Why the proposed rule to guarantee full-time IndyCar teams an Indianapolis 500 qualifying spot is actually a ridiculous idea

Motorsports video blogger David Land has, in the last week or so, strongly criticized a proposed rule change (which would likely go into effect no earlier than the 2020 Indianapolis 500) that would guarantee full-time IndyCar teams a spot in the Indianapolis 500, which is, by far, IndyCar’s most high-profile sporting event.

Under the Indy 500 qualification system that is scheduled to be utilized this year, if more than 33 cars attempt to qualify for the Indy 500, no car is guaranteed a spot in the Indy 500, and two days of qualifying, with Bump Day (officially the Last Row Shootout, which determines the final three cars, forming the 11th row of the starting grid, to qualify for the Indy 500) and Pole Day (officially the Fast Nine Shootout, which determines starting order for the first three rows of the Indy 500, including pole position) both being the second day of qualifying, and with positions 10-30 on the starting grid, as well as the drivers who move on to the Fast Nine and Last Row shootouts, determined on the first day of qualifying.

However, multiple IndyCar team owners, including Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, and Michael Andretti, all of whom have been the winning car owner at the Indy 500 multiple times, as well as longtime motorsports journalist Robin Miller, have come out in support of a proposed rule that would guarantee full-time IndyCar teams a starting position in the Indy 500, which Land has been strongly critical of:

Video courtesy of David Land
Video courtesy of David Land
Video courtesy of David Land

However, with no significant opposition among IndyCar team owners, it’s likely a matter of not if, but when and how, the guaranteed starting spots rule for the Indy 500 gets implemented.

Land has compared the proposed rule change to the 25/8 rule that was in place for the 1996 and 1997 editions of the Indy 500, which were held during the first two years of the American open-wheel auto racing split between the Indy Racing League (IRL), with the Indy 500 as its flagship race, and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), which, in the early years of the split, had most of the traditionally dominant teams in American open-wheel racing, although went through a lengthy demise throughout the entire period of the IRL-CART split until CART, which had been renamed Champ Car, went bankrupt in the late 2000’s, with CART and IRL merging to form the modern IndyCar organization that is currently the sole top-level American open-wheel auto racing sanctioning body. In fact, Land has gone as far as to refer to the proposed guaranteed Indy 500 starting spots rule as the 25/8 rule, although I’m going to refer to what Penske, Ganassi, etc. support as the Hinchcliffe rule, named after James Hinchcliffe, the IndyCar driver who attempted to qualify for every race in the 2018 IndyCar season, but failed to qualify for the Indy 500 that year.

The 25/8 rule was used in the early years of the IRL-CART split in order to guarantee IRL teams that posted a minimum qualifying speed starting spots in the Indy 500 in order to prevent CART teams which wanted to run the Indy 500 and no other IRL race from dominating the qualifying sessions and getting most or all of the Indy 500 starting spots. The 25/8 rule gave the IRL an opportunity to succeed in its formative years, and played a significant role in the IRL becoming the dominant American open-wheel racing league and winning the war against CART/Champ Car.

The proposed Hinchcliffe rule, on the other hand, would be aimed at protecting the interests of the IndyCar teams that run the full IndyCar schedule of races, some of whom, such as Penske and Ganassi, were, ironically, the same team owners that opposed the 25/8 rule to the point of staging a walkout and running their own 500-mile race at Michigan International Speedway in 1996, against teams that run only the Indy 500 and no other IndyCar race or otherwise less than the full slate of IndyCar races, which include McLaren Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, and Clausen-Marshall Racing. There isn’t currently a major competitor to the IndyCar Series in the same type of automobile racing (American open-wheel racing), so the rationale for protecting certain teams in regards to Indy 500 qualifying is different than it was in the mid-1990’s.

Here’s my take: if any form of the proposed Hinchcliffe rule were to go into effect, that would effectively make the IndyCar Series and the full-time team owners like interests, with IndyCar’s business model resembling that of a major professional team sports league like the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, etc. to a considerable degree. That is not the traditional business model of automobile racing, in which, aside from some exceptions (such as owner-driver teams and auto racing leagues where the sanctioning body owned the race teams, such as the former IROC series), the sanctioning body (such as IndyCar), the teams (such as Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, etc.), and the drivers (such as Will Power, Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe, etc.) are all separate classes of interests, instead of any combination of two of the three being like interests.

