Success and talent don't really count for much
Townsend Bell raced once last year. He finished fourth in the Indianapolis 500, shared $465,305 with his temporary KV Racing Technology team, then went home to Southern California. Graham Rahal didn't miss an Indy Car Series start in 17 races last season. He finished seventh in points, split $401,305 total earnings with his Newman/Haas team, then returned home to Ohio.
This May, despite the extreme difference in their 2009 level of participation, they are in the same situation for the Indianapolis 500.
At least for now, this race is it in terms of a contract.
They're not alone. The list of experienced drivers with uncertain futures beyond Indy includes Ed Carpenter, Tomas Scheckter, Paul Tracy and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"Most guys, if they had a year like I did last year in any other sport, in basketball or football, all they'd be worried about is how much they're going to make, not if they're going to play," said Rahal, who is driving the No. 30 Rahal Letterman Racing car for his father, Bobby.
"Here, you're just worried about getting a ride."
Rahal was 20th of 36 cars on Tuesday's speed chart with a best practice speed of 223.429 mph. Bell, whose No. 99 car is a joint venture between Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Ganassi Racing, ranked 23rd at 222.903.
"The business reality is the rest of the series has some growing to do," said Bell, who is looking to make his fourth 500 start in five years. "The last couple of years, this is all that was available. I'm thankful for that, but that's just reality. I learned last year that it's better to do one race properly than try to stretch yourself and try to do multiple races at a mediocre level."
Some teams hope a profitable May can bankroll the rest of the year. But it doesn't typically work out that way. Bell earned a decent check at Indy, but that was it.
"I certainly don't come here with that fantasy, but I do come here with the reality that the only thing that matters is winning," Bell said. "It's completely irrelevant if you don't win.
"I mean, last year I had a decent run. It doesn't matter. Just win. . . . That's the lesson I took out of last year."
Carpenter eyes his seventh consecutive 500 start, but it's the first time in a "one-off" situation. His No. 20 Panther/Vision Racing car was 21st on the chart Tuesday at 223.348 mph.
"We've got 'what-if' plans, if things go according to plan," he said.
Carpenter's best Indy run was fifth in 2008 for Vision Racing.
"It's hard to focus too far past this," he said. "Whether you're running full time or one race a year, this is the one you want to win more than any of the others. A lot of guys, I think, would trade a (season) championship for a 500 win. I certainly would.
"I've been around and seen a lot of people have their struggles here, but it doesn't make it any less devastating when you're not sure if you're going to be able to participate. It means everything. I’m 29 years old. I feel like I've got quite a few years left to do this and to be competitive. I'm not ready to move on from racing."
Consider the plight of Hunter-Reay, who won at Long Beach, Calif., on April 18, is fourth in the season standings and is with one of the series' elite teams in Andretti Autosport. But his sponsorship money runs out after the June 5 race at Texas.
"It really (stinks) that way, but what am I going to do?" said Hunter-Reay, whose No. 37T backup car was 17th Tuesday at 223.635. "At the beginning of the year, it was like, 'If you can win in the first four races.' And I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, can you imagine us winning a race in our first four races together?' Now we're sitting here and we did."
Yet he could be out of a ride anyway.
"I'm not going to pull out a small violin on it or anything like that," he said. "I'll just keep showing up and try to make sure I'm doing my job."
Carpenter, who has a marketing degree from Butler, isn't sure what he will do this summer if he isn't racing. Tracy plans to race in Toronto and Edmonton, but beyond that, it's anyone's guess.
"No, it's not ideal," Bell said. "You sit around for a year and then come in cowboy style and just jump in and go for it." Indianapolis Star