CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — During the last race at Long Beach, there was buzz that IndyCar officials wanted a superstar to commit to the Indianapolis 500 and make the 101st running a must-watch race.
The 500 is one of the most iconic events in America, and it was going to be difficult for the speedway to top last year's centennial celebration. So names were bandied about, all of them drivers who might consider running next month's race and would draw a good deal of domestic interest.
There was Tony Stewart, who never won the 500 — his dream race. Retired from NASCAR now, Indy cars may have passed him, but people would have tuned into to see one last gasp from Smoke. There was Danica Patrick, whose entire brand was built around the Indy 500. She left IndyCar six years ago but the grass hasn't been so green on the NASCAR side, and Patrick led 19 laps at the speedway and finished third and fourth in her career.
Either of those drivers would have drawn massive interest in Indiana, where the series seems to cater to its homegrown fans and unfortunately often settles for mediocrity.
It was neither of those drivers. The "showstopper" CEO Mark Miles pulled out for next month's race is two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.
"Who?" asked my 13-year-old daughter. Trust me, she's a valuable gauge of what's trending, and I guarantee she'd have talked up the race if Stewart or Patrick was in the field.
Alonso is a highly decorated driver who was once at the top of Formula One. IndyCar has plenty of international drivers, so adding the Spaniard for the 500 isn't unusual in that respect. But his F1 titles came long ago, in 2005 and 2006, and he has yet to score a point in three races this year with McLaren.
"I've never raced with so little power in my life," Alonso reportedly said on his radio during Sunday's race in Bahrain.
Big news, Alo; You get one of those Honda engines for the Indy 500, too. To race on an oval, a circuit he's never attempted, in an Indy car, a car he's never driven. He apparently is skipping the rookie orientation program, and will leave himself roughly two weeks — barring rain delays — to figure out how to win the Indy 500.
This just doesn't feel right, no matter how skilled Alonso may very well be.
There's got to be at least a small group of worrywarts unsettled by the crowded timeline in which Alonso plans to learn how to race Indy.
The deal manufactured by current McLaren executive Zak Brown, a former IndyCar consultant, has grabbed headlines by pairing McLaren, Honda, Alonso and Andretti in the most famous auto race in the U.S. It comes at the expense of the Monaco Grand Prix, which Alonso will skip to race at Indy.
Why is it OK for one of F1's biggest stars to skip the crown jewel of the schedule to sell some tickets for Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
Alonso's entry also came at the expense of Stefan Wilson, who had to give up his yearlong quest to put an Indy package together because there were not enough engines for both Alonso and Wilson. People will tell you Wilson graciously stepped aside, and put the race above his own interests, but what kind of series leadership puts him in that position? Of course he was going to say. "Sure, Alonso can have my engine."
Meanwhile, the field already has announced entries for Indy 500 rookies Zach Veach and Jack Harvey, plus a car for Jay Howard, who hasn't raced an Indy car since 2011. So why was Wilson singled out to cough up his Honda engine to give Alonso a shot? Wilson has been working hard to make this year's race after finishing 28th last year, enough to earn a share of $200,805.
IndyCar has some nice momentum right now, but the idea of importing Alonso does little for long-term growth. Unless, of course, the idea is to coax more open-wheel drivers in F1 turf to take the road to IndyCar.
Put Lewis Hamilton in the Indy 500, with proper seat time and the freedom to Snapchat and Instagram his way through the entire process. That might appeal to kids. Or put Ricky or Jordan Taylor in the event. They are rising American stars with the following to make a difference to the race and the series.
Alonso? Meh. It's hard to see what IndyCar gains in the long run. After selling some tickets and drawing some eyeballs on race day, what happens when the race is over and Alonso returns to Formula One?
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