SPEEDWAY, Ind. — IndyCar team owner Roger Penske is doubling down on his stance in favor of guaranteed starting spots in the Indianapolis 500.
A month ago, Penske expressed his desire to have reserved spots on the starting grid on Memorial Day for every IndyCar driver who commits to running the full NTT IndyCar Series season. That assertion has gotten mixed reviews among drivers, team owners, and fans.
At a Fast Friday press conference before practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Penske didn’t say too much more than that on the issue. His fellow owner and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal had a different view.
“Personally, I think it should be the way it’s always been. Just the fastest 33 and that’s that,” Rahal said. “As much as it would be nice to have that guarantee, especially as a season long entrant, that’s not keeping to the tradition of Indianapolis.”
Rahal also acknowledged the fans’ resounding disapproval of guaranteed starting spots.
Rahal knows all too well the feeling that James Hinchcliffe had to endure last year. Hinchcliffe, who is a regular series driver, was bumped from the field after not making enough speed to make it in. The same thing happened to Rahal in 1993. It also happened to both Penske drivers, Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, in 1995.
Penske said even though tradition is important, sometimes things change.
“There’s a lot of traditions that change here,” said Penske. “They’ve got a road race here now. They’ve had a Formula One race. They have a NASCAR race here. To me it’s a sign of the times.”
Chip Ganassi, who sided with Penske last month, said he understands both sides of the argument.
“I just think the days of guys spending a million-plus dollars to come here and not make the race are gone,” Ganassi said. “I just think that’s too much money to not make the race.”
Ganassi said it has less to do with the sport itself and more about “the growth of the world.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles said this week on 93 WIBC’s Tony Katz and the Morning News that he would vote to keep qualifying the way it is.
This is not the first time guaranteed spots have been discussed in regards to the Indianapolis 500. In 1996 then-IMS president Tony George created the Indy Racing League and guaranteed 25 spots in the 500 field for IRL drivers, leaving the remaining eight spots open for CART series drivers who wished to try and qualify.
Penske was an ardent critic of the move. So much so that Penske did not bring any of his cars to Indianapolis for the ’96 Indianapolis 500. Chip Ganassi joined him in that boycott.
Both opted to participate, along with several other CART teams, in the newly created U.S 500 race at Michigan International Speedway held that very same weekend.
Penske eventually returned to the Indianapolis 500 in 2001 when after leaving the CART series to join the IRL ranks.
(PHOTO: Robert Reiners/Getty Images)