Image: McLaren F1

SANTOROSKI: Alonso at Indy… Could it be a New Golden Era?

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

After last year’s historic 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, with a sell-out crowd and a large amount of media attention, I wondered if the momentum would continue into the next century of racing. Indeed, the 101st Running, slated for May 28, 2017, has a tough act to follow. What could possibly happen to top this?

Enter Fernando Alonso.

The stunning early-morning announcement on Wednesday that the two-time World Drivers Champion would run in the 500 caught the racing community by surprise. Many of us initially thought it was some kind of a hoax or prank until the details emerged. This is really happening, as surreal as it may seem.

Certainly the skepticism can be forgiven. The thought of one of these active Formula One drivers, with their iron-clad contracts, actually skipping a Grand Prix to come across the pond seems like a Twilight Zone episode. This just doesn’t happen in racing…

But it should.

The fact that Alonso, who is widely respected for his talent behind the wheel, wants to do this speaks to the allure of the Indianapolis 500. Despite a decline in popularity during the era of the split, the race still remains as a crown-jewel that many young racers dream about.

Alonso should be commended for wanting to do this. After all racers just want to race and there is no bigger stage in the world than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The timing is right, with McLaren struggling in F1, and the Championship likely out of reach.

To put this into historical perspective, Alonso’s announcement is undoubtedly the biggest motor racing story in the past 25 years. You have to go back to late 1992 when reigning F1 champion, Nigel Mansell, announced that he was leaving Formula One to race Indycars in the United States.

The media frenzy that surrounded Mansell was nothing short of incredible and became known as Nigel-Mania. Alonso will certainly draw similar attention as the world-wide press will track his every move at the Brickyard.

The big difference here is that while Mansell left F1 behind, Alonso is doing a true crossover, something that we all would like to see more of in today’s racing climate. It would be interesting to see if this move by Alonso and McLaren will open the doors to more crossovers in the future. Certainly the Monaco date conflict is problematic, but it is indeed something that can be looked at in years to come to truly benefit the sport as a whole.

Alonso’s crossover is unique this day and age, but not entirely unprecedented. From 1950-1960 the Indianapolis 500 actually paid points toward the Formula One Championship. The event was not mandatory, or considered a part of the Grand Prix schedule, but it did attract a few of F1’s finest including Alberto Ascari.

In the 1960s, when the rules were much more open, F1 Champ Jack Brabham showed up with a Cooper and Colin Chapman brought his Lotus cars to the Brickyard ushering in the rear-engined era. The Lotus driver lineup consisted of some of the finest F1 drivers of the day including James Clark, Graham Hill, and Jackie Stewart.

In the 1970s McLaren took on the 500, bringing F1 standouts Denny Hulme, Chris Amon and Peter Revson to Indianapolis. 1969 500 winner, Mario Andretti, routinely ran the 500 while running the full F1 season, save for 1979 when a date conflict kept him in Europe. Clay Regazzoni also ran the 500 in 1977. However, it has been 33 long years since an active Formula One driver started the 500, that being Teo Fabi in 1984.

The 500 has also drawn the attention of stock car drivers with Donnie and Bobby Allison and Cale and LeeRoy Yarborough running at Indy several times, occasionally skipping Charlotte’s NASCAR race.  At the same time, IndyCar regulars like A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock and Mario Andretti would often enter stock car races sanctioned by NASCAR or USAC.

The practice of drivers switching series and crossing over began to fade as racing became more commercial, with teams becoming heavily reliant on sponsorship dollars. The ripple effect began an era where many drivers are bound by contracts forcing them to remain as a specialist in a single racing discipline.

In 1994, John Andretti was the first to run both Indianapolis and Charlotte on the same day, making for a true crossover. Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, and most recently Kurt Busch have also attempted the Double. While the crossover attempts are few and far between, they have all generated publicity for both series. The main reason we don’t see more falls back to these sponsor agreements. In 2004, Tony Stewart was toying with the idea of a third attempt at the Double until he was informed that his contract with Chevrolet would not allow him to race the Toyota-powered IndyCar.

While there is historic precedent for Alonso, in this day and age his announcement is absolutely jaw-dropping. He has the full support of his Formula One Team, McLaren, and their engine partner, Honda. Certainly the fact that is Indy ride will be powered by Honda makes it an easier path. With the Andretti Autosport Team, he will find an environment where the drivers share information. The team also has four Indianapolis 500 wins behind them.

Perhaps it will be a one-off that generates a ton of interest and never happens again, or perhaps this will open the doors to another ‘golden-era’ where we can see the best drivers in the world head-to-head on the same track.

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,