Originally Published: May 25, 2018 6:01 a.m.
INDIANAPOLIS — There's an old saying around Gasoline Alley that the Indianapolis 500 picks its winners, a testament to the brutal and unpredictable drama that unfolds every Memorial Day weekend.
Jay Howard thinks it should go one further: "The Indy 500 also picks its participants."
That was evident last weekend, when series championship contender James Hinchcliffe joined Pippa Mann in getting bumped from the 33-car starting field. The stunning development caught nearly everyone by surprise, and immediately speculation began that a deal would be made to get Hinchcliffe a ride.
Just as quickly attention turned to Howard, whose AFS Racing team is aligned with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. It would have made some sense for Hinchcliffe's team to buy Howard's seat for Sunday's 102nd running, given their working relationship and the fact that Howard is racing a one-off while Hinchcliffe's season could well be torpedoed by missing the double-points showcase.
Well, it didn't make much sense to Howard.
"Everyone says they have their price, but it would have been way, way out of their league," Howard told The Associated Press. "Nobody could have written a big enough check."
To their credit, Hinchcliffe and his team owner, Sam Schmidt, announced early in the week that they would no longer pursue an Indy 500 ride. So, the 37-year-old Howard will pull on a helmet adorned with the handprints of his wife, son and dog, strap into his Honda-powered car and start inside the 10th row for his third Indy 500, all the critics and naysayers be damned.
And rest assured, the Briton has plenty of them — including some big voices in IndyCar.
"We can't just be putting these guys out there who haven't been racing and plug them into the 500," rival team owner Chip Ganassi said earlier this year. "I'm not picking on anyone in particular, like Jay Howard, but I'm just saying that you can't do that. You're going to hurt someone eventually."
It nearly happened last year in the 500, when Howard drifted high in Turn 2. The collision with the wall sent him back across the track and Ganassi driver Scott Dixon was launched airborne into the catch fence.
Both drivers were uninjured, but the incident left Ganassi fuming.
Howard brushes off the criticism, though. He admits that he has thick skin, and that he doesn't spend time on social media unless he's posting something for his sponsors. He prefers to focus entirely on making sure his car makes the Indy 500, then preparing the best he can for race day.
"I don't read that crap. I don't even look," he said. "You can't, not in this sport."
Besides, even though Howard only drives the Indy 500 he is still plenty busy. He does some media work in his spare time, and he's been building up a driving school that takes children aged 4 from the go-kart level to Formula 4. One of his protégés is Spencer Pigot, who will be in his third Indy 500 this year.
"I drove for Jay when I was pretty young, I think I was — I don't know, 13 to 16? That kind of age, in karting," Pigot said. "We used to practice race, lead-follows and passing and defending. I learned all sorts of stuff on the track. Learned a lot of British swear words and humor, too."
Pigot wasn't surprised that Howard brushed away any chance of giving up his ride, either, given how many times his mentor had the proverbial rug pulled from beneath his feet in Indy.
He was poised to make his debut in 2008 when his team, Roth Racing, gave his ride to John Andretti, who had brought along sponsorship money. Two years later, he gambled on bump day and withdrew his time in the final minutes, only to post a slower speed and miss the field.
In 2012, he once again had full sponsorship and team support from Michael Shank Racing, only to find out the first week of May that they could not secure an engine deal for the month.
"Always unfinished business," Howard said. "I mean, story of my IndyCar career, really."
That story makes him sensitive to the situation Hinchcliffe found himself in last weekend, but it also made it that much harder to step out of the car for any amount of money.
"You never know what's going to happen at this place," Howard said, "but I just love it. There's a passion or it. I hope I'm going to be back next year, and hopefully I'll be defending my title."