On Monday, the "racing is a business" swamp monster rose up and budget-starved AJ Foyt Racing accepted liberal amounts of cash to sell/lease/rent the car Bruno Junqueira qualified to cash-flush Andretti Autosport so the allegedly bumped Ryan Hunter-Reay could drive it in the Indy 500 this year.
Oh it's perfectly legal. In IndyCar, the CAR, not the driver, is what qualifies for the race. So theoretically if Mickey Mouse was properly licensed to drive by IndyCar, he could give the pole sitter $192 million and BAM, he's in the Indy 500!
The move was even anticipated Sunday, albeit it in a different form.
When Danica -- easily the superstar of the league -- was in danger of not being in the race Sunday, we all speculated that Andretti Autosport (with at least tacit approval from ABC TV and IndyCar itself) would show some poor team the money and buy her a qualified car. Or they would present Andretti Autosport's one-off, John Andretti, who qualified comfortably Saturday, a festive check to give up his ride for Danica.
So, being a real reporter, Chris Widlic of WISH-8 asked John if he would entertain giving up his ride for Danica.
"Why would you ask me that question?" the Indy Star quoted John as responding. Widlic persisted. Andretti responded again, "Why would you even ask me that question? Why is she more deserving of driving in this race than I am?" (Entire story HERE.)
Ah, bitter irony. John needs to ask cousin Mike Andretti and AJ Foyt why Ryan Hunter-Reay is more deserving of driving in this race than Bruno is. The reason why, of course, is CASH.
Apparently, RHR's sponsors Sun Drop soda and DHL delivery service wanted their logos and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the race, that whole "earn your way in" thing that Indy 500 people so sanctimoniously tout not withstanding. So it became a "business decision."
Sponsors (just sponsors, not drivers) hopping from a bumped car to a car that's in the race is pretty common. Last year Service Central hopped onto Bruno's car after their car with Jay Howard and Sarah Fisher Racing failed to make the show. This year Fuzzy's Vodka is going to jump from Scott Speed's crashed car that's not in the Indy 500 to Buddy Rice's sponsorless car which is in the Indy 500, and Buddy is still going to drive it.
The fun part is we all get to make "business decisions," don't we? It's a "business decision" if I watch or attend any form of entertainment. It's a "business decision" when I choose what soda and shipping service to use. It was a "business decision" for me to spend $350 and drive 7 hours each way to watch qualification weekend.
Although I did see about $10 in return on that $350 investment via ad clicks on this site. Obviously, I am not an economics major. But I was also compensated handsomely in enjoyment ... which lasted until news of this came Monday.
Now I'd kind of like my money back, please. Remember all that drama on Sunday that we were all buzzing about? Tag winning the pole, Danica not in the field when the rain came, Marco bumped then bumping back in at the expense of RHR? The DRAMA!
Sham-WOW. Never mind. As long as you got the sponsor dollars and someone else in the race doesn't, deals can be made. No one can have any doubt that if Danica did not earn her place on the track -- which she did, by the way, fair and square -- she would be in a car right now. I am thrilled that she earned it on the track, because Danica in the same exact situation as Ryan Hunter-Reay would get 89 times more hate because of it. Haters love any excuse to smack Danistar, so bullet dodged that she got in legitimately.
The economic argument FOR this swap is straightforward. Andretti Autosport needs to keep their sponsors happy. Their sponsors want to be in the 500. So a deal was made.
The economic argument AGAINST this swap is that fans -- who ultimately pay the bills for all racing -- will stop watching/attending, causing economic damage greater than that of losing a pissed off sponsor.
So if you do that math, I think the greater immediate economic downside is pissing off a sponsor. First of all, people are going to show up for the race anyway this year. Tickets are purchased, plans are made, 75% of the Indy crowd goes every year and will go every year even if there are nine cars running. Maybe a few hundred or a thousand won't watch the race out of disgust or protest. That does not add up to be more economically damaging than losing the sponsor -- this year.
But the thing is, a few hundred fans here, a few hundred there, pretty soon you're talking about 0.2 TV ratings. You can't continue to erode a few fans every race/year and go on forever. Maybe this hurts next year's interest in qualifications since it's all about the cash anyway. I certainly will think twice before investing my $350 and four days of my life to go watch what amounts to a giant asterisk.*
*Results are not final until checks have cleared.
If I'm Mike Andretti, and the rest of the season hangs on the decision, it's very possible I walk down to AJ Foyt's garage and make him an offer. Likewise, if I'm AJ Foyt, and the chance to dramatically boost my budget for the rest of the season walks in the door in the form of Mike Andretti, I listen.
But I'm just a fan, with "business decisions" of my own to make. It is time to change the rule so that driver AND car qualify as a package. Otherwise, the rich kids don't need to sweat it, really, and it becomes as my buddy Roy Hobbson tweeted:
@royhobbson: INDYCAR $ERIE$ -- "The Fastest Drivers on HAHAHA PSYCHE!!! Seriously Though, Give Us Money."™
Business is certainly business. And taking your customers (fans) for granted is very very bad for business, long-term. Also, never forget we all make business decisions every time we reach for the wallet or turn on a TV. Unfortunately for IndyCar, fewer and fewer people are pulling out their wallets literally or figuratively for IndyCar these days. Stuff like this just adds to the erosion. End of the day, net-net, bottom line, until IndyCar/IMS feels it in the checkbook, nothing will change. Business is business, after all.