KRAVITZ: Rahal on a possible Hinchcliffe return: I'd be 'embarrassed' to drive after not qualifying

Graham Rahal, right, talks with James Hinchcliffe, of Canada, after Hinchcliffe did not qualify for the IndyCar Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Bob Kravitz

SPEEDWAY, Ind. (WTHR) - If IndyCar wants to turn into scripted theater like WWE, it will let James Hinchcliffe drive in next Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Shoot, they might as well find a spot for Pippa Mann, the ever-popular female driver who has done so much to champion several important causes. Just don’t insult our intelligence by calling it “Bump Day,’’ because it means nothing, not any more, not if teams continually look for ways to place big-time drivers in the field because they have the money and the sponsors.

Nothing against Hinchcliffe, nothing at all; he’s the most voluble and agreeable driver on the circuit – and, like all good Canadians, he’s a hockey fan. Truth is, I wrote precisely the same thing in 2011, when team owner Michael Andretti purchased the A.J. Foyt car qualified by Bruno Junqueira so the popular and well-heeled Hunter-Reay could drive in that year’s race.

“You bet I felt squeamish about it,’’ Hunter-Reay told me Sunday. “You’d better believe it. But that’s a decision that’s made by people above me.’’

As things stood Sunday, Hinchcliffe was still without a ride, but a lot can (and likely will) happen between now and the start of next week. Jay Howard, the one-off Schmidt-Peterson driver who is rumored to be the likely victim in any transaction, said unequivocally that he will be in his No. 7 car and will compete in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Which leaves…who knows? The options are limited. But money talks.

“You should ask for a million [dollars],’’ somebody said to Howard, who said he was told not to discuss the matter at any length.

“$2 million,’’ he said with a smile.

I don't think Howard has a price. I think Schmidt Peterson will need the Jaws of Life to extract him from his car. Why should his desire to compete next Sunday be any less valid than Hinchcliffe’s desire to compete? Howard is a one-off driver, someone who starts seeking out sponsors one day after the finish of the 500 in order to give himself a chance to run again the next season. Just because Hinchcliffe has the money and the sponsors doesn’t give him the inalienable right to drive in the Indianapolis 500.

I keep hearing that it’s not Hinchcliffe’s decision, that it’s the team’s decision.

Not buying it.

He can say no, just the way former champion Bobby Rahal did in 1993 when he failed to qualify. Same thing in 1995 when two Penske drivers, Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, came up short. They went home, took their lumps, licked their wounds and committed to returning better and faster the next season. The NBA doesn’t place the Knicks and the Lakers in the playoffs because they mean massive TV ratings. Either you qualify or not. Hinchcliffe did not, and there are no excuses. He was hit by a perfect storm of circumstances and got left on the outside-looking-in. That’s the drama of Bump Day. Unless it’s all scripted drama, like some cheesy reality show, and then we have no reason to care about qualifications.

Sports are, or should be, the ultimate meritocracy. Is the qualification process flawed? Maybe. But everybody played by the same rules, had the same constraints. Thirty-three cars, 33 drivers were good enough. Two were not. Just because ride-buying has happened in the past doesn't make it right.

“If I haven’t qualified, I don't want to be in the race,’’ Graham Rahal said. “...From a friend standpoint, I hope he's in the race. He's a good friend and he's a hell of a lot better driver than a lot of people in the race....I realize this could be controversial, but if it was me – and I had a lot of time to think about this Friday, sadly – if I didn't qualify, I wouldn't want to be in the race because I’d be embarrassed. And I saw that while reflecting on my dad [in 1993]. I get that there's a lot of reasons he needs to be in the race, but I do think it undermines Bump Day. It's a tough situation for everybody."

Hinchcliffe and Dalton at the 2016 Indianapolis 500.
Hinchcliffe and Dalton at the 2016 Indianapolis 500

After Saturday's qualifications, Hinchcliffe's girlfriend, Becky Dalton, tweeted the following:

"Devastated. @Hinchtown puts his blood, sweat and tears into this, literally, and deserves to be a part of such a momentous race, he deserves to be protected…This race won’t be the same.’’


I disagree. I disagree vehemently, even while understanding that it's perfectly normal for a significant other to defend his or her mate. Nobody here should be "protected." Howard and the other 32 drivers have as much right to compete next Sunday as Hinchcliffe does, even if they're not as strong a driver as Hinchcliffe.

We understand, it's the car that qualifies and not the driver. But as one smart Twitter follower noted, they don’t put the car on the Borg-Warner Trophy. The car doesn't drink the milk. The car doesn't have a wreath placed around it.

When teams displace teammates or buy rides from other teams, it thoroughly undermines the whole concept of qualifications. Why bother to pay your money and come to quals if the results don't matter? It cheapens the whole process, turns it into pro wrestling, when there are no consequences for a poor effort – unless you're Pippa Mann, who doesn't have the backing to buy herself a ride.

I asked Conor Daly, another driver who might be on the chopping block if Hinchcliffe returns, if he would ever give up his ride under any circumstances.

"It would have to be life-changing for me to do that," Daly said after a miserable qualifying effort that found him 33rd on the grid. "I'd hate to be put into that situation because Hinch is one of my best friends. But I've got a career and a lot of partners who've put a lot into this."

Meaning you'd say yes, no, or maybe?

"No one's willing to do enough, so I don't think it's feasible," he said. "I don't like the whole idea [of failing to qualify and then returning to the race]. I wouldn't be able to do that, right?"

Right.

If this is the way the game is going to be played, there is something very wrong with the game. Hinchcliffe shouldn't drive next Sunday. But he probably will, because money and sponsors always win out, and integrity comes in a distant second.

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