The proposed Hinchcliffe rule for IndyCar’s Indy 500 bears a resemblance to the charter system that is used in the NASCAR Cup Series that is sanctioned by NASCAR, the dominant sanctioning body of American stock car auto racing whose flagship event is the Daytona 500. In 2014, a number of top NASCAR teams formed the Race Team Alliance, a largely nominal non-profit corporation controlled by most of the for-profit NASCAR teams that ran the entire Cup Series schedule. Two years later, in 2016, NASCAR adopted the charter system to guarantee full-time NASCAR Cup Series teams starting spots in every Cup Series race, including the Daytona 500, which historically had a considerably longer entry list than a typical Cup Series race. Under the charter system, NASCAR issued 36 charters to Cup Series teams that had run full-time since the 2013 season, reduced the maximum starting field size from 43 cars to 40 cars, and allowed the fastest four non-charter teams to enter a Cup Series race. Not surprisingly, the Race Team Alliance members received charters for their race teams, and, in the current business model of the NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR and the Race Team Alliance are effectively like interests. Nowadays, the Daytona 500 is not much more significant than the other NASCAR Cup Series races to the point being almost a nominal flagship event for a reason I’ll explain in the next paragraph, and NASCAR rarely fills the full 40-car field for its Cup Series events, in fact, NASCAR has had trouble getting 40 cars to enter the Daytona 500 in recent years.

Here’s how the Hinchcliffe rule could result in IndyCar’s demise: the Indy 500 is easily biggest draw in terms of spectator attendance and TV ratings for IndyCar, to the point that the entire IndyCar organization is dependent on the Indy 500 to keep IndyCar from going completely bankrupt, and, if the Indy 500 became not much more significant than any other IndyCar race, that would likely result in IndyCar becoming financially insolvent unless there’s a ton of corporate sponsorship to prop up the series and keep it barely afloat, like how NASCAR is able to remain afloat. There’s a much larger pool of people who watch the Indy 500 and no other IndyCar race, either in-person or via television, than there is of people who watch the Daytona 500 and no other NASCAR race, and, without the support of the Indy 500-only fans, IndyCar would have all sorts of trouble remaining financially viable.

There might be people who will point to the professional golf model for guaranteeing elite golfers spots in virtually every PGA Tour (for male golfers) or LPGA (for female golfers) event as an example of how the Hinchcliffe rule might work to IndyCar’s benefit. However golf is, except for a handful of team events like the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup, the Solheim Cup, and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, a virtually-purely individual sport, with the sanctioning body of the tournament and the competitors not being like interests, and there is the lack of an actual team component in a golf tournament contested by golfers playing as individuals (a caddie is considerably less significant to a golfer’s performance than a pit crew is to an IndyCar or NASCAR race car driver’s performance). There are a few other factors at play into why guaranteed spots for elite golfers has worked to golf’s benefit, but guaranteed spots for elite race teams wouldn’t work to the benefit of IndyCar and hasn’t worked to the benefit of NASCAR. The first is the very large field in most golf tournaments. Three of the four men’s golf majors, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship, have 156-player fields, whereas an 156-car field in automobile racing is virtually unimaginable, and most PGA Tour events typically have well over 100 players entering the tournament. The second is the influence of the other men’s golf major, the Masters Tournament. The Masters is a purely invitational event, and the criteria used to determine who gets a Masters invite was the inspiration for the system that is prevalent in professional golf in reserving most or all of the available spots in a particular golf tournament for golfers meeting certain criteria (such as past tournament winners, top golfers in the Official World Golf Ranking, etc.). The third is that tournaments that are not purely invitational still preserve at least a handful of spots for those who shoot the lowest scores in a qualifying tournament (the U.S. Open is unique in that it is basically the last remaining men’s professional golf tournament with a fairly high percentage of its field consisting of players who qualified via a qualifying tournament), although there has been a general trend towards invitation-only events on the PGA Tour in recent decades. The fourth is that, unlike Indy Lights or the NASCAR Xfinity Series, there is a path to automatically advancing to PGA Tour membership out of the Web.com Tour, whereas the Indy Lights and NASCAR Xfinity series champions aren’t automatically granted a spot in the IndyCar Series or the NASCAR Cup Series unless they’re offered a contract with a team in the respective top-level series and agree to sign a team offering the Indy Lights or NASCAR Xfinity champion an IndyCar Series or NASCAR Cup Series ride. There would be significant pushback from golf’s broadcasting partners, golf fans, and the elite golfers themselves if there weren’t guaranteed spots in (for the male professional golfers) PGA Tour and (for the female professional golfers) LPGA events for the elite golfers of the respective gender.

Long story short, the Hinchcliffe rule could very well lead to the demise of the Indianapolis 500.