Indy Qualifying Was Not That Sacred

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Most that know me, know that I am an incurable traditionalist. Therefore, it will come as a shock to some that I am in favor of the new qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500 that was announced this week. I don’t find it nearly as gimmicky as the 11-11-11 format that they tried to have for the past few years. I say “tried” because last year was actually the first time that the entire format was carried out without some sort of a rain delay.

In a nutshell, the new format is as follows: there will be only two days of qualifying. On Saturday, all cars will run for the pole position with up to three attempts. At 4:00, cars in positions 10 through 24 will be locked into the field. The top nine cars will have their times erased, but will be guaranteed a starting spot no worse than ninth. Beginning at 4:30, each of the nine cars will be required to make at least one additional qualifying run, but will be allowed one more optional run. The way the explanation on Indy500.com reads, the drivers best run in this session will be allowed to stand.

Though I consider most of the traditions of the Indianapolis 500 to be sacred, qualifying isn’t one of them. The qualifying format has been tweaked and overhauled many times over the years. The four lap, ten mile procedure was first introduced in 1920. During Eddie Rickenbacker’s time of ownership, qualifying was extended to ten laps, or forty miles in 1933 – a move that proved unpopular with participants and fans alike. Then in 1939, it was reduced back to the current four lap procedure, still in use today. In 2005, the idea of qualifying only eleven cars each day, but giving each car three attempts each day; was introduced to mixed reaction among fans.

Before the 1920’s there were several changes to the qualifying format. The first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, the cars were lined up (and numbered) simply in the order that their entry form was received. Qualifying was simply determined if the car could maintain a speed of over 75 mph over a quarter of a mile. If they could, they were in. If not, they didn’t qualify. On race morning, the forty cars lined up five abreast along the main straightaway with the Stoddard-Dayton pace car driven by track owner Carl Fisher sitting in the pole position instead of in front of the field.

In 1912, the date of the entry form still determined the starting order, but in order to qualify – this time the driver had to complete an entire lap in excess of 75 mph. That year only twenty-four cars made the field.

Back in the early days, it wasn’t unusual to have a car actually qualify on race morning. The amount of days allotted for qualifying has been changed over the years also. In 1974, in response to the nation’s energy crisis – all sporting entities were asked to voluntarily curtail their activities by 10%. The Speedway’s response was to run qualifying on the two consecutive Saturday’s before the race. From 1998 to 2000, qualifying was run in one weekend as will be the case this year. In those days however, the goal was to qualify as many cars as possible on Saturday and have bumping occur on Sunday.

This only covers some of the changes that have occurred with qualifying over the years at Indy; so the traditionalist in me doesn’t get too upset when they announce yet another change.

There are several things I like about it. First of all, they’ve