Brilliant Move Or Shameless Publicity Stunt?
We all awoke to the same announcement on Wednesday morning; two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso will skip the Grand Prix of Monaco and run the Indianapolis 500 instead. Like most of you, I thought it was a hoax of some kind. But we all now know that it turned out to be true.
In case you were visiting another planet over the last couple of days and didn’t hear the news; McLaren’s Fernando Alonso will forego what is arguable Formula One’s biggest race – the Grand Prix of Monaco, so that he can take part in the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport.
It doesn’t hurt that McLaren is running a Honda engine, as is Andretti. It also probably helps that McLaren is already off to a disastrous start for 2017. Alonso won the World Championship while driving for Benetton in 2005 and 2006. It is already painfully obvious that he will not win a third championship this season, as he has not yet scored a single point after two races. That performance might partially explain why McLaren and Honda are so willing to have one of their drivers miss F1’s biggest race.
After the initial shock wore off Wednesday morning, it didn’t take long for the Legions of the Miserable to ooze their way out of the woodwork and start raining on everyone else’s parade.
I guess I’m either naïve or stupid. I tend to take most things at face-value as they are presented to me. I don’t take the time to look for an ulterior motive on why something that sounds great is really bad.
To be honest, I was shocked to see the wide range of reactions that I saw throughout the day on Wednesday regarding Alonso running the “500”. The spectrum of responses ranged from phrases like “brilliant” and “inspired” on one side; to “yawn”, “desperate”, “shrug” and “lame publicity stunt”on the other. In case you haven’t guessed by now, I tend to lean more towards the side that calls this a brilliant move.
To me, this is big – really big. It’s not as big as when Nigel Mansell came to CART in 1993-94, but it’s big. The difference is that Mansell was the reigning World Champion when he left Williams in F1 to come to Newman/Haas in CART. Plus, Mansell was coming as a full-time driver. Alonso is more than ten years removed from his last World Championship and he is just coming for one race.
But to miss their premier event to come run Indianapolis is nothing to yawn about. This is a huge deal.
I’m not sure whether to laugh or just shake my head at those that write this off as a publicity stunt. Guess what? The whole reason that the Indianapolis 500 ever existed is to be one gigantic publicity stunt. It was founded to be a showcase for manufacturers to compete against one another. It was the birthplace to the notion of “Winning on Sunday to sell on Monday”. I am as much of a traditionalist as anyone when it comes to the history of the Indianapolis 500, but to say that the event is above being a publicity stunt is laughable. The entire event is about publicity.
Wednesday night, I was seeing comments comparing IMS officials to PT Barnum. I’m always accused of trying to hold back progress in the name of tradition. It’s true that I am a traditionalist. But we are in a different era, an era unlike any we’ve ever seen before. There is more competition for attention than there has ever been among major sports and sporting events, and other forms of entertainment. That’s why there are now Carb Day concerts and Legend’s Day concerts during the weekend leading up to the “500”.
Doug Boles doesn’t need to schedule a big-name concert to lure me to IMS. I’m already coming. But I’m the exception and not the rule. The younger generation demands more. Having a century-old race on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is no longer enough.
It’s the same with TV viewers. Die-hards like me are almost offended that IMS feels the need to entice anyone to watch on television. The fact that it’s the Indianapolis 500 is reason enough for them. While that logic applies to me personally, I recognize that the vast majority of potential viewers do not hold this event in the same elevated esteem that you and I do. If you’re sitting still and not constantly trying to find new ways to bring in more attendees and viewers, then you will be left behind.
This is a great story and will be the story for the Month of May. There are so many subplots to it. For the next six weeks, we will be hearing the feel-good story how Stefan Wilson selflessly gave up an almost certain ride in the “500” with Andretti Autosport so that Alonso could be brought in. He figured that the good of the sport outweighed the good of Stefan Wilson. My hope is that he might get any remaining Chevy ride that might still be available and if not, I sure hope he gets a premium seat in next year’s race (or season).
There will also be the justified debate on whether Alonso can quickly adjust to the cars and this style of racing. His background certainly suggest he could easily succeed if given enough time, but is a private testing day and a week of practice enough to fully prepare him for the subtleties of oval racing at 230 mph? Nigel Mansell learned the hard way at Phoenix that when trying to regain control of a car – you never turn right on an oval. Mansell did and it bit him. I do have concerns that in a critical moment, Alonso might revert to his instincts and drive like he would in Formula One. There are no gravel pits or runoff areas when you make a mistake in the Indianapolis 500 – only an unforgiving concrete wall or a partially forgiving SAFER barrier.
But beyond that, I see nothing negative at all about this move – no matter what the legions of miserable cynics say. This is not like when a forty-seven year-old Jean Alesi came out of a six-year retirement to drive a Lotus for nine laps in the 2012 Indianapolis 500 before being ordered off the track for being a hazard. This is a legitimate driver, who is known and respected the world over that is driving for the team that won last year’s race. Yes, he is on the downside of his career, but he is fulfilling a lifelong dream. Better to do it now while he is still a very active driver, than to come out of retirement and shake off the rust before learning a new discipline.
Is this a publicity stunt? Why, yes it is. That’s the point. It is one big publicity stunt that was designed to generate a lot of publicity for Honda, the Indianapolis 500, the Verizon IndyCar Series and even Formula One within the US. Whether this was the brainchild of McLaren’s Zak Brown, IndyCar’s Mark Miles, Honda or some combination of all three with Alonso’s desire to run the “500” sprinkled in for good measure – I’m of the opinion that this is just short of genius. It’s a win-win for all parties involved, including the fans. Yes, Stefan Wilson loses out in the short-term; but I have an idea this move will pay dividends for him in the long run as well.
For those that have snickered at this deal, well I don’t know what to say. If they are waiting for the present-day version of Sir Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Sir Jackie Stewart to come before the Indianapolis 500 can be validated – they may be waiting quite a while. Drivers like that aren’t walking through the door anytime soon.
While I love to reminisce and romanticize about the glory days of the sixties, I recognize that that was a very special point in time that will never be repeated. To set that as your standard will make you grow old and bitter. I prefer to look at the Indianapolis 500 of today and embrace how far things have come from the days of Racin Gardner, Dr. Jack Miller (the Racing Dentist) and Dennis Vitolo – just twenty years ago. Do you think Fernando Alonso would skip Monaco to race against the likes of those drivers? Probably not.
So congratulations to Fernando Alonso, Andretti Autosport, Honda, McLaren, IndyCar, IMS and anyone else who benefits from this move. I’ll tell you who else is going to benefit from this – the fans.
Please Note: We will be traveling over the weekend to spend Easter Sunday with my mother, who will be turning 93 this summer. Since I don’t want to spend the weekend behind a keyboard, there will be no post here on Monday April 17. I will return here on Wednesday April 19. I hope everyone enjoys their weekend!