Graham Rahal Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS 500 MEDITATIONS, PART TWO: THE 4th INDY GRAND PRIX PREVIEW

If this is the second week in May, this must mean that rookie orientation is done and we are queueing up for the first of two qualifying weekends for the 101st Indianapolis 500 … No wait, this year one of the few rookies is 35-years-old, has already won the Formula 1 Title twice and qualifying is almost a misnomer…

Chain-smoking historian Shelby Foote once stated that what led to the American Civil War was that we as Americans lost one of our great attributes: Our ability to compromise. Like many things in this world once considered sacrosanct, Indianapolis’s “Month of May” time trials leading up to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” ain’t what she used to be and is, in all actuality, an exercise in compromise.

With an expected 33 entries for 33 positions this year, there is no point in two weeks worth of testing and four days of qualifying anymore — in fact, these days somehow Bump Day is the day before Pole Day.

Fernando Alonso Indy 500

Not fake news: Alonso will be rocking a Honda at Indy for Team McLaren and Andretti Autosport.

At its peak, Pole Day at the Indianapolis 500 drew 200,000 spectators. But that was years ago, when qualifying meant something… So with no Pole Day today, we have in its stead the 4th IndyCar Grand Prix — not on an oval, but on a road course. How did we get here?

In a word, attrition.

Today, even if one could cobble enough coin to put together an entry and attempt to bump his or her way into the Indianapolis 500, it wouldn’t guarantee one taking possession of an actual engine — the days of garage-based hot-rodders wrenching on their own mounts has been supplanted long ago by engine leases.

Manufacturers Honda and Chevrolet, the sole engine providers for the IndyCar series, are hard-pressed to provide enough 2.2 liter, twin-turbocharged V6 power plants to propel enough monocoque chassis past the green flag come the last Sunday of May in Indianapolis — and barely enough to even fill the field.

Road courses are a staple of IndyCar, but the twisties are still a challenging discipline. –Photo by Doug Matthews

Even if one earns enough money and has the wherewithal, one is not guaranteed an entry into the Indianapolis 500. It’s like the laws of supply and demand and the parameters of achieving the American Dream have somehow been subverted by the “corporations-are-people” axiom.

Ergo, you can have a man with his heart in the right place and an open checkbook, such as English race-car driver Stefan Wilson, and still not get fitted for a seat.  Last year Wilson put together an Indy 500 program as an homage to his brother Justin, who was killed at Pocono in 2015. In keeping with that sentimental tradition, Stefan organized another entry this year, driving for Andretti Autosport.  Everything was groovy and greenlit until F1 hotshot Fernando Alonso decided he would run Indy.

“We were working with Stefan Wilson on putting a deal together for a sixth car,” Michael Andretti said at the press conference announcing that deal. “And then when (Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company) approached me (about running Alonso), we started a dialogue with Stefan to see if he would be willing to step aside for this one and hopefully get something together for next year.”

Michael Andretti Indy 500

Team owner Michael Andretti speaks during the Fernando Alonso press conference at Barber Motorsports Park — Photo by: Christopher Owens

This is where agenda trumps tribute.

“It was really difficult obviously because the Indy 500 — I live and breathe for it,” Wilson said. “I’ve spent 12 months trying to get to this point, so it’s definitely hard from that standpoint. But when it really comes down to it, I wanted to put the interest of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series first.”

Which is very noble, of course. But if somebody tells you that these days all you need to achieve your dreams are guts, determination, and dedication — well, if there ain’t enough hardware available because of the dictates of engine leases and corporate profit/loss ratios sheer desire ain’t enough.

So Alonso is in and Wilson is out — bumped not by the speed charts, but by the art of the deal.

Alonso has an objective which is to acquire more leverage in F1 after the once indomitable McLaren has now become as mid-pack exercise in mediocrity.

The talk of Gasoline Alley is that at age 35, “Freddy Eyebrows” may be finessing a segue from F1 to IndyCar — not unlike Nigel Mansell in the ‘90s and Juan Pablo Montoya at the turn of the century, and with lesser success, journeymen like Takuma Sato and Rubens Barrichello. Ironically, Alonso will be missing the twisty circuit built into Indy’s infield, now the domain of the Indy Grand Prix on the course once constructed for the Formula 1 race at Indy during the during the Tony George years.

Yes Martha, in order to turn lemons into lemonade Hulman & Company and its Indianapolis Motor Speedway has established an IndyCar road-course Grand Prix using a track laid out for Bernie Ecclestone before he before he strong-armed the Speedway with exorbitant sanction fees. (Alonso raced the circuit in those days, finishing 2nd at the race’s last running here ten years ago — so this won’t be his first opportunity to grab a post-race pork tenderloin at the local Mug-n-Bun.)

Anyway, the Indy GP solves two dilemmas for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: 1) What to do with a road course that is often mothballed; and 2) How can we call this thing “the Month of May” when there are only 33 cars and no bumping and no point in prolonged testing?

Yes, the Indy Grand Prix is an exercise in improvisation and compromise. Yes, compromise — the lack of which caused the Civil War.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but one could argue that the inability to compromise is what caused open-wheel racing’s IRL/CART split in 1996 — a schism that the sport is still recovering from.  (There were 8,000 people at the IndyCar race in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago).

And with the Month of May being the Month of May in name only, and despite any stigma of compromise, the Indy Grand Prix is an exercise in healing that has turned into a pretty fine race, actually, and certainly healthier than a tenderloin. –

-The INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indy airs on ABC on Sunday, May 13th at 3:30PM to 6:00PM EST.

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