The Week Of May
Well, the first bombshell of the new IMS regime that affects fans directly was dropped on Tuesday, when it was announced that qualifying for next year’s Indianapolis 500 has been trimmed from four days to two – over a single weekend, one week before the race. Pole Day will be held on Saturday May 22 and Bump Day will take place on Sunday May 23. Opening Day will be on Saturday May 15 for Rookies and Veterans needing a refresher. All drivers will hit the track on Sunday May 16. Race day is Sunday May 30. With only a week of practice, two days of qualifying and then the race, this is barely more than the WEEK of May.
The primary reason given for this is to save the teams money. While I’m sure that’s partially true, I think that new CEO Jeff Belskus sees this as a way for the Speedway to cut costs as well. It drains an enormous amount of cash from the IMS coffers to staff the Speedway for every single day that the track is open to the public.
Do I understand the need for this? Yes. Do I like it? Of course not. There is too much of a traditionalist in me to like it. It’s sort of like going to Best Buy and wanting to walk out with the latest seventy-two inch plasma TV. I know that economics simply won’t allow it, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Plus, I selfishly want cars on the track for every day possible.
Although I use tradition as an excuse to complain, this is certainly not the first time that I have seen qualifying messed with. Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember when the Month of May was just that – a full month. The track was always opened for practice on May 1 and the race was always run on May 30 — which was always the traditional day for Memorial Day – no matter what day of the week it fell on. The only exception was when May 30 fell on a Sunday, which pushed the race back to Monday May 31. My how times have changed.
In 1971, a law passed by Congress took effect that moved the observed date for Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. From 1971 to 1973, the race was scheduled to run on Saturday. In 1974, it was decided that the 500 Festival Parade would be held on Saturday and the race would be permanently moved to Sunday, with Monday in reserve for a potential rain date.
That was not the only change to the schedule in 1974. In response to the energy crunch of the early seventies, qualifying was cut back from the traditional four-day two-weekend format to two days. For some strange reason though, they chose to run both qualifying days on consecutive Saturdays. As luck would have it, both days were effected by rain. They also trimmed an entire week of practice off of the beginning of the month, which never returned. The four-day format was reinstated the following year.
Qualifying was also heavily tweaked in 1998. This time as a direct result of the dwindling crowds for qualifying that have never returned. I attended Pole Day in 1995 and the place was packed. Pole Day used to be considered the SECOND largest single-day sporting event in the world. Go back and look at old videos and the stands are practically full for Pole Day.
When the split came, Pole Day is where the apathy was most apparent. The crowds still showed up for Race Day but not so much for qualifying. What was once a packed house quickly dwindled to what you see nowadays at qualifying – a respectable gathering behind the pits with a smattering of bodies spread throughout the outside grandstands, with tons of space in between each one.
The thought was that cramming more into two days of qualifying made those days more intense. It didn’t work as the collective yawn continued. In 2001, they added a third day on the Sunday following the first weekend to be designated as Bump Day. Then car count took a hit and the only drama on Bump Day was whether or not there would be a full field.
Then for 2005, someone got the bright idea to create some artificial buzz. The idea was to add the fourth day back and to qualify only eleven cars each day. The same car would be given three qualifying attempts per day – an unheard of concept under the old format – and there would be bumping amongst those eleven qualifiers each day. It was a silly and contrived format that didn’t actually get to be tried until 2007 due to Pole Day being completely rained out in 2005 and 2006. Yes it generated drama and excitement, but it was about as authentic as an infomercial. It was strictly “Made-for-TV”.
So now they’re going back to a schedule similar to that of the late nineties. There are a couple of silver linings in this; first there is the possibility that they might ditch the contrived format of withdrawing cars and bumping every day. Secondly, the fact that Opening Day will be on a Saturday with all drivers hitting the track on Sunday is a vast improvement over the most recent format that saw Rookies on the track for Sunday and Monday with all drivers taking the track on Tuesday. Tuesday?
I might consider driving from Nashville to Indianapolis for the opening Sunday, but never for an opening Tuesday. That schedule was prohibitive for most fans wanting to be able to show up and watch a day of practice. This schedule is more fan friendly for those of us who live out of town, although I had already started making plans for attending Pole Day next year on May 15. Now I’m going to have to adjust my whole schedule for May. I’ll have to look at several different options before figuring out what to do.
Regardless of whether I like it or not, it’s what we have to work with. If those days get rained out, we’ll see the field filling up just a few days before the race. It is just another step toward stripping the magic from the Month of May. I know that things change, but I hold the traditions of the Speedway sacred. What once took an entire month to unfold will now take just a little more than a week to play out. There is something a little sad in that.