Jean Alesi is 47 years old. He is an ex-Formula 1 driver who is notable more for his bad luck than his career results. He is also an official ambassador for Lotus Cars.
Today, in the first phase of Rookie Orientation Practice (ROP) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Alesi - for the first time in over ten years - stepped into an open-wheel car and took his first-ever laps on an oval track in a Lotus-powered Dallara fielded by Fan Force United, a team which until recently was a competitor in the Firestone Indy Lights Series.
Alesi's best lap behind the wheel of the Fan Force Lotus/Dallara was 186.367 miles per hour, 30mph slower than the next-slowest rookie. It was a speed that would have been the third-slowest qualifying speed for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega the previous weekend.
For his first laps in an IndyCar - especially one powered by the lowly Lotus/Judd engine - they weren't all that bad. But because Alesi's ride was bought and paid for by Lotus almost as a lark, Alesi's doubters in the fan ranks exploded onto social media, eager to give his seat away to someone else (never mind that the seat wouldn't exist without Lotus or Alesi).
"This guy doesn't belong in an IndyCar at the Indianapolis 500." That was the prevailing sentiment... and one that has been repeated about other drivers over time as well. But it is a sentiment that could not be more wrong.
Racin Gardiner. Brad Murphey. Dr. Jack Miller. Fermin Velez. Billy Roe. Marty Roth. Milka Duno. What do these names have in common? They are all people that, by rights, should never have been in the Indianapolis 500. At least, that's what many fans have said, while naming the names of other, more "deserving" drivers who should have taken their place.
You know what else they have in common? They all qualified for and raced in the Indianapolis 500 anyway.
If you tried to codify the universal merits upon which a driver should or shouldn't be considered for the honor to participate in the Indianapolis 500, you would go crazy before long. Everyone has different criteria, everyone has their own favorites, and consensus is therefore virtually impossible.
Fortunately, the Indianapolis 500 remains an event upon which participation is greenlit by the satisfaction of some very simple requirements, to wit: You must be hired by a car owner, you must pass rookie orientation if necessary, and your car must be fast enough by the end of time trials to be locked into the starting field or - in the tremendously rare event that there are fewer than 33 qualifiers - you must be within 105% of the pole speed.
That's it. No other factors apply. Not gender, race, day job, racing history, past championships, size of entourage, sexual orientation, number of Facebook friends, or anything else.
In the earliest years of the Split, there were howls of derision about the Indy Racing League's collection of drivers from the CART faithful. Who are these guys? they scoffed. There's no way they'd make the field if OUR drivers were there. The problem, of course, was that THEIR drivers and teams had not bothered to try to make the race. Thus, in the stoic calculus by which such things are judged, the IRL drivers who qualified deserved to be in the race, and the superstar CART drivers did not.
In more modern times, there are drivers out there who are proven winners, fan favorites, or just plain nice people who, when time trials at Indy begin, do not have a ride lined up. "Damned ride buyers!" exclaim their defenders. "So-and-so deserves to be in the race more than Driver X!" Unfortunately, they are also totally wrong, their admirable loyalty aside. If Driver X can cobble together the funding for an Indy 500 ride and then make it into the race on speed, how is that undeserving?
It is emotionally frustrating for a driver who remains rideless for the Indy 500, more so for his or her fans. But the brutal truth is that drivers who cannot find funding are in that position because the potential backers to whom they pitch themselves decide that the driver is not worth the expenditure. The same goes for race teams in the case of a driver with a sponsor - if the team elects not to hire said driver, there is a set of criteria that the race team has that the driver, for one reason or another, is not able to meet.
On rare occasions - such as at last year's Indy 500 - the calculus is changed by the introduction of new numbers... specifically, cubic dollars, such as those spent by Andretti Autosport sponsors SunDrop and DHL to ensure that Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had failed to qualify, would still start the race. But even here, the rationale is simple - the car is qualified, and who drives it becomes the whim of the owner of that car. It is the same awful reality which faces drivers who, in hindsight, were fast enough to make the field but had their qualifying runs withdrawn for some reason or another and subsequently missed the race.
What this all boils down to is that, if Jean Alesi successfully passes ROP this weekend and then qualifies fast enough to make the field, he is as deserving as any other driver who qualifies. And if someone else - even a veteran of past Indy 500s - cannot find the funding or the open seat to try to get in, it does not mean that he is more deserving than Alesi.
The reason for this is that the only meritocracy at Indianapolis is speed. And if you think about it, isn't that a refreshing trait?