“The Fastest 33” is a trademark of the Indianapolis 500. No matter what team you’re on and what your point standing is, if you’re not quick enough to make the field, you don’t race. It has been a longstanding tradition, and even the impetus for the occasional field larger than 33 (see the 1997 race).
Bobby Rahal came face-to-face with this reality in 1993, and nearly suffered a similar fate one year later. In 1995, Team Penske famously missed the show after trying to run three separate chassis to put Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi in the show on Bump Day.
Go or go home: it’s a simple theory. However, beneath that looms a darker, but necessary, side of the game: business. As sponsors began investing millions of dollars in advertising and marketing, auto racing, like every other sport, has become more of a business entity. Additionally, the teams themselves are businesses, with each owner free to run it as he or she chooses.
Such elements as “ride buyers” have propped in the wake of such an environment. Though unpopular and met with disdain, the reality is some teams need them to stay in business.
On Monday night, we were once again reminded how “busy-like” racing is. Ryan Hunter-Reay, after being bumped from the qualifying field on Sunday, will take Bruno Junqueira’s place in the starting lineup. The American will take over the No. 41 entry for A.J. Foyt’s team, for which Hunter-Reay raced in 2009.
There are several parties worthy of sympathy in this case, not the least of which are A.J. Foyt and Bruno Junqueira. Foyt’s team has worked enormously hard to improve the performance of the No. 41 car, which wasn’t a contender to even qualify for last year’s race. Their work showed, and they were able to solidly put both cars in this year’s field.
For Junqueira, it is the second time in three years he has been in fastest 33 only to be pulled out of the car after qualifying so that another driver (with more sponsors) can race. It is sad to see a car/driver partnership that worked together to improve so much pulled apart because of money.
Also, though many will make him the focal point of their ire, Hunter-Reay, who seems very respectful and went out of his way to express sympathy for Junqueira, is also likely somewhat embarrassed about being in the field this way.
Reactions have been as expected: negative. The purist in everyone wants to see the fastest drivers on race day, without business interfering. However, that is not always the case.
Junqueira has been in this position before. In 2009, as a teammate to Alex Tagliani at Conquest Racing, Junqueira qualified for the race while Tagliani was unable to make one final run to bump his way back into the field. But, with Tagliani his main driver that year, Conquest owner Eric Bachelart pulled Junqueira out of the seat and put Tagliani in. Tagliani finished 11th that year to claim Rookie of the Year honors.
Perhaps the most famous case of driver swapping came in 1992, when Mike Groff made the cut on the final of qualifying for Walker Racing while the team’s full-time driver, Scott Goodyear, was not able to put himself in. Derek Walker made the switch, putting Goodyear in Groff’s car. Goodyear went on fall just short of victory, losing out to Al Unser Jr. by a few feet at the end.
This is not the first time that post-qualifying driver swaps have happened and it won’t be the last. Indy is too big of a deal for teams not try that last ditch effort to put their driver (and sponsors) in the show, even if it means “buying” a spot in the field.
Not many are going to like it and they are justified in feeling so. It is part of the ugly under-belly of the sporting world today; like it or not, “pure sports” rarely exist anywhere. With millions of corporate dollars invested in the various leagues, the sanctioning bodies must cater their sponsors and bring value to their investment. This is why we often see changes to the competition rules in sports; the changes are made to make the game (or race in this case) more exciting…which also reads more sponsor-friendly.
Auto racing is no different. There are sponsors to please and dollars to be made. That’s just business. Unfortunately, it isn’t always pretty.