Guaranteed Indy 500 entries: get mad or get involved

Guaranteed Indy 500 entries was the hand-grenade Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti collectively lobbed into IndyCar last week. Fans – indignant at yet another assault on one of the few remaining month of May traditions – have been unequivocal in their response.

But as Andy Webb writes, instead of digging in for a fight  we probably cannot win, this could be an opportunity for fans to shape the discussion and perhaps even prevent guaranteed entries from becoming a reality.

Do we stay mad or get involved?

Chip Ganassi admitted on social media last week – in the face of fierce criticism of the proposal – that alternative options might need to be considered. It was not a commitment but it demonstrated that he at least had not expected such a strong reaction from fans.

Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske chat at the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma 2019=8
Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske agree that full-time entries deserve automatic entry to the Indy 500. (Image: IndyCar)

Which presents a rare opportunity for fans to play a role in shaping the discussion. Certainly a more constructive alternative than continuing to throw tantrums on Twitter or selling anti-guaranteed entry t-shirts on eBay.

Penske, Ganassi and Andretti  represent half the full-time IndyCar field so it should have come as no surprise that Mark Miles is already warming to the idea. Both sides understand from bitter experience that they need each other to survive, let alone prosper. Which is why IndyCar is unlikely to go toe-to-toe with the team owners on this issue.

Guaranteed entries are not set in stone, yet

Unless we all vote with our feet and make the stands at the 500 look like the Brickyard 400, change is coming. What form it takes, however,  is not yet set in stone.

Finding common ground will be very challenging. Team owners consider the situation to be rather black and white; they cannot afford to risk failing to make the field of 33 for the Indy 500 as part of a full-season entry.

James Hinchcliffe during practice for the 2019 Indy 500
James Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports were on the outside looking in after Bump Day in 2018. (Image: IndyCar)

It is debatable whether the raw data bears out Michael Andretti’s assertion that a DNQ at Indy can send primary sponsors running for the hills. But that is the position they have adopted and it cannot be ignored.

Why do Penske, Ganassi and Andretti fear ‘bump day’?

Looking at it from their perspective, it is easy to see why they fear bump day at Indy. But in doing so it also highlights where there might be options that could appease all sides, fans included.

As has been widely suggested already, removing double-points is the simplest solution.

Quite why the Indy 500 needed double-points in the first place has always escaped me. The heritage and sheer spectacle of practice, qualifying and the race are enough to make even the uninitiated understand that this is a race like no other.

Dropping double-points at Indianapolis

For team owners double-points are a double-edged sword: do well and you could be looking at a championship run; fail to qualify and the rest of the season is going to be a painful slog carrying some seriously unhappy sponsors.

For the likes of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti – who between them have won every IndyCar championship since 2003 – that is unacceptable. Given how close the 2018 title fight was – and all the signs are 2019 will be no different – a DNQ at Indy is unthinkable.

Would such a simple solution fly? It is doubtful.

Double-points are a minor headache compared to the full-on migraine of failing to make the field for the Indianapolis 500. As long as IMS remains the jewel in the IndyCar crown, teams and sponsors need to be in the race.

Creating a safety-net for full-time entries

The very nature of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway creates unknowns. Which is something well-organised, highly professional outfits like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti intensely dislike.

They employ the best engineers to ensure they enter qualifying and race day with as few unknowns as possible. But IMS always retains the potential to stump them with strange weather, crazy changes in wind direction or an inexplicable encounter with the SAFER barrier.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Pagoda

Introducing a safety net of sorts might be enough to appease the team owners. For example, offering full-season entrants an additional run (or runs) on bump day or a way to influence the running order could maintain the drama but reduce the risk of a DNQ.

One-off entries may well still turn up with a better package and beat the big guns. Even if full-season entries get an additional run or a chance to pick when they run, a team that has been chasing a set-up all month is unlikely to turn it around on bump day.

A slow car is a slow car and at the Brickyard that is magnified more than anywhere else on the IndyCar schedule. The question, of course, is whether team owners would feel the risk had been reduced enough with the introduction of a few ‘joker’ cards to play on bump day.

Guaranteed Indy 500 entries, but not quite

An alternative starting point could be something I’m going to loosely call ‘double bubble’.

Positions 31-33 will be up for grabs on bump day this year, packaged as the ‘Last Row Shootout’. A departure from the familiar scenario of the slowest car in the field of 33 being ‘on the bubble’. Any entry – fulltime or otherwise – will have the chance to bump their way into one of the final three grid positions.

James Hinchcliffe faces the media after being bumped from the field for the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
James Hinchcliffe faces the media after being bumped from the field for the 2018 Indianapolis 500. (Image: IndyCar)

By allocating one of the slots exclusively to full-season entries and the remaining two for all cars, including full-timers, the chances of qualification are enhanced but not assured for championship regulars. This would in effect create a ‘double bubble’ at any given time during bump day – one in the guaranteed slot and two from the ranks of full-time, part-time and single-car entries.

In practical terms the speedway retains the bump day tradition – albeit in revised form –  and fans witness the drama of multiple cars on the bubble throughout the session.

The risk facing full-season entries is reduced significantly but not eliminated completely. Were both Andretti and Penske to have a car on the outside looking in along with one-offs from McLaren, DRR and Juncos, potentially only one of the big guns could make the field if the part-timers put out faster cars.

Decision-time: do we get angry or get involved?

Admittedly these are just ideas complete with flaws, weaknesses and issues inherent to each one. Feel free to pick holes and make your own suggestions below but we need to accept that some degree of change is coming.

We can either try and play a positive role in shaping it or stamp our feet, get mad on Twitter and watch it happen anyway.

 

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