All anyone could talk about yesterday was the baffling decision by Sam Schmidt to put Dan Wheldon into the #77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara in place of Alex Tagliani for this weekend's race in Kentucky.
Well, let me qualify that - "anyone" means IndyCar fans on the Internet. Let's keep that small sample size in mind for later, shall we?
At any rate, the general consensus was that it was a douchecanoe move on Sam's part and one that wasn't particularly necessary, considering how many resources Sam Schmidt Motorsports theoretically has at its disposal spread across three separate teams (SSM, Bryan Herta Autosport, and Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing, all of which have operated using SSM resources this season).
The two things that got people up in arms the most were that A) The decision takes Tagliani out of any discussion for a top-10 finish in the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series championship, and B) it wasn't even a year ago that B&W was Tagliani's sponsor, and Tags owned the #77 Dallara.
The answer, of course, is money. Specifically, who pays it and who is in position to win it.
The hard fact is that Tagliani sold his team to Schmidt, and so Schmidt is the guy signing contracts with the team's sponsors. And, for some reason, Schmidt seems to think that Wheldon needs the Kentucky race to be in the best position possible to win the $5 million GoDaddy Challenge at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October.
That warmup obviously could not be backed by the BHA team that Wheldon ostensibly will drive for next season because that team is wrapped up in testing the 2012 IndyCar. Logistically, it simply wouldn't do to divert them from that very important work to field a car in Kentucky.
But let's recall that this is Sam Schmidt Motorsports we're talking about. Last I checked, they do not have a real dearth of inventory on the equipment side, nor do they seem to have a problem scaring up crew guys (as evidenced by their hydra-style approach to the Indy 500). They also are quite adept at "technical alliances" with teams like BHA and RLL Racing - surely there is another team out there with a spare car that could step up into the breach.
Of course, there's also the whole question of whether or not Dan Wheldon even needs a warmup at Kentucky for the $5 million. After all, the guy won the Indianapolis 500 in his first start of the year, he's got a boatload of race trophies from previous IndyCar seasons, and he's been racking up tons of track time in the 2012 IndyCar.
In short, everyone's big question is, WERE THERE NO ALTERNATIVES?
The answer, although nobody will like it, is ridiculously simple. Replacing one driver with another was the cheapest option with the least expenditure of effort. And in the balance books of a team competing in a series that is economically and strategically moribund, there's no reason to make things more complicated than absolutely necessary - not even if a more complicated solution is possible, not even if it would salvage the season of a well-thought-of driver.
Of course, the rationalizations are flowing out of the gate like water from a breached dam. Tagliani is assured of a solid ride next year for being a good soldier - that's the most popular one. It's what we want to believe, right? That Sam wouldn't take this step without providing for his full-time(?) driver for the future?
The fact is that there is no guarantee that Tags will get anything out of this other than sympathetic tweets from his fellow drivers and a boatload of sentiment from pissed-off fans. Speculation and theorizing may help soften the blow a bit, but it doesn't get him the points he needs to get a top-10 championship finish.
But go easy on the indignation, folks. It's not as though this kind of move is a new development in IndyCar racing, particularly in the past 15 years. Not only that, but it's something you'll need to get used to seeing so long as there are "technical alliances," conglomerate-style team building, a lack of financial security and starvation for attention, an enormous surplus of driver talent angling as best as they can to get into a seat through whatever means are at their disposal, and the team owners' appetite for easy money.
So Tags is out of a ride because of a publicity gimmick, and a guy with more wins and seat time in an IndyCar than almost the entire rest of the field gets a "warmup" that he likely doesn't even need. It's not a savory reality and it's not really fair, but it's a reality nonetheless.
It's the price we all pay for our passion for a sport struggling desperately to escape the fringes.