My, How Things Have Changed!

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

16 Responses to “My, How Things Have Changed!”

  1. Definitely not. Will turn people off in droves. It’s the very unpredictability which is the thrill. What is the matter with them?

  2. Remember the title of Mark Donohue’s book about him and Penske: “The Unfair Advantage”

  3. This is a bad idea. Historically, traditionally, competitively, dramatically–this is a very bad idea. It is such an anti-Indianapolis 500 idea that it’s implementation would seriously make me question my interest in the 500 and the series.

  4. David Rinehart Says:

    I believe that this is a done deal for next year. Mark Miles will roll over for the owners. The stage is set.

  5. Great post, George. Your last sentence says it all.

  6. colum1357 Says:

    The more I think about it, maybe Penske is right. But he’s just not thinking big enough. He spends a whole big bunch of sponsor money, why shouldn’t he be guaranteed the front row? After all, the front row gets all the photo’s and publicity and cool stuff. How about a guaranteed Victory Lane? That would surely make his sponsor’s happy.

  7. James T Suele Says:

    This is the sorriest thing I have ever heard of. No racing welfare! You must earn your way into this field. We are in the best economy in years, as the TV ratings go up the sponsors will come with it. This crap is just the big owners trying to control the race. IndyCar is on the way up, this would destroy all we have gained. It would destroy the integrity of the Indianapolis 500. I say hell no!

  8. billytheskink Says:

    The very idea is spectacularly disrespectful to all of the folks who have risked their bank accounts and health trying (and many times failing) to qualify for the 500. Indy is competition.

    The fans don’t want this. I can’t imagine the Speedway or NBC wants it, it does nothing good for their qualifying day gate/broadcasts. It’s nakedly and blatantly self-serving for a handful (not even all) of team owners.

  9. I don’t like this either, however the 500 was a mere shadow of itself until the regulars returned……

  10. Mark Wick Says:

    I voted “no”. As a wee lad just arrived from Glasgow, Scotland in 1958, I listened to the Indianapolis 500 on the radio with my Dad, who had been to several races.
    We listened each year through the 1962 race while marking the 10-lap standings in the newspaper spread out on the bed.
    In 1963 Dad and I went to the race, sitting across from the pits, courtesy of tickets provided by my uncle, and executive at Channel 6, then WFBM.
    In 1964 and 1966 I listened to the race by myself, while working on building models of the 500 cars, as Mom went to her first, and only two laps of the race in ’64 (the Sachs-McDonald crash happened right in from of them and she immediately went back to the car) and in ’66 my sister went to her first race.
    I participated in the 500 Festival Parade and the pre-race parade of bands around the track with the Lafayette Jeff High School band in ’67-’69. I was a spectator ’70 and ’71.
    I covered every race from 1972 through 1995, first as a sports writer, then as a sports editor, but mostly as a photographer. Most of those years I was at the track every day during the month.
    Then came “The Split” and the 25/8 rule and there was no race worth my time to cover and even bother to follow.
    When the Indianapolis 500 returned in 2001,I was back covering the race as a photographer for AP, and covered the race through 2003 and deciding to retire from race photography.
    I was a spectator for several races since, including the only two in which a rookie was leading exiting Turn Four on the last lap, but finished second. I worked on the Safety Patrol for three races, working the inside back stretch and Turn Three every day of the month. When Marco Andretti flipped in the inside grass at the end of the back stretch, I was stationed at the gate the emergency vehicles use to access the track at the entrance to Turn Three. When Marco’s car came to rest and he flipped up his helmet visor, our eyes met.
    I left Indiana six years ago, but have followed the month of May with great interest as closely as I can.
    There are many other worthwhile ways I can spend my time, and I will, if series regulars are guaranteed starting positions next year.
    The Indianapolis 500 came back once. For me, it won’t be able to make a second comeback.

  11. I guess the uproar amongst the leading team owners is going to calm down once this year’s single car effort by McLaren has delivered decidedly average results and shown that you can’t just come in and steal the show, even if you are an F1 team. However, if a 3rd manufacturer showed up with a works team at the Indianapolis 500 next year for Indy-only efforts in the coming years, the outcry for a 25/8 might start again.

    To be honest, if qualifying were to take place over 2 days (at least), a scenario becomes less and less likely in which a regular would fail to qualify due to bad timing. So let’s not require everybody to qualify twice anymore. Let Saturday be Pole Day and Sunday be Bump Day. No more Fast 9 but to get the pole, a competitor must be fast right out of the trailer. Problem solved.

  12. I love the NHRA because there is a chance that you miss the show, John Force has missed races. Their big event is also in Indy and sometimes the drivers who miss is a bigger list than who made the 16 car field. It’s exciting. NASCAR used to have some of that also, on a crazy weekend a backmarker might push out a decent car.

    If you can’t make it in on several tries, do you belong? Michele Jordain and Hinch, 2 bigger names to miss (or at least big teams) recently, those 2 had no speed for whatever reason and they didn’t belong in the show.

    I am fearful we are going to see Penske, Ganassi and Andretti split off again, with Indy and the rest will end up in another IRL debacle series in a few years.

  13. The Observer Says:

    I started watching Indy 500 when I accidently stumbled on it on TV in 2005. Didn’t know anything about it but absolutely loved the tradition and competition of it. I have supported the series entirely since then. It would be suicide to have locked in entries for full time drivers…I cannot imagine a worse scenario when a driver is not quick enough to be in fastest 33, gets privileged into starting spot and wins the race. Puts the integrity of the indy 500 and reflects on the win as a sham…because you should not have been in the field in the first place. It would be such a joke. The full time teams already have an advantage in the first place and are bitching about it. Just shut up and be quick. This is the risk you take and sponsors take when you are competing.

  14. Ron Ford Says:

    The qualifying system worked fine for many years. I began attending as a boy in 1954. I think there should be two days of qualifying, bumping only on the second day, and the fastest 33 make the race. If a one off Novi or a six wheel car bumped a regular out of the race, so be it, that added drama and fan interest. Who remembers the drama of when a team pulled its time with an hour to go on the last day, fearing a bump, and attempted to qualify at a faster speed? ELIMINATE THE FAST NINE AND DOUBLE POINTS. The teams and fans should not need a handbook to understand the qualifying rules, just a single sheet of paper.
    Enough about that. Trivia question: Which driver had a job washing dishes at a restaurant across from the track just to be near Gasoline Alley in case a race ride became available. Try that on DD’s call in program.

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