IndyCar | Prepare To Qualify

Would significantly altering the tradition of Indy 500 qualifying result in a guaranteed PR failure for the IndyCar Series?

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IndyCar | Prepare To Qualify
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When I was a kid, one of my favorite arcade racing games to play was Pole Position. Developed by Namco, and published by Atari, it was the Star Wars of racing games way back in the early '80s. It was revolutionary, at the time, and inspired so many other titles that followed it.

Besides the colorful sprites and engaging sounds, the game made you do something that very few, if any, did at the time - you had to qualify first. Hearing that jarring message before the proceedings, while watching the banner fly across the screen, gives me nostalgic chills to this very day. If you've ever played or at least seen the game in action, you know that the consequences of going off track and hitting an object were disastrous. It was the risk that increased the thrill, whether you qualified on pole or spent a portion of your lap in a fireball of destructive debris. It illuminated the risk and reward of getting the best from yourself before you could even participate in the featured race.

Much has been expressed recently about the not-so-subtle desire of full-time team owners to have a guaranteed spot in the Indy 500.

The possibility has been discussed ad nauseam over the past few decades. Roger Penske, the man who understands the bitter taste of not making it into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, tossed this verbal grenade around the IndyCar paddock last year after James Hinchcliffe and the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team failed to qualify. A full season championship contender was unceremoniously bumped out, at the end of qualifying, and the repercussions were much more than just financial. In a recent interview with the associated press, Chip Ganassi cleverly kicked that grenade into the center of the room, and conversation, by agreeing with his championship adversary and diversely successful peer. Michael Andretti, who also has his fingers in lots of motorsport pies, echoed their sentiments. Needless to say, it's been met with an overwhelming amount of backlash from fans, drivers, and media personalities.

It's a very touchy subject, because the greatest appeal of a race that is putting on its 103rd event is the tradition that goes along with it. As a child, a teen, and an adult there are individuals who have witnessed, at home or firsthand, the nationalistic splendor that is the Indianapolis 500. For them and many others, there should only be 11 rows of 3 drivers each year. The fastest of those 33 should race, while the others watch on Memorial Day weekend. "Back Home Again in Indiana" should always be sung before the race, and don't you dare drink anything other than ice cold milk in Victory Lane. A pace car victory lap, kissing the bricks, and so many other traditions are what provide us with an overwhelming feeling of familiarity, whether it's your fifth time watching the race or your fiftieth.

If you change something as significant as the "Bump Day" procedures, allowing full-season teams to have a guaranteed spot on the grid regardless of their overall speed leading up to the race, then what's next to be changed? A remixed anthem, an alternative celebratory drink, and a start/finish line victory selfie should all be on the table for discussion then. The subsequent effect of bending to a few, no matter how much power and influence they wield, could be catastrophic for the whole series. We've seen this all before...

The NTT IndyCar Series is thriving because there is uniformity amongst its participants. Everyone has self-interests but they also know that the current health and future growth of the brand is what's most important. Sponsors want to get a return on their multi-million dollar investments, but they too should know that motorsport is one of the riskiest endeavors you can get involved in. There are so many variables to consider, things that can be out of your control, and mistakes that can be made either in preparation or on the track. No matter how successful your team is, you can get caught out by a rain delay or a loose tire pressure sensor that forces you to abandon what turned out to be a last ditch effort to make the race. Every event provides its own set of risks, but none in the series has as big a reward as the Indy 500.

It's why teams and drivers who can't afford to race for the full 17 race season position themselves for that momentous attempt, when they might be the ones who show up and upset the favorites. Putting all your proverbial eggs in one basket provides as great a risk as the potential reward, if you don't make it. All that preparation, promotion, and money spent feels as if it was done in vain if you're one of the participants who are bumped out. If you are a regular season contender, and you're just not fast enough, you don't deserve to be in the show. It's that simple.

Rather than add further salt to a wound that's hopefully healed by now, I didn't choose a picture of James Hinchcliffe from last year's failed qualifying attempt. I purposefully chose the 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi. The greatest thing about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is that it is indiscriminate. It doesn't care whether you're a full-season, part-time, or wildcard entrant. It doesn't care about the number of times you've previously triumphed on its sacred tarmac. It doesn't even care what motorsport accolades you've achieved in other racing series or categories.

It will graciously bless you and unapologetically belittle you no matter who you are, where you come from, or what team you race for.

Few people may recall that Rossi and his Andretti Autosport team qualified on the last row for the 2018 race. It's less significant now because what we remember most is how they performed in the race. The audacious moves on the outside of Turn 1 and brilliantly executed strategy resulted in a well-earned 4th place finish. Nearly missing the race provided what they would feel was unnecessary drama, but it made their ascension through the field all the more impressive. It's the race that matters most, but it should only be for the fastest 33!

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