Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Buying Another Bump Day

When Bump Day ended, we all pretty much all felt bad for Ryan Hunter-Reay. A race-winning driver, bumped by his teammate at the last moment without another chance to bump his way back in. He’s also a great driver, a stand-up guy, an American story who’s a wonderful representative of LiveStrong, and by all accounts a great teammate.

It was rough. But that’s Indy. It’s part of the reason May means something. The Indy 500 doesn’t have sponsor exceptions, it doesn’t have all-star fan votes; it’s just presumably the 33 fastest drivers able to find their way in by on-track performance.

Yesterday, the news hit that AJ Foyt and Andretti Autosport brokered a deal that saw Ryan Hunter-Reay take Bruno Junqueira's ride in the 41 car, with RHR instead piloting the machine with both Foyt and Andretti sponsors on display.

The immediate reaction to hearing this for many of us is anger. This is the second time in three years Bruno has been yanked from a car after qualifying it. There’s the idea of fair play, and getting what you earn, not buying what you want.

That’s not to say it hasn’t happen before; Foyt certainly knew a few things about it in the day. Salt Walther once offered a tremendous amount of money in an attempt to buy his way into the field. Of course, there was Tagliani’s takeover of Bruno’s car for sponsorship reasons in 2009. History doesn't make it right, however.

People like to trot out the line “well, racing is a business”. True, but that business also relies on the fans’ perception of its worthwhile nature and integrity. And this sort of business is distasteful at best. Even if they might shrug their shoulders and say they understand the reasons, no one wants to see it. I'm sure this isn't anyone's at Foyt or Andretti's idea of a good time, either. Make no mistake: no one is happy about this. The sponsors don't want to deal with it, the teams would prefer it weren't this way, and you know Junqueira and Hunter-Reay would rather it be else wise.

At its worst, this sort of rug-out-from-under-you end-around hits at the integrity of Bump Day. What does the gutsy run of Alex Lloyd mean if the fellow who later gets bumped can buy his way in? Where’s the drama if we aren’t waiting for a last-minute run, but instead a day-after business transaction? These efforts, these battles, need to mean something, and not just to the teams who can’t afford a driver swap into the field.

Indianapolis qualifying has taken its share of scrapes and bruises over the years, but it is still a unique, wonderful event. I am fully against anything that would devalue it.

A part of me knows some of the realities of the situation. It tells me that you need to keep sponsors happy, and by doing this, Andretti Autosport may have saved dozens of jobs down the road for some wonderful people. (I know it isn't a situation I would have wanted to handle). And who knows? Perhaps this will give the IZOD IndyCar Series a chance to review the "car, not the driver" rules in place, or at least make rules to discourage this kind of dealing.

Indy’s bigger than any single driver or incident. It’ll get past it, as will most fans. But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

“Junky” was saying all the right things, but just because he’s accepting doesn’t mean fans will be.

For Andretti and Foyt, two of the most storied names in all of IndyCar, they’ve lent their names to an ugly deal that flies in the face of competition and the sense of fair play. And it stinks, because people like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Larry Foyt, and others are among the best you’ll find. They aren't villains--they're people doing the best they can in an impossible situation. But this is absolutely, completely, and totally wrong--a slap to everyone who’s chosen to put in on the line to make the field at Indy, and to the fans who spent their money thinking they were seeing a do-or-die situation for EVERY driver, not just the ones with deeper pockets.

Perhaps it was Tony Kanaan yesterday who had the best quote on the situation after learning of Bruno’s fate.

“Some days,” Kanaan mused, “you’re the dog, and some days you’re the [fire] hydrant”.

Unfortunately, yesterday for Bruno, the sanctity of Bump Day, and the fans, it was the latter.

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