Williams: Preserving the Indy 500
by Steve Williams, J.D., CPA
While other sports provide seedings and other advantages to favored participants (e.g. NFL playoffs, NCAA tournament), the Indianapolis 500 has demanded equality of opportunity, not crony capitalism. With few exceptions since 1911, the 33 fastest qualifiers start the race in the order of their qualifying times, no starting positions having been guaranteed to drivers, teams or sponsors despite their pedigree or connections.
This month, Roger Penske will finalize his purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series. Penske’s acquisition of the Speedway has been praised universally. He is seen as someone who can bring more resources to the sport while upholding the traditions that fans hold dear.
Nevertheless, Penske has promised to “break some glass” in an effort to move the sport forward. Alarmingly, in 2019 as a car owner, Penske floated the idea of guaranteed starting places in the Indianapolis 500 for teams running the full IndyCar Series, so-called full-time teams. This is a form of Corporate Welfare that IndyCar fans should reject.
A major reason that the Speedway draws a live audience of over 300,000 people is that they know they will see the 33 fastest open-wheel cars on earth. They expect this because it’s been this way since 1911.
The idea of guaranteed spots flies in the face of this tradition of ultimate competition. 1986 champion Bobby Rahal has said that the most frightening thing he has ever done is qualify for the Indianapolis 500. In 1993, he failed to qualify. Other former winners also suffered this fate, among them three-time champion Johnny Rutherford and two-time winner Rodger Ward. In 1995, Penske’s drivers Emerson Fittipaldi (two-time Indy winner and two-time Formula One World Champion) and Al Unser, Jr. (two-time Indy winner) failed to qualify.
In May of 2019 in the last minutes of qualifying, a 23-year-old American, Kyle Kaiser, bumped from the starting field the most heralded driver of his generation, two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso of Spain. Kaiser’s team, Juncos Racing, had a budget that would seem like a rounding error compared to Alonso’s team, McLaren Racing. This is precisely the type of competition that Indy fans deserve. Again, to deny them this with guaranteed spots threatens to lessen the Indy experience and diminish the audience both live and on television.
An alternative is to celebrate the competition, not eliminate it. This could be done in at least two ways. First, the full-time team could be guaranteed the prize money paid for last place in the 500. Second, the full-time driver who gets bumped could be guaranteed a five-minute spot on the TV broadcast to tout his sponsors and explain the difficulty in qualifying for the biggest race in the world. These steps would address the teams’ commercial interests without lessening the on-track competition.
Even the drivers who fail to qualify appreciate the necessity of starting the fastest 33 cars. Alonso, the world champion who missed the race in 2019, has stated that his primary goal for 2020 is to qualify for and win the Indianapolis 500. Alonso’s high regard for the Speedway would be lessened if anyone with merely a large checkbook could qualify for the starting grid.
IndyCar fans must insist that the new ownership group place equality of opportunity before crony capitalism. As Kaiser said when he eliminated Alonzo: “This is absolutely the greatest story of my life.” The Speedway cannot deny this experience to Indy fans or the next Kyle Kaiser. Let us continue to celebrate the competition of the Indy 500.
Stephen E. Williams, a founder of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a partner in Emswiller Williams Noland & Clarke, LLC and an avid Indy car fan. He wrote this at the request of the foundation.