out to be true. It’s totally understandable that Alonso is seeking a new challenge, given the car he has to settle for the rest of this F1 season is an underperforming one. However, it is bewildering that McLaren lets him run elsewhere at the time of the Monaco GP which is about the only race on the F1 calendar at which an underpowered car can score. It must be more important for the team to keep their lead driver happy than to score at the only race they probably have a chance at scoring this season, which is odd, to say the least. My guess is Ron Dennis would not have allowed this to happen, not even on behalf of the team’s engine supplier Honda.

    Also, Alonso looking for new adventures can be seen as a sign of impatience. But you need plenty of patience to do well in the Indy 500. Here’s hoping he will have a good and safe race.

    Also here’s a correction to your blog post: there is a typo: the team was called Benetton.

  12. Chris Lukens Says:

    There are some aspects of “PR Stunt” to this, but not nearly as much as some are trying to make out. It’s my understanding that Alonso has been very complimentary of the 500 in the past and said he wanted to race there and this just seems to be the right year to do it. I wish him well.
    The person I really feel for is Stephan Wilson. If you think he gave up that seat “for the good of the series” then I have some ocean front property in Kansas you might be interested in. No, he was forced out of that seat because Honda refused to provide another engine. The same scenario we have seen happen to several other Indy- only drivers and teams over the last several years.

    • The question then, would be: “what team would have run said 19th Honda engine?” Is there another Honda team with the manpower to add yet another car? It wouldn’t have been Andretti (they would have had RHR, Marco, Rossi, Taku, Harvey and Stef, and Alonso would have theoretically been a SEVENTH car). Schmidt? They’ve got three already (Hinch, Aleshin and Howard). Coyne? They’ve got three, too (Bourdais, Jones and Pippa). Rahal? Two cars already (Graham and Oriol), which is more than their regular one car. Ganassi? They’re at four already (Dixon, TK, Kimball and Chilton). So, unless Honda was gonna lean on Chip to run a fifth (which, if that were the case, there’s your best landing spot for Alonso, anyway), on Rahal to run a third or Coyne or SPM to find the folks to run a fourth car, then there’s no garage for a 19th car to come out of, anyway.

      There are a lot of moving parts here. Sure, engines are one of them, but there are a lot of moving parts that have two legs and two arms that are necessary to make the cars go, too.

  13. Bruce Waine Says:

    INDY 500: Bump Day Happened This Week And No One Noticed
    by Stephen Cox On Fri, Apr. 14, 2017

    Stephen Cox Blog Presented by McGunegill Engine Performance
    As most racing fans know, two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso is slated to run the Indianapolis 500 in a Honda-powered entry from Andretti Autosport.

    Less well known is the fact that my Electric GT Championship competitor, Stefan Wilson, was bumped out of his confirmed seat with Andretti so that Alonso could inherit the ride. In return for quietly stepping away from a confirmed Indy 500 seat, Wilson was promised a grab bag of favors including preferential treatment for a future ride.

    This deal makes sense for everyone on a lot of levels. But why did the deal have to be cut in the first place? Why aren’t there plenty of cars and engines to go around for any qualified driver who wants to enter? This is where it gets ugly.

    Indycar’s adoption of manufacturer-supplied engines has created an artificial shortage of open seats. Both of Indycar’s approved engine suppliers, Honda and Chevrolet, control their costs by placing strict limits on the number of engines they will make available to Indycar teams.

    The series has outlawed independent engine providers, chassis builders and tire manufacturers. You can only race what Indycar tells you to buy. Honda and Chevy aren’t willing to outfit additional teams, and why should they? With the field roughly divided in half between the two engine builders, providing more motors doesn’t significantly increase their chances of winning the world’s biggest race but it drives their costs through the roof.

    And this is not the first time the situation has occurred. Pippa Mann had full funding for a shot at Indy a couple of years ago, but once again, an engine shortage figured heavily into the equation. Now Stefan Wilson is out of a ride so that Indycar can reap the benefits of drawing an F1 champ to the 500. Engine supply has become a major limiting factor in drawing any new teams or drivers to the Indy 500.

    I’m delighted to see Alonso in the race, but this didn’t have to happen. And it shouldn’t have happened. Bumping drivers out of the race should happen on Bump Day during qualifying, not in corporate boardrooms in April.
    Note to Indycar – people will pay to see this drama if you will put it on the track.

    Can you imagine the racing world’s enthusiasm if Wilson and Alonso had settled this at 230 mph while fighting over the final grid spot on Bump Day? Instead, we have no drama at all. Unless he misses his flight to Indianapolis, Alonso’s spot is virtually guaranteed because we barely have enough cars to hold the race, let alone the newly revamped Bump Day which seems to generate little interest.

    Spec car racing has had 20 years to do something other than fail, yet Indycar can still barely fill its own field each May. The series should open up the formula and allow new chassis builders, engine suppliers and drivers to compete.

    Stephen Cox
    Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions
    Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN
    Driver, Electric GT Championship, Super Cup Stock Car Series

  14. Alonso running the Indy 500 is shocking. I would never have expected one of the main F1 drivers (Kimi/Alonso/Hamilton/Roseburg/Vettel/Button) to actually do it. Skipping Monaco yet still being a full time F1 driver is also. . . interesting. I really hope that this helps get McLaren into Indycar, that would be good. It also shows the potential for a different and hopefully more healthy relationship with Formula One, their new owners, the United States in general and Indycar/IMS in particular. Bernie always hated the USA, but since there are American’s running F1 now (I think) that should be a thing of the past.

    If anything, the relationship between Major League Soccer and the top European leagues is something that Indycar/F1 can develop. IE: top european teams come here to play the All Star game (long story), there are some loans of development players, and pre season matches.

  15. I used to comment on here a long time ago. For various reasons, I sort of fell away from following Indycar for a few years. I was always an F1 fan first. As I’ve gotten back into Indycar last year and this year, I’ve learned to really appreciate this blog. Thank you, George, for being a positive voice amongst a very negative blogosphere. As an F1 fan dips into Indycar, I am thrilled that Alonso is going to race in the Indianapolis 500.

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