INDIANAPOLIS — It isn’t difficult to identify the major players in IndyCar today — Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti. Their teams are the nucleus of the sport and they command a significant audience when they speak.
Lately, all three have mentioned the need for NTT IndyCar Series regulars to have a guaranteed starting spot in the Indianapolis 500.
They make their case with a solid argument: Failing to make the starting field at Indianapolis Motor Speedway creates instability that could cause a prominent corporate sponsor to leave the sport.
Like it or not, that’s a legitimate concern. Every form of racing needs sponsors and we want those companies to feel secure in their investment. If a company writes a seven-figure check and misses the biggest event of the season, that’s not a healthy situation.
However, the leaders of the sport need to hold firm: just say no to guaranteed starting spots at Indy. Because a guarantee would make it far more difficult for new, smaller teams to enter the sport and survive.
Teams don’t just compete on the track; they compete for sponsors, as well. In the competitive marketing arena, companies evaluate proposals from teams of all sizes. Landing a large, long-term marketing partner is usually the key breakthrough that brings life and growth to a small team.
Large teams already have a significant advantage in the sales process, based on name recognition, size and stature. Imagine the advantage a larger team gains when its marketing proposal includes a guaranteed starting spot at Indianapolis.
IndyCar has made great strides in recent years to build stability and get back on a growth trend. Lots of good things have happened. They have a solid core of just over a dozen teams and that’s about right for their events throughout the season — except Indy.
At Indianapolis, we need more teams. Not just more cars; more teams.
The Indianapolis 500 is still a dynamic, once-in-a-lifetime event. Race day is one of the most exciting and memorable sports experiences in the world. But we have to be honest: Some of the competitive elements surrounding the race have been difficult to maintain in recent years, particularly Pole Day and Bump Day.
IMS is in a bit of a tough spot: The very nature of bumping — one of the most dynamic and thrilling elements of the 500 — involves somebody experiencing crushing disappointment. That somebody includes the sponsors of any car that fails to make the race. If the 500 can someday return to the days of 40-plus competitive cars, no doubt some sponsors will be disappointed when their car is bumped.
But the alternative is much more concerning. It’s disheartening to hear the leaders of the sport say things such as “11 rows of three are not acts of God,” and “33 is just a number.”
Forgive me, but 33 is much more than just a number. It’s a cherished tradition dating back several generations, and you ignore that at your own peril. One of the things NASCAR was guilty of in its rise to prominence a few years ago was throwing out a lot of important traditions; that hasn’t worked out well over the longer haul.
I don’t want to eliminate bumping at the Indy 500 because it’s not convenient for team owners and sponsors. If you offer those owners — and sponsors — a guaranteed spot, there’s a good chance bumping could truly be a thing of the past.
Guaranteed spots at Indy? Just say no. Please.