Walking towards Gasoline Alley last May after McLaren’s meltdown and trying to imagine the shock around the racing world to hear that Fernando Alonso was headed home, I came upon two fans that couldn’t contain their joy: “I’m glad Alonso missed the show,” said one. “Yeah, Indy doesn’t need him,” added his friend.
Now, I get that a lot of people were highly entertained by the bumping process when Kyle Kaiser and Ricardo Juncos’ tiny team ousted mighty McLaren and the two-time Formula 1 champion — it was a dramatic moment that made for a great story. And it was a reminder of the fact money and reputation are not always successful at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But, get a grip folks. It wasn’t good for the Indianapolis 500 not to have Alonso in the field. Hell no. In this day when true superstars in motorsports are few and far between, the 38-year-old Spaniard commands an international audience and a star power like Brabham, Clark, Stewart, Hill and Rindt in the 1960s, Fittipaldi in the 1970s and ’80s, and Mansell in the ’90s. His presence is worth millions of television viewers and still draws the universal respect of the written word. Last year prior to an F1 race Jackie Stewart told my pal Nigel Roebuck: “It’s such a pity that the most complete driver in the world isn’t even in it.”
Alonso is a world class racer who raises Indy’s profile and, for my money, he’s also a first class competitor who instantly embraced Indy’s traditions and handled the 2019 gut shot here with poise and grace rarely seen in today’s generation. That’s why I’m thrilled he’s coming back to the Speedway with a decent chance in his third appearance and can’t wait to see how he meshes with engineer extraordinaire Craig Hampson at Arrow McLaren SP.
But, as much as his talent should be valued, it’s his attitude and personality that make him such a welcome face at 16th & Georgetown.
“The Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated in,” Alonso admitted to NBC’s Leigh Diffey last week. “The atmosphere, the adrenaline, even the milk that arrives on Sunday morning, you understand the importance of the moment.
“The fans are amazing, the show is unbelievable and the speed is quite different on an oval. Once you experience the Indy 500 it will remain always in your heart.”
Some critics like to portray Alonso as a heartless mercenary who only cares about money, isn’t a good teammate and throws a bad car or engine under the bus without a wisp of regret. Of course that description fits a number of American stars back in the day and maybe it’s accurate. Alonso said in his teleconference last week that he didn’t think Honda of Japan had a problem with him and everyone — including Michael Andretti, whose deal with Fernando fell through at the last minute — is playing nice about the Japanese manufacturer.
I don’t care if everybody lied and that Japan is still acting pissy because I understand the frustration Alonso experienced in his final F1 years with McLaren and criticism has always been part of racing’s landscape. But last May was the most opportune time of all for Fernando to throw down on his team and he refused. The unprepared fire drill that left him outside looking in was ripe for a blistering critique but he faced the music and handled the humiliation with dignity instead of darts.
He also showed a true understanding of what he was up against early in practice. He laughed and gave me the green light when I had asked him if it was OK to call him Fred on television since it gave him an American ring. So Borg-Warner’s Steve Shunck made up some decals that said: “Fast Freddie” and we passed them out. But Alonso motioned me over to the corner and said: “Maybe we should wait before putting these on. I don’t feel very fast yet.”
Two years removed from qualifying fifth, leading 27 laps, handling traffic like a 10-year oval-track veteran and having a real chance to add Indy to his resplendent resume, Alonso got a rude reality check and didn’t qualify through no fault of his own. But he said it made him more determined than ever to come back in 2020.
“Last year was a hard one for everyone but maybe it was a necessity to become better and stronger this year to have a shot,” he said. “Even if it’s the third attempt, it feels like the first one, and you feel the month of May is going to be important once more for your career.
“Before, during and after that race is just magic.”
Now, if I’m IMS and IndyCar, you take that last quote and make it your marketing and promotional lead on every billboard, magazine ad, newspaper buy and national TV/radio spot from now until May.
One of the best, most versatile and decorated racers of the past 25 years seems to love everything about the Indianapolis 500 and we should all cherish his enthusiasm and participation.
And be glad he’s got a chance to stick on that decal.