Hinchcliffe questions quality of Indy 500 field
A journalist recently asked me what the Indianapolis 500 meant to me. And let me tell you, as an open wheel racer for the last four years and, more importantly, an open wheel fan for a decade more, the Indy 500 means absolutely nothing.
The Indy 500 used to be the biggest race on the planet. Dozens and dozens of cars would come out to qualify. I remember one year where neither Penske cars qualified! Now, they are pulling guys like Al Unser Jr. out of rehab, sorry, retirement, just to try and fill the field.
This race used to be filled with excitement and the build up got everyone so pumped. It had hype, it had a buzz, it had an atmosphere. Open wheel racing in the US was put on hold for a whole month as the entire racing community's attentions turned to Indy. People all over the world tuned in to see what was happening. Indiana essentially became the center of the universe on race day.
Then came the split. But you know what, I'm not going to make this a "the split ruined Indy" speech, because it was more than that. Some of the best Indy 500s I remember came AFTER the split. Like when PT beat Helio, sort of! When the CART drivers ran in the 500, there was this hype and rivalry between CART vs. IRL drivers. The "Battle of the Best" in open wheel. Who would come out on top? It used to be great! I liked it MORE when the two series had entries in the 500. It was like back in the day when European cars and drivers would come over to try and compete against the North Americans. THAT was exciting.
And so for me, as a driver, of course there was always a huge desire to race in, and win, the Indy 500. It's the Indy-friggin-500! And then two things happened that ruined it. Less than 33 competitive entries were showing up to qualify. They were bringing retired drivers and guys who weren't racing full time out to try and fill the field. As soon as you have to fill the field, it loses so much credibility.
So, even though this really crippled the race, there was still that thought, "Ya, I know it isn't quite what it used to be, but gosh darn it, wouldn't it still be cool to race at Indianapolis?" Enter Bruno Junqueira. He was the second thing that happened to Indy. The last time he competed, he was leading the Champ Car title race and went to do the one off at the not-quite-what-it-used-to-be Indianapolis 500. And during that race, another driver's mistake - this is the hardest part for me to get over - put Bruno into the wall. Hard. He broke his back and could very well have been paralyzed or worse.
He was obviously out for the rest of the Champ Car season and could have very well never sat in a racecar again. Thank God Bruno is a fighter and he got himself back into the seat. But then I thought, "What if he hadn't?" Is a race that no longer holds anywhere near the prestige still worth the risk of never racing again? It further highlighted how dangerous driving open wheel cars car be on ovals. Added to the fact the race means very little to me anymore, it was then that I realized I have zero desire to drive at Indy. And unless there is a 10-year injury free streak and/or the race returns to its former glory, I never will.