Made-For-TV Drama

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When Indy Racing League President Brian Barnhart announced the new qualifying procedure prior to the 2005 Indianapolis 500, I was totally opposed to it. It sounded like a gimmick to generate some buzz for qualifications. I knew to filter out any opinions that were even indirectly connected to the Speedway, but a few journalists whose opinions I respected, said that we should give this new format a chance. Although open-mindedness doesn’t come easily to me, I decided I would give it a try…especially since I really had no other choice.

I’ve been told that I’m assuming readers know too much in my writings; so in the interests of those who don’t know about qualifying, I’ll give a refresher.

With the exception of a few years after the formation of the IRL and during the energy crisis of the early seventies, the qualifying format had remained basically unchanged since the 1930’s. Qualifications were held over four days. The first day was the run for the pole. They would qualify as many as possible on the first day. The fastest qualifier at the end of the first day was the pole winner. Whether there were two first day qualifiers of thirty-two, they were lined up by speed and locked into the starting grid. All of the second day qualifiers were lined up behind the first day qualifiers regardless of speed, and so forth. It wasn’t too uncommon for a second day qualifier to have a faster speed than the pole sitter, but they still had to start behind the slowest first day qualifier.

After an episode involving driver Jigger Sirois in 1969, a rule was implemented that stated if a driver had stayed in the qualifying line (determined by a draw) but never got the chance to make a qualifying attempt (because of rain, for example); he could qualify on the next available day and still be considered a first day qualifier. This went on until the field was full, and then bumping would begin. If a driver qualified with a four lap average that was faster than the slowest car in the field, regardless of what day the slowest car qualified, the slower car was bumped from the field.

A key aspect in this format was the basic concept that the driver didn’t qualify…the car did. If a car was bumped, it was done. It would not be allowed to requalify. A driver would have to go to his backup, or “T” car. If there were no backup car, some pretty creative deal making would occur at the eleventh hour. If it looked as if a car would not reach the needed speed before a qualifying run was complete, the run would be waved off, usually by the car owner or Chief Mechanic. This was because a car was allowed three qualifying attempts to be charged against it. Once it had three charged attempts, that car was ineligible to make any more attempts for that year’s race.

There were many other intricacies and many teams and drivers did their best to manipulate the rulebook as much as possible. Unlike NASCAR, there were no provisionals or Champion exemptions like golf. Only the thirty-three fastest cars made the field. It made great drama to watch the defending CART Champion, Bobby Rahal get bumped and at the last few minutes, unsuccessfully try to squeeze his backup car into the field as ESPN was rolling the credits. In 1995, the unthinkable happened as Team Penske, the most successful team in Indy 500 history and the defending Indy 500 Champions failed to qualify either of their drivers. It was a great format that had worked for years.

As Pole Day crowds suddenly dropped after the CART-IRL split, the format was tweaked. The brain trusts at 16th and Georgetown decided to combine qualifying into one weekend—qualify them all on Saturday, have bumping on Sunday—then run the race the next weekend. This ultimately proved to minimize the importance and the allure of qualifications. The crowds dwindled further and the world’s second largest sporting event became less important than the LPGA to the networks.

Fast-forward to 2005. In order to try anything to rejuvenate fan interest into what qualifying used to be, the Indy Racing League revamped the qualifying format. Fortunately for us diehards, they went back to the four-day format. What was a concern was the format that allowed only eleven cars to qualify each day, and then designate the fourth day as “Bump Day”. Even more heresy was the concept of giving each car three complete qualifying attempts per day! The idea was that it would create more strategy and drama for each of the four qualifying days.

The first two years never saw it play out as Pole Day was completely rained out in 2005 forcing them to qualify twenty-two cars on Sunday. In 2006, the entire first weekend of qualifying was washed out. Finally, Pole Day was run under the new design in 2007. What we saw was the foolish practice of usually smart owners exercising poor judgment, all in the name of drama by withdrawing cars already qualified on the front row just for the opportunity to move up one or two positions. Saturday saw Scott Dixon withdraw his car from the fourth starting spot, only to requalify in fifth. They probably felt a little sheepish, but there was no real harm done. What will change this idiotic practice is for a front row car to be withdrawn and then end up in the fence on a second pole run. The best that car could qualify then, would be twelfth on the next day. That would probably curtail a lot of this lunacy.

After watching this format play out for three years now, it turns out that my original opinion was correct. This is nothing but an artificially contrived gimmick. To hear Dave Calabro over the PA system continually reminding us what high drama we are experiencing, only serves to remind me that the drama is about as authentic as a reality TV show.

Having cars withdraw and requalify has cheapened qualifying. The original drama was forcing teams to get it right the FIRST time. There were no mulligans. Rick Mears once referred to qualifying as the four most intense laps of the entire month—including the race. This format has done nothing to revive attendance, but it has succeeded in insulting the intelligence of the existing fan base.

George Phillips

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One Response to “Made-For-TV Drama”

  1. I agree that pole day is a made-for-TV, low-drama deal. Therefore I did not purchase the product (watch it on TV). First, SIX hours seems a bit much. They could condense it down to three hours and have the other three be practice time. Second, we pretty much knew 10 of the cars that would qualify (any car related to the Big Three) so the unknown was who would be that 11th car. Gripping. As for the pole, a contest between two cars that have contend for basically every oval pole since 2005 was not enough to beat out all the other Saturday alternatives for my attention.

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