By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — This Indianapolis 500 already has plenty of drama: panic over the size of the field, engine shortages, legal wrangling and issues with underperforming Lotus. Toss in $275,000 worth of fines against 13 teams, and IndyCar has a real soap opera bubbling right before its biggest race.
But, really, is that anything new?
IndyCar's very existence in this current league began at a time of war for open-wheel racing, when a group of owners with one set of ideas split from CART in 1996 to join a startup series created by Tony George called the IRL. Nothing has come easy since, in large part because the team owners typically can't get out of their own way.
The team principals fight for power with the league, fight with each other over rules and generally search for just about anything to complain about. Unlike Formula One and NASCAR, which both succeed operating as virtual dictatorships, IndyCar has moved closer to the model that ultimately killed CART — the inmates trying to run the asylum.
"You are never happy with a racing association, they've all got problems," A.J. Foyt said Monday. "I don't care if it's NASCAR or its SCCA, or whoever. Somebody is always going to be upset with something."
One can't help but wonder, though, if there's been too much back-room politicking going on since Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened its gates May 10 to begin preparations for Sunday's race. Almost every day since has had some sort of controversy — many bordering on comical — and rumors have run rampant about everything from an alleged owner-led charge to oust CEO Randy Bernard and IndyCar supposedly blocking two teams from fielding cars on Sunday's bump-less Bump Day.
Then came the long list of penalties announced Sunday night, about 30 minutes after practice had concluded for a four-day off period.
IndyCar found 18 different infractions among 13 teams in pre-qualifying inspection, and track historian Donald Davidson believes the numbers were a one-day record for the series, though fines have never been consistently announced.
Few teams were immune and the entire front row was docked a total of $70,000 for five penalties split between pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe of Penske Racing, and Andretti Autosport teammates James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Briscoe, in Charlotte on Monday to promote the Indy 500, wasn't sure his Penske team had actually violated the brake rule that brought a $15,000 fine. Penske team president Tim Cindric confirmed on Twitter that Will Power's car indeed had brake pads that were pushed back from the rotors to eliminate friction, but claimed the team never would have sent Briscoe out with the same pads once Power's had been flagged.
Either way, Briscoe believed IndyCar — behind new race director Beaux Barfield and vice president of technology Will Phillips — had taken a huge step in levying so many fines.
"It's surprising because we haven't seen much of that in the past," Briscoe said. "But I think we are seeing a new guy in charge of the rules now, and maybe in the past, some things have been let past, and I think it's good that teams are being penalized for not abiding by the rules 100 percent. Rules are there to be followed, rules are made to be enforced and they should be."
That strong stance from the sanctioning body likely came as a shock to team owners — and it came during yet another stretch of off-track drama.
First, Dragon Racing owner Jay Penske filed a $4.6 million lawsuit against engine manufacturer Lotus, a legal maneuver that cost his drivers several days of track time as Penske fought to reach a settlement that would permit him to move to Chevrolet.
It left only two Lotus-powered cars in the field, and they've been so far off the pace that many are openly wondering if they should even be allowed in the race. It didn't help that 47-year-old former Formula One driver Jean Alesi, who has never before raced an oval, said he felt "unsafe" in the car and was "concerned" for his fellow competitors because it is so slow.
Rubens Barrichello, who spent 19 years in F1 before moving to IndyCar this season, believes Alesi is handicapped by his Lotus engine.
"It's been very unfortunate that the Lotus power is not up to the speed," Barrichello said. "If we do end up racing with that 10- or 15-mile (speed) difference, it could be a problem for both of the (Lotus drivers). I hope just that he has a safe race."
IndyCar needs Alesi and Simona de Silvestro in the race to avoid not having a full 33-car field for the first time since 1947, but it's possible that the two cars will be black-flagged for failing to maintain a reasonable speed.
There was disappointment Sunday when no team owner threw together a last-minute entry to try to bump one of the Lotus cars out of the field. Both Jay Howard and Pippa Mann indicated they were close to putting together deals, but couldn't get Chevrolet or Honda to give them an engine. That led to rumors it was IndyCar who halted the engines to protect Lotus — an allegation series officials vehemently denied.
Let's not forget the TurboGate saga, either, with Chevrolet losing two appeals trying to prevent Honda from using a new compressor cover on its turbocharger. The defeat has supposedly left powerhouse owner Roger Penske so infuriated he's refusing to speak to Bernard, but yet it's Penske who has a driver on the pole and two more starting on the second row.
Penske, who at least publicly has preached a message of unity and support of IndyCar leaders, goes into the 500 perfect on the season with five poles and four victories. Honda, meanwhile, had only one driver qualify inside the top 10.
So from the outside, it sure looks like a mess for IndyCar. But Bernard is fond of claiming "all press is good press," and if drama gets fans to tune into Sunday's race, then maybe IndyCar knows exactly what it is doing.
Jenna Fryer covers auto racing for The Associated Press.
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Detroit contributed to this report.
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