24 May 2011

Et Tu, A.J.?

Forgive IndyCar fans for spending much of the night and waking up this morning asking "Et tu, A.J.?" or "Et tu, Michael?"  The notion that two of the names most synonymous with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would team up to replace a driver who qualified for the Indianapolis 500 (and not just any 500, either) is tough to wrap around the mind.  Unfortunately, their union is also a sign that IndyCar is still working its way out of economic quicksand.
A.J. Foyt is a man's man.  Winning the Indy 500 four times, running the race in 35 straight years, one doesn't earn the nickname "Super Tex" my accident.  And Foyt hasn't really slowed down since retirement, punching Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane, surviving a bee attack and the sinking of his bulldozer on his property (in which a water moccasin swam by Foyt as he was swimming to shore).  
If anyone represented the notion that the 33-fastest cars would enter the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500, it would be Foyt.  He is so respected that following the Donald Trump pace car fiasco, it was Foyt who was tabbed to bring the 2011 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 field up to speed.  
Unfortunately, Foyt's No. 41 car was also being funded solely out of Foyt's pocket.  In an era in which a four-time champion at Indianapolis (five if you count his win as an owner in 1999) cannot find consistent sponsorship for a second car, Foyt was vulnerable when Michael Andretti went looking to find a way to place Ryan Hunter-Reay in the field.
For Andretti too was feeling heat, not from having to run a car out of his pocket, but in having two primary sponsors who were less than pleased at receiving the bang for their buck of running in the Indianapolis 500.  At Hunter-Reay's suggestion (according to a release from Foyt Racing), Andretti turned to Foyt, where they brokered a deal to benefit both parties.  Foyt's No. 41 car will still be run, and his sponsors of ABC Supply and Alfe Heat Treating will still receive prime real estate on the car.  Andretti gets to put his driver, Hunter-Reay, in the car, along with the No. 28 machine's primary sponsors, DHL and Sun Drop Citrus Soda.  And given the hullaballoo this move has caused, the car is sure to be shown on multiple occasions during ABC's broadcast on Sunday.
At what cost does this come, though?  Both the reputations of Andretti and Foyt take a hit.  Andretti for buying out another team's ride because his five-car operation at Indianapolis could qualify just three of its cars.  Foyt for selling out at Bruno Junqueira's expense.  All Junqueira did was take a car that was ill-handling on his first qualifying run and go faster on next attempt, solidly qualifying 19th.  But for the right price, it appears, Foyt was willing to let him go.
Both men, Andretti and Foyt, given their storied histories at IMS, should have been expected to uphold the tradition and values of the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  And in this instance, in the fans' eyes, they largely failed.  Yes, drivers have taken other rides before; Alex Tagliani being the latest case in 2009, again at Junquiera's expense.  It is a part of the sport that exists, but one that fans and teams alike prefer to ignore because it exposes the ugly financial underside of things.  Instead of the 33 fastest drivers and cars in the biggest celebration ever seen at IMS, two of the biggest names in the sport have created a maelstrom, leaving fans feeling like their icons stabbed them in the back.

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