Above: Willy T. Ribbs exultant after finally qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 in 1991.
I am back at The Pit Window summer headquarters after a long two day slog through Georgia traffic jams and torrential rains through four states. The controversy about guaranteed spots for the Indianapolis 500 began as I was traveling. I wanted to wait until I returned to gather points of view and form my own opinion. While the Indianapolis 500 is the heart of the racing world, qualifying for the race is the event’s soul.
I agree that many traditions have disappeared and are not returning. I know we will never again have 30 days at the track or four days of qualifying. I’m okay with that. No guaranteed spots in my opinion does not fall in the category of tradition. It’s called qualifying. It means you have to meet a standard which in this case means being one of the fastest 33 drivers. That is one tradition that must stay. A chance to win the greatest race in the world should not just be handed to someone.
The starting lineup gives the race its flavor. Are there drivers starting in the back that will charge to the front? Will a top driver staring near the front fall back quickly? How do the Indycar regulars stack up against drivers fro another series? There just a few of the things we would lose. The 500 would be just another race on the schedule.
On race morning, I take a moment to think of what it took for each driver to get into the race. Some had a fairly easy time, having signed with a top team with the best equipment. Others had to fight for every sponsor dollar just to put a car and team together to get to to the track. Their sponsors are just as important as those of the full time teams. But I appreciate that all had to endure the stress of Indianapolis qualifying, a nerve wracking four lap run. Some of the drama of being on the grid or not race morning could lose its luster if the owners advocating guaranteed spots get their way. I think it would take some of the soul from the race. The grid would be less pure.
There would still be some space for one-offs, about ten with the current full time grid. What happens when the full time roster expands? Is this proposed format really fair to a team like Meyer Shank Racing, who is only running ten races this season? Why should a second tier full time team put much effort into qualifying? They just need to post a time, why try too hard?
When qualifying used to be spread over two weekends, I would pick and choose when to attend. Pole Day was a given. I rarely went to Day 2. Day three was hit and miss. If the field would be filled the second Saturday, I would go later in the day to see the 33rd qualifier and to see if any bumping would take place. Bump day really had no action until the last two hours, so I would head out around 2:30.
With guaranteed spots, I’m not sure I would find Pole Day that interesting. I would probably just wait for the non guaranteed cars to qualify see who will make it. There will be less drama without a big name near the edge.
Putting full time drivers in the field automatically would lessen the value of the race. The owners are selling the soul of the Indianapolis 500 for sponsor dollars. I hope this is not the direction we’re going. Please don’t steal the soul of the race.