Some of the hype for this Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 was lost this past weekend when Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso failed to qualify for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Alonso, a winner of the Monaco Grand Prix and 24 Hours of Le Mans, was impressive in his Indy 500 debut two years ago but will be unable to complete the Triple Crown of Motorsports this year.
Many speculated that Alonso’s team, McLaren, would buy out one of the teams who made the race so that Alonso could compete. But ultimately, Alonso refused.
Confirmed from Zak Brown: There were exploratory conversations last night on getting Alonso a seat with no McLaren affiliation, but Alonso in the end "doesn't feel right to take another driver out that has earned it because his team has bought the seat."
— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) May 20, 2019
Despite the refusal, Alonso could have legally bought out another team and raced on Sunday. This occurrence is no peculiarity in stock car racing either, as back when more than 40 cars would show up to NASCAR races, teams with major sponsors who failed to qualify would buy out smaller teams who made the show.
Money Doesn’t Buy Everything
It’s no secret that racing is for people with money, and lots of it. But if someone with less money and less fame shows up and beats a top-notch driver, they shouldn’t be allowed in the race.
Failing to qualify for a race should be treated the same way that failing to maintain minimum speed is in NASCAR — the slow car is not allowed to continue. If a car isn’t fast enough to qualify for a race, then why should it be allowed anywhere near the racetrack on race day — isn’t that the whole point of qualifying.
Ultimately, the choice comes down to the back-marker teams who qualified for the race. In the situation of this week’s Indy 500, it’s Kyle Kaiser and his team Juncos Racing who beat out Alonso and McLaren. If Alonso wanted, his team could’ve written a fat check for Kaiser and/or Juncos to skip the 500, and it would’ve been up to Juncos on if they wanted to accept it or not. That’s capitalism, and you couldn’t fault a small team for accepting that check if it would profit them more than the race’s prize money combined with the wear and tear on the equipment.
But IndyCar, NASCAR and other racing bodies shouldn’t allow for these situations to exist. They should want the fastest cars and most talented drivers competing or else it makes the sport look like a joke and a playground for those with money.
Sure, this time an ultra-talented driver in Alonso missed the event. But McLaren showed up with a trash race car that even one of the most talented drivers in the world couldn’t turn a fast lap in. A car that bad shouldn’t be allowed to race, even if they can afford to pay someone a lot of money to go home.
Teams buying their way in after failing to qualify sets a terrible precedence. It means that Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey or Richard Branson could show up with a car and if they meet the minimum qualifications to have an IndyCar license, buy their way into the field — even if their qualifying time is full seconds slower than the next best car. Heck, 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II could buy her way into a race using United Kingdom tax dollars and cruise around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway at a top speed of 10 miles per hour.
How big of a joke would the Indy 500 be if that happened? The sad part is any of those people I mentioned could race in NASCAR as is if they wanted to, and they wouldn’t even have to worry about failing to qualify for most races.
IndyCar and NASCAR are the premier auto racing brands in this country. They should have the best drivers, the fastest cars and the best competition. No one should be allowed to buy their way into a starting lineup.
So I call for the outright banning of buying a ride in IndyCar, NASCAR and any other racing series that considers itself to be the best. –Michael Massie
Everybody’s Got a Price
The biggest news of Bump Day qualifying at Indianapolis this past weekend (assuming you could find it to watch and it wasn’t pre-empted by a softball game) was Alonso being bumped from the grid of 33 by Kaiser’s Juncos team — a name that doesn’t exactly share the same pedigree as McLaren. Before it even became an issue, the former Formula 1 World Champion dispelled any notion of buying a ride, both privately with his team and publicly with the media.
In this particular instance, I can see why he wouldn’t. This is essentially a one-off effort, and McLaren isn’t aligned with a powerhouse Indycar team as they were with Andretti Autosport in 2017. So, he’s raced here before and if they’re this slow now, what’s the point in tarnishing his reputation and having this as one of the more indelible marks on an otherwise spotless resume?
That said, what if this was a full-season effort and he was running for a championship, but they just didn’t quite have the speed. Would buying a ride make sense then? Absolutely.
What would fans think if this was Frankie Allison, and he was vying for a spot in the Coca-Cola 600, and his team bought out the #66 of Joey Gase to make the race? Would fans be up in arms, bemoaning that a sport that operates on a model that uses other people’s money to remain solvent has become “too commercialized?”
While some may wring their hands and romanticize the past, wishing we’d go back to racing actual stock cars, they know — like Alonso does — by Allison buying his way into the race to displace a backmarker he couldn’t beat in qualifying will usually mean one of two things: a DNF or finishing six laps down.
While I understand the sportsmanship aspect of not buying a ride to make the race — in this case, the biggest race on the planet — one also has to accept and understand the economic realities of motorsports, particularly at this level. Not everyone in every race is there solely on merit or talent.
When Kyle Larson has to wait until Chip Ganassi offers him a ride simply because he didn’t ask him to bring his helmet bag with $100,000 in it first, you can rest assured there was someone else, somewhere, scratching a check for a seat that either doesn’t belong there or is no longer here.
What’s the difference between doing it two months before Daytona or the day after qualifying?
For a team to maintain sponsorship and keep their cash flow, uh, flowing, their contract likely carries a clause establishing benchmarks for payment, i.e., making the race. To miss a race of that magnitude, with the largest exposure possible, simply throwing in the towel and being a good sport about things could sink a team financially and leave them playing catch up the rest of the season.
Some teams literally race paycheck to paycheck, and missing the purse money of an event might mean that some of the crew don’t get paid — or get let go. If it’s a season-long championship, obviously points are of concern and missing an event might mean the difference between making the playoffs or not making them — further hampering the income of the team and negatively impacting sponsorship pursuits for the following year.
Nobody likes the prospect of seeing a team that is not competitive enough to make the field on speed be able to buy their way into the show. Ultimately, it’s a business transaction that requires capitulation from another party that might see value in selling their spot for something in the future. Big time auto racing means big time dollars and, often, big time compromise.
Buying a ride is simply part of the game, perhaps more so today than ever before. It just happens during the off-season now, not during race weekend.
As long as there are a limited number of starting spots and sponsors to go around, the practice will most assuredly continue. – Vito Pugliese