The Ugly Side Of Racing
Normally, the Monday after Bump Day is nothing more than a media blitz and goodwill tour for the drivers and team owners. You can feel a palpable sigh of relief among drivers that know they are in the race. They are still almost a week away from Race Day, and everyone is in a festive and optimistic mood.
This year was a little different. We thought that Bump Day ended on Sunday. What we found out was that the bumping on the track finished on Sunday, but continued behind closed doors on Monday. For the second time in three years, Bruno Junqueira has done an admirable job of safely sticking a car in the field, only to be replaced by a driver who had failed to do so.
In case you live under a rock and haven’t heard, Michael Andretti has cut a deal with AJ Foyt to pull Bruno out of the car, in favor of Ryan Hunter-Reay – who got bumped Sunday by his Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti.
I am not naïve and I understand that racing is a business, but this is tough to watch. In 2009, Eric Bachelart gambled and lost that the time of Alex Tagliani, his primary driver, would hold. It didn’t. His one-off teammate, Bruno Junqueira, had put his car safely in the field. Bruno brought no money to the team, so he was expendable. Ironically, Bruno lost his seat to Tagliani, because Tags had been bumped by…Ryan Hunter-Reay.
I don’t blame Ryan Hunter-Reay for this move. It is within the rules to make a switch like this, but that doesn’t make it right. This is a move made in the name of keeping sponsors happy. I know I am old-fashioned, but I just don’t think someone should be allowed to buy their way into the Indianapolis 500. They set up a schedule to allow a full week of practice with two days of qualifying. If buying your way in is an option, why do they put in all of this work? Why do drivers wear a face full of concern if all that needs to be done is have someone write a check?
This just isn’t right. It cheapens the other entrants that earned their way into the field the right way. When Marlboro Team Penske failed to make the field in 1995 – to his credit, Roger Penske didn’t try to deal his way into the field or to force the Speedway into setting up some type of exemption. He simply took the approach that they knew the rules going in, they didn’t get their cars right and they were beaten fair and square. Although he certainly had the resources to buy a path for both of his drivers – Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi; he chose to respect the spirit of the rules and take their lumps.
I realize the sponsorship situation was different. Penske was already five years into a full sponsorship program with Marlboro, whereas Hunter-Reay’s sponsors – Sun Drop and DHL are both new this year. Having won the 500 three of the previous four years with Marlboro, Penske had a lot of credibility with Philip Morris that Andretti does not have with these new sponsors. It has been said that RHR had to be in this race in order to keep the sponsorship package going into next year.
What makes this so odd is that this switch is taking place between two different teams. The Tagliani for Bruno switch occurred within Conquest Racing. Mike Groff qualified Scott Goodyear’s car in 1992. When Goodyear was bumped, Groff knew he had lost his seat to his full-time teammate.
In all honesty, I was afraid all day Monday that Eric Bachelart would repeat his actions of 2009 and yank Pippa Mann out of her first Indianapolis 500 start to turn her qualified car over to Sebastian Saavedra, his full-time driver. At the moment, that doesn’t look to be the case. That’s good. Conquest Racing is unique because it has one of my favorite drivers in Pippa Mann, along with one of my least favorites in Sebastian Saavedra. Had Bachelart pulled Pippa out of the car in favor of Saavedra, I think he would have had a fan revolt on his hands.
So there is a precedent. This has been going on for years, but that doesn’t make it right. One of the many things that has been so appealing to me about the Indianapolis 500 is that there are no provisional starting spots – only the fastest thirty-three get in. After yesterday, I guess you need to add the phrase “unless you’ve got a fat checkbook.” I think this may be one tradition they might should consider changing.