The moment of truth

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Is this the end of the Indy 500 as we know it? The IRL’s radical qualifying proposals have led to serious threat of a boycott in 1996…

Is that the sound of the Division Bell ringing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

The Indy Racing League’s decision to reserve 25 of the 33 starting spots in the 1996 Indianapolis 500 for IRL regulars may have pushed the conflict between the Indy Racing League and IndyCar beyond the point of no return. IndyCar teams must now either race in the first two IRL events of 1996, at Disney World in January and Phoenix in April, or risk having just a slim chance of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

IMS president Tony George applied his own spin to the rule.

“We wanted to find a way of involving the Indianapolis 500 directly in the series structure and not just as a points-counting race in an existing series,” he said. “That required us to look at qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. There are pros and cons, but I’m comfortable with the new rules.

“We’re trying to create a series that welcomes everyone, that encourages and rewards participation. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I hope everyone will participate in our series – it’s open to everyone. We’re not holding a gun to people’s heads.”

“That’s exactly what he’s doing,” said Derrick Walker. “But it’s the only thing he can do to get teams to go to his races. If he asked politely nobody would go because nobody can afford to compete in the extra races.”

Even George admits that next year’s Indianapolis 500 field might not consist of the 33 fastest cars.

“I’ve thought a lot about the possibility of not having the fastest 33 cars in the race,” says George. “But there are two aspects to Indianapolis qualifying and the race. The race is what everybody tunes in for. Qualifying gets a lot of publicity with the pole and then some more on Bump Day, but let’s face it, the reason we’re all here is for the race.”

But what kind of race will it be if only 25 per cent of the field qualifies strictly on merit?

“The Indianapolis 500 is the greatest race in the world: this turns it into an exhibition,” says Dale Coyne. “Some of the fastest cars might not be in the race. That’s not sport. There’s no other major race in the world Le Mans, Daytona, Monaco where qualifying is automatic.”

“Whether you’re Dale Coyne or Ron Hemelgarn, you take a lot of pride in qualifying for the race and beating teams with more resources.”

“The idea that participation gives you rights whether or not you’ve qualified is against what racing is all about to me,” said Bobby Rahal. “Speaking as a driver, it makes whether I’m better than somebody else irrelevant… I have no interest in racing against warm bodies.

“It’s a very heavy handed approach of forcing people to attend something they might otherwise not attend. But there’s no way I’d support a race or a series to the point that it would be a detriment to my fellow drivers who I compete against day in and day out, and who may not be able to participate just because they happen to qualify ninth fastest.”

In a television interview, George downplayed the importance of the traditional qualifying format.

“Tradition should be a consideration,” he said, “but not a priority.”

Coyne and Rahal also had some things to say about tradition.

“I understand what Tony wants to do,” said Coyne, “but politics should never come onto the playing field. Look what’s happened to baseball. Look what happened to the Monaco Formula 3 race. For years it was the race for up and coming drivers. The driver who won Monaco was destined lot stardom, virtually guaranteed of an F1 ride. Then politics took over and now it means nothing.”

“What makes Indianapolis so special what makes qualifying there so pressure-packed is that there are no gimmes,” said Rahal. “One little slip and you go from Row 1 to Row 5, or maybe you don’t qualify at all. I can’t believe that anybody would want to mess with that.

“Traditions come and go. Le Mans use to be all that mattered in racing. Remember Ford spent millions to win Le Mans, not Monaco, and in the 1960s lots of people in the United States knew who won Le Mans every year. And now? It just goes to show that traditions can be diminished by improper actions.”

Are the IndyCar team owners doing the unthinkable and considering a boycott of the Indy 500? Don’t bet against it.

“There are a surprising number of teams big and small, who are prepared not to go to Indianapolis next year,” said Coyne.

“I think our series can compete and succeed without Indianapolis,” says Rahal.

No question Indianapolis is a big part of our series, but people come to see Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jnr, Paul Tracy… Bobby Rahal. They come to see the players: you have to recognise that is reality.

“Would it have a negative effect if Indianapolis wasn’t part of the series? Sure. But would it affect the crowds at Road America or Long Beach?”

There is even talk that IndyCar will stage a race of its own next May – the real 500 as some are already calling it most likely at Michigan International Speedway. After all, it’s asking too much of any sponsor to stand by IndyCar on purely moral or emotional grounds. Indycar has to give the sponsors something of more or less equal value to the Indy 500.

“What’s the Indy 500 draw on television?,” asked one team owner. “An eight rating? Our average rating is around a three, so maybe we run three extra races.”

And most IndyCar teams could probably run three extra races and still come out ahead by not spending the month of May at Indianapolis.

“It’s hard to put a precise number on it, but I’d say that in terms of direct expenses about 30 per cent of our annual budget is dedicated to running at Indianapolis,” said Rahal. “Compared to a normal race, you’ve got seven or eight engine rebuilds compared to one; 25 days of hotels and versus three and on and on. Even the guy who wins probably only breaks even on direct expenses.

“At this point it’s going to take a lot of give, frankly, from the Speedway’s side… Contrary to what you might have read or heard, (IndyCar president) Andrew Craig does speak for the owners. He has our total support. And he’s met with Tony and made some fairly bold suggestions which, apparently, were never considered. It looks pretty bleak.

“Let me make one thing clear: it’s my hope that we’re racing at Indianapolis next May. But at the same time, we’re not the ones making these changes. If the reality is what we fear, it’ll be interesting… I think everybody understands this is the moment of truth as to how Indycar racing goes forward into the 21st century.

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