A black eye for Indy

Deal between Andretti, Foyt is a blow against “500″ tradition

Does speed no longer matter at the Indianapolis 500? What about hard work, talent and the art of losing gracefully? It appears that no, none of those things matter anymore.

Why bother with such trifles when you have a fat wallet or a giant checkbook?

Monday’s deal between Michael Andretti and A.J. Foyt does not set precedent in 500 history, as spots in the starting grid have been sold before. But this latest transaction, which sees Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay taking over the No. 41 Foyt Racing machine and its former driver, Bruno Junqueira, get dumped, sets a new standard in classlessness.

Two of the biggest names in the history of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” have teamed up and it’s all legal since 500 qualifying rules state that it’s the car that makes the race, not the driver. But their union has also undermined the credibility of the very race that made them famous.

You can’t help but feel that a bit of the 500’s soul was also bought today along with a spot for Hunter-Reay, who may now be destined to get major heat from the fans at the Speedway this weekend even though none of this should be blamed on him at all.

The two team owners tried to cast the deal in a positive light, with Andretti saying that “the thought of A.J. Foyt joining forces with the Andrettis for the Indy 500 could result in something special” and Foyt saying that the deal was about “going back to the way racing used to be, where if people were in a lot of trouble, you tried to help each other out.”

But the truth of the matter was obvious: Hunter-Reay’s sponsors wanted in at Indianapolis, even if it wasn’t with an Andretti Autosport machine.

“I can’t thank A.J. and his team enough for giving us an opportunity to put Ryan, DHL, Sun Drop and our other valued sponsors in the Indy 500,” said Andretti.

“Commercial decisions and corporate support is what makes it possible for both of our teams to compete and this was a commercially driven decision,” Hunter-Reay echoed.

Meanwhile, Junqueira has to endure what must be a sickening feeling once again. In 2009, he was teamed up with Alex Tagliani at Conquest Racing for the 500 and made the show. But when Tagliani failed to do the same, Conquest owner Eric Bachelart made the call to replace Junqueira with Tagliani “in the best interest of the team and our partners.”

Junqueira threw up a four-lap average of 224.691 mph in the No. 41 machine last weekend to solidly put Foyt’s second entry in the field at 19th starting position (the car will now start 33rd with Hunter-Reay at the controls). Meanwhile, Andretti Autosport could only put three of their five cars on the grid (John and Marco Andretti, and Danica Patrick), as Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway were unable to make it.

It should have been left at that.

What’s something that we’re always taught as children? Do your best to win every time, but if you lose, accept it with dignity and learn from your mistakes so it won’t happen again next time. Instead, a deserving driver is on the sideline because of corporate interests and that he basically didn’t have the money to save himself; Foyt has said the No. 41 is fielded on his own dime.

Junqueira’s words were classy in the press release that announced the deal as he thanked the team for the opportunity to drive instead of “riding [his] bike in Miami.” But one wonders what was really going through his head when he learned this deal went down.

Then you have the fans, who will now ask why Bump Day even exists since big money has trumped pure excitement. In fact, why not throw out qualifying entirely and just auction the 33 spots to the highest bidders? Finally, let’s top it all off by turning that “IMS” mark at the top of the Pagoda into “IM$.”

The whole saga is also a bomb that got thrown through the window, onto the lap of INDYCAR, and then blew up. Even when these PR disasters are not its doing, the sanctioning body ends up paying the price. It now has no choice but to try and amend the 500 qualifying rules by having car and driver linked together.

Because this feeling that has now enveloped the 100th anniversary running of this beautiful race – the feeling that even something as sacred as Indy can be bought – is truly devastating to behold.