A hot topic ahead of this year’s month of May at Indianapolis was the idea of guaranteeing starting places in the 500 for full-time IndyCar entrants. Roger Penske was among those who spoke out in favor of that concept, and repeated his viewpoint in a press conference earlier today at IMS.
“I think the people who invest in the sport and are building the sport today to where it is, I think we have great momentum from the press, from our TV partners, to commit to the full season, not to have an opportunity to race here,” Penske said.
“Things might have been different when there were 15 or 16 cars trying to qualify in the previous years. But under the current situation, if you’re going to commit and run the whole season, you should have an opportunity to run in this race.”
Asked whether such a development would not run counter to the tradition of starting the 33 fastest cars, Penske replied, “Well, there’s a lot of traditions that change here, right? They have a road race here, a Formula 1 race, a NASCAR race here. To me, it’s a sign of the times.”
However, Penske’s opinion was countered by Graham Rahal and his father and team co-owner, Bobby Rahal, who famously failed to qualify at Indy as a driver in 1993, the year after he won the CART IndyCar championship.
“Having been on the bad side of that situation, some would say, in ’93, I can tell you for a team it’s gut-wrenching, particularly given the effort,” noted Bobby Rahal.
“Inevitably, in the good old days, there were a lot of people that would go home very disappointed.
“I think it’s amazing that we’re in the situation we are now, where we have more than the 33 entries. I think that signifies the commercial viability of the series because we have sponsors and teams willing to enter and participate, new teams participating. Personally I think it should be the way it’s always about – the fastest 33 and that’s that.
“Last year I was not sleeping well the night before qualifying because it was looking a little bit marginal. Obviously we had no problem in the end. That’s part of the lore, mystique of the Indy 500 – you’ve got to suck it up and get it done on qualifying day.
“As much as it would be nice to have that guarantee where we don’t have to worry about it, especially as a long-term, season-long entrant, I think that is not loyal to the history of the Speedway and the history of the 500. I think the way it is is the way it should be. I think clearly, spectators have made their voices pretty clear on that. Let’s just go qualify and go racing.”
Graham Rahal was even more emphatic that the traditional approach to determining the “500” field should not be abandoned.
“When Dad missed in ’93, he was the champion in ’92, and obviously last year it very easily could have been us. I really, really, really was nervous that it was going to be us. In the end was Hinch (James Hinchcliffe). That was an extremely unfortunate situation, one of the biggest names in the sport sitting on the sidelines.
“If you guarantee spots, it just follows the path of, in my opinion, a lot of society, which is that you don’t have to earn it, you can just get it. I don’t stand by that. To me, you got to go out there and work for it. Our teams work awfully hard. We worked awfully hard last year, and it could have been us. Would it be hard on United Rentals, on every partner that we have that puts a lot into this? For sure. But it’s the name of the game and you’ve got to earn it.”