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Guaranteed Indy 500 places: Don’t sacrifice the beauty of bumping

Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri


Credit: Karl Zemlin

Two laps into his decisive four-lap qualifying run, it does not look good for Jack Harvey. It is now or never. Time is up. 


Head-to-head with teammate Graham Rahal to see who makes the Indianapolis 500 and who faces the anguish of being bumped from the field, the Briton’s second of four laps has him teetering on the edge. Something extraordinary has to happen to turn Harvey’s fortunes around, and secure him a place in the 33-car field the following weekend.


Lap three. Somehow, an improvement. Completely against the grain. 


The NBC commentary team beckon for an in-cockpit adjustment to see if Harvey can gain the edge and produce a miracle. And, despite having not had anywhere near ample time to cool the car — as is usually required between runs — after his previous run, Harvey managed to notch a faster speed on his third lap.


White flag. One more lap. Next time around, the chequered flag waves. Can Harvey hold his nerve?


Around the final corner of the 2.5-mile oval comes the No.30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) Honda. Harvey hurtles towards the timing line, seconds away from finding out his destiny. And, by 0.007 miles per hour, equating to an astounding 0.0044, he makes the field.


Against all the odds. 


It was bittersweet, knocking out his great friend, and teammate amid a torrid month for the Rahal team. Tears flowed for Rahal, as Harvey juggled the emotions of ecstasy and guilt in equal measure. 


Bump Day is beautiful. It is an integral part of the furniture of the Month of May. The emotions are scarcely matched in the entirety of sport, let alone the motorsport world.


Credit: Karl Zemlin

This sort of captivating story could be in jeopardy, if we are to believe recent murmurs that guaranteed Indy 500 starting spots could be put into place as a part of a possible membership programme for teams running full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series.


The reaction from fans? Widespread dissatisfaction. And understandably so.


In a year of as many as 33 cars or more attempting to qualify, bumping is a part of the agenda. You would go from having 34 or more cars contending to get into the field, to possibly fewer than 10 entries attempting to avoid being bumped. 


This isn’t a case of Bump Day being removed, but the essence of what makes Bump Day what it is would be taken away. Stories such as that between Harvey and Rahal in 2023 would no longer be possible.


Part of what makes the Indy 500 the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ is the two-day qualifying weekend. It is something to behold. By locking full-time entries into the field, the virtue of pressure is almost entirely eradicated for them; they would still compete for the top spots, but the peril of having to even produce a clean run to make the field is removed. 


This jeopardy — the stories of minnows defeating seasoned names to make the field, and major teams having to fight their way into the race — is part of the splendour of the Indy 500. 


With a system enabling automatic entries, cars could be locked into the field, despite maybe not actually being quick enough. Does that really sound right? On the surface, it seems to take away from the meritocracy that should be a core value of any sport. 


Credit: Walt Kuhn

Ultimately, any such system being implemented would revolve around income for full-season teams. The Indy 500 is far and beyond the staple of the IndyCar calendar and has the most eyes on it by some distance. Therefore it has the greatest financial incentives of any race. 


It makes sense why teams at the core of the series would want to pursue guaranteed entries, and see the jeopardy of qualifying weekend dissipate. Qualifying weekend is predominantly not as much a fun experience, as it is a means of stress for teams. This is not applicable to every case by any means, but failing to make the field can be detrimental.


Many sponsors are onboard with teams with their eyes fixed mainly on the Indy 500. But fail to make the race and bonds could be severed. 


In 2011, Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay did not make the race, though a deal was found to allow him to run in AJ Foyt Racing’s No.41 car, meaning the now-iconic DHL sponsor could still be present in the race.


It is easy to get to grips with the sentiment of why team owners want their full-time entries to automatically get into the field of 33 drivers. They are the spine of the series, and allow it to function year-round. 


But, at the same time, it is one-off entries that add so much to the Indy 500. Without the Indy-only entries, the event would likely not be the same. Often, it is these smaller outfits that produce some of the greatest stories.


By securing spots in the field for some of IndyCar’s full-time teams before qualifying has  even commenced, there is less of a chance that the plucky likes of Abel Motorsports can make the field at the expense of seasoned outfits. In 2023, they made the field on debut, while 2020 winners RLL saw three cars contend on Bump Day.


Credit: Chris Owens

There are teams who spend entire years working towards the Indy 500, and solely the Indy 500. Of course, in an accentuating circumstance, they could still upset the odds by pipping an established team to a Fast 12 position, or even an unlikely pole position. 


But why should the chance to beat one of the established teams into the field be taken away from them?


These teams put everything on the line. But the chance of glorious moments diminishes when only competing against other one-off entries when it comes to trying to get into the field. With the race so long, the main focus in qualifying is generally who makes the field, and who doesn’t.


Obviously teams have varying resources, and that is an acceptable part of sport. But in terms of the rules and regulations, in this case locking certain entries into the race, it should be a level playing field. It does not feel fair that some teams would get preferential treatment.


It would feel difficult to really revel in the spectacle, and the tales that it, without fault, draws up year by year would become fewer and further between. You would possibly no longer see McLaren cars bumped. Or Andretti cars bumped. Or Foyt cars bumped. Or Rahal cars bumped. Or even a Penske bumped, as back in the day.


If you limit these stories, which help to further increase the eyes on the Month of May, then you really jeopardise the prestige of the most-attended single-day sporting event in the world. You will no longer get stories from qualifying recited year upon year.


Fans want every spot up for grabs. And IndyCar, in reality, needs every spot up for grabs. Does the series really want to show itself as desiring money over sporting spectacle — the entire USP of the Indy 500?


This is the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, steeped in tradition. It best remain untouched.


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