How to buy your way into the Indy 500

The second week of practice for the Indianapolis 500 sometimes transforms Gasoline Alley into a used car lot. Teams that have already qualified their primary cars into the field for the May 27 race become wheeler dealers for one of their prized back-up race cars.

How to buy your way into the Indy 500

With so many top-name drivers such as Scott Pruett, PJ Jones, Richie Hearn, Jason Leffler, Mike Bliss and others hoping to get into the Indy 500 field during the final weekend of qualifications, team owners suddenly sound more like the polyester suit-clad used car salesman. So, just how much would it cost for a driver to buy his way into this year's Indianapolis 500 field?

"However much you've got," said Lee Kunzman, the team manager at Hemelgarn Racing.

With defending IRL champion and 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier safely qualified into the field in the inside of the fourth row, Hemelgarn was expected to have a few cars available this week. However, the team's second driver, Stan Wattles, crashed two cars last week and is not in the race.

Hemelgarn Racing is in partnership with Wattles' team for this year's Indianapolis 500, so it's not as simple as parking the driver in favour of someone who can put the car in the field. That is one reason why Hemelgarn is unable to release another back-up car to another driver.

Last week, Jimmy Kite believed his search for a ride was fruitless. Teams that were willing to put him into a back-up car based on driving ability, suddenly wanted money. "The other day, they were interested, but today they want $300,000," Kite said last week. "I guess that's why people like Oriol Servia get all the rides."

Servia is a CART driver from Spain who has been a topic of conversation in the garage area as a possible late-entry to the field of qualifiers. Kite did land a ride when McCormack Motorsports pulled Brandon Erwin out, after the driver from Texas had experienced problems earlier in the week. McCormack put Kite in the car with hopes he gets into the field on Sunday's Bump Day - the final round of qualifications.

"I talked to Truscelli Racing and Dick Simon and thought I really had a deal with Dick Simon, but that went to Roberto Guerrero," Kite said. "Now, maybe we can bump him out of the show. I didn't have any money, otherwise I would have been in a car months ago. I had to sit back and wait on an opportunity like this, somebody who was in trouble and needed to get a car in the field."

Kite is one of the lucky ones who were able to get a ride in the second week at Indy. While the rideless drivers are knocking on garage doors, the expenses are being paid out of their pocket.

"We are out here because we want to be in a car and when we aren't in a car, we are looking for a ride," Kite said. "We have to feed ourselves, put ourselves up and hope a situation like this comes up. I've seen my checking account drop pretty quick, but there was money there.

"It would be nice to have a good run here to build that checking account back up. But you don't really get anything until you get in the show."

So far, the two-week search has been a waste of time for PJ Jones, a former CART driver who is the son of 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones. "It's still fruitless," said Jones. "It doesn't seem like anybody is stepping up, working any deals with anybody. It's a little late in the game to work a dollar deal. I don't have any sponsorship to bring to a team."

According to team owner/driver Eddie Cheever, getting a ride at Indy in the final week can be an expensive proposition. First of all, the driver has to cover the insurance, which includes a $50,000 deductible, plus guarantee the total cost of the car, which can be an additional $90,000 to $200,000.

"I want the car back the same way it left," said Cheever, who is not releasing an additional car for this year's race. "Plus, the money must be immediate, either with a cashier's check or the money must be placed in escrow with a certificate of escrow."

Cheever was a last-minute driver in 1993 when he was out of chances with the team he originally came to Indy with that month. Figuring he was down and out, Cheever was ready to leave the garage area before team owner John Menard offered him the use of one of his cars. Cheever bumped his way into the field, bumping out the then-defending CART champion Bobby Rahal.

"What John Menard did with me in 1993 is he gave us the use of a car, we got to keep 40 percent of the prize money and put our sponsors on the car and his sponsors on the car," Cheever recalled. "That is a $400,000 car with an engine in it. A lot of these guys running around in a panic trying to find a car at the last minute, that's risky business.

"This is Disney World for race drivers. Emotions take over good business sense sometimes. We are not in the mode of leasing a car to anybody. If someone wants to buy one, we might sell one, but it's too risky."

Team owner Derrick Walker could possibly turn a car loose in the final weekend. His primary driver, Sarah Fisher, will start 15th - the outside of the fifth row.

"I would have loved to have done it the first week, but we don't have the resources," Walker said. "People have been knocking on my door and asking me what's the status? It depends on how you do it. If you take the spare care after you have qualified Sarah, it's a couple hundred thousand dollars. If you get in the show, you are almost guaranteed to get at least that much back.

"But that is not why we do it. If you do it right where you come here in the month of May and you run like Sarah is doing and you have a back-up car with spare parts, if anybody says they can do it for less than a half-million dollars, they are kidding themselves."

Walker says the top-running teams in this year's Indianapolis 500 are spending upwards of $1.5 million for this one event. "If they say they are not, they are lying to you," Walker said. "If you start at the beginning of the month and you are going to use all of these days to run and use all of these people, it will cost you a lot of money. If you get down to the last day of qualifying and you have a car standing there that you have already paid for and somebody has a few hundred thousand dollars, it's worth it to stick them in the show. The more you do, the more it costs.

"It is a minimum of $500,000 if you run it every day, but some of these guys don't have this kind of money, so it's all relative."

Then, there are those who get a ride because the team owner believes they will do well in the race. That happened to Donnie Beechler on Thursday when team owner AJ Foyt put him in a back-up car with the hopes of having three drivers in the May 27 race.

Beechler drove for Cahill Racing from 1998-2000 with a career-best third-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway last year. He finished sixth in the 2000 IRL standings.

"Donnie will get a chance to qualify after Eliseo Salazar is in the field," said chief mechanic Craig Baranouski. "AJ Foyt likes the way Donnie ran. He was our choice from the beginning before Robby Gordon became available. AJ just wants to give him the chance."

It should be no big surprise that Foyt will attempt to put three cars into the starting field for this year's Indianapolis 500. It's a game that he has mastered in recent years.

"Foyt likes to play that Bump Day game, but he also likes to have a buffer with more cars in the field," Cheever said. "It's one of those deals where if you get the right set-up, especially in the IRL, you can work your way to the front.

"It's hard to get pregnant if you're not having sex."

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