Monday, May 21, 2012

Going With 33 Was A Total Business Decision (My Conspiracy Theory)

A big topic of conversation this weekend was whether or not a few mystery cars would come out of the woodwork and we would have bumping on Bump Day. Unfortunately, it never materialized and we went with the 33 that showed up.

That's not to say people weren't trying. Both Pippa Mann and Jay Howard were openly working on a ride, and I spoke to a third driver (who shall remain nameless) who said he had a package to present to teams as well. All three had the plug pulled from their effort, without much explanation, at one point or another during the weekend.

It's not that there weren't enough car/engine combinations. According to the official entry list, Ed Carpenter Racing had an extra car (No. 21) in its stable, while Rahal Letterman Lanigan had the No. 45. So that is at least two. I don't know the rules of entering cars by heart, so we will leave it at just those.

Now, depending on who you believe, some said drivers and teams were told that entries were closed and there would be no bumping in order to protect Lotus from being left out of the field. Others said deals just didn't materialize in time.

Hard to say, but you have to lean towards the political/business decision side. I don't know if that is the case, and if I am out of line or misinformed I apologize. Just going on what I feel from what I heard. While I don't blame them, I don't like it and wish it had been handled differently. I'm a believer in the fastest cars and fastest drivers get in, no matter who those happen to be. But not everyone feels the way I do.

So let me throw a conspiracy theory at you.

Here's the deal...if any entries materialized, a couple of things would likely have happened: 1) Lotus would more than likely be out of IndyCar, 2) Simona de Silvestro -- one of the more popular and fan friendly drivers in the series -- would be out of a ride and 3) a solid, full-time sponsor (Nuclear Clean Air Energy) would have more than likely been lost, either now or at the end of the season.

Somewhere along the line it was decided that the price to pay for giving Bump Day some drama and other drivers a chance to qualify (and they would have been in the field had they secured a Honda or Chevy) was too much of risk for what they could lose on the other side.

Does it go against what racing, and competition, stands for? Of course. Was it made with business interests in mind? Yes. Given the way of the world we live in, if all of that is true, was it the right decision? Absolutely.

That doesn't mean I'm on board, but as I have said in this space before, I'm not the one who writes the checks. The people that do decided that losing a motor supplier (no matter how effed up the Lotus program is right now) just five races into the season, after said supplier has had several defections and a lawsuit filed against it, was a bad deal.

Lotus is responsible for many of its problems, I will agree with that. Still, what would amount to dumping an engine supplier would be bad business and a bad example to set with a couple of other manufacturers knocking on the door. Lotus is one of IndyCar's dates for the season, they have to dance with her and see if she gets better looking as the night goes on.

Then you have de Silvestro, who has been a professional through this entire process. I think everyone knows Simona can drive, has talent and even though it is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, is a female. She has a package of personality and skill that the series couldn't afford to lose.

Nuclear Clean Air Energy is a good sponsor that seems committed to the series. Those sponsors are hard to find. Ergo, you do what you can to keep the sponsor happy. Were there sponsors knocking at the door and begging to get into the series, maybe you let them walk. But is that the case? I doubt it, sponsors with deep pockets are hard to find in any form of racing.

(Edit: Fellow blogger Nathan Gruenholz Tweeted me that Simona is in the midst of a 3-year deal.  So let's call this the worst thing that can happen. Holy crap, now I'm channeling Jenna Fryer. Read on.)

Jean Alesi was able to ride on her coattails because they would have both been bumped out should other drivers have come along. Lucky him, and lucky for Fan Force United.

(Sidebar: Fan Force United was a hard-working team with a lot of camaraderie and spirit over the weekend. Their garages were typically wide open and they were engaging with the fans. Even Alesi did his part. I appreciated their effort and am happy for them. Hopefully they become and asset to the series down the road.)

Back to my rant.

This is a different day and age, people. Don't think for a moment that Sun Drop and DHL weren't behind the decision to put Ryan Hunter-Reay in another car a year ago after he failed to qualify for the 500. Because if it were about buying a way back into the field, why didn't Andretti do the same for Mike Conway, a guy who had already won a race (Long Beach) at that point in the season? Because Conway didn't have sponsors at the time to make happy.

That cost a lot of money to put RHR in that ride, way more than the $252,805 they won back after he finished three laps down in 23rd place. He hated doing it, and so did Michael Andretti, but they did it. I think both driver and owner were willing to pack up and head to the next stop, so any hatred thrown there way at the time was severely misguided.

Sponsors pay to have their names on the sides of a car in the biggest race of the year. Indy is the most attended and most watched race of the IndyCar season, and you expect a bunch of privileged people with money and a sense of entitlement to sit this one out? Get real.

What went down this weekend involved a lot of people and a lot of moving parts. And besides, there is a precedent: let me introduce you to the Top 35 program.

Now, if you follow NASCAR at all, you know what I'm talking about. The top 35 cars in the standings are guaranteed entry from week to week, meaning of Jimmie Johnson wrecks in a Gatorade Duel, he still drives in the Daytona 500. Or if Tony Stewart blows an engine in qualifying, he still starts the race.

Not only that, the points from the previous year can be transferred to other cars, and deals can be made, say, like the one that has Danica Patrick technically racing for another team other than Stewart-Haas Racing so she can use the top 35 rule to make certain races. Trevor Bayne's Wood Brothers team took that same route for the 2011 Daytona 500, and Bayne went on to win the race.

Yes it's stupid, but it is how this gig works. You take care of the drivers (actually sponsors) who are the regular part of the series first, then worry about the rest. The rule is in place to make sure drivers the fans want to see drive, and sponsors get the maximum exposure for their investment.

Is it any different here? I don't think so. Love it or hate it (I choose the latter) this is how it works.

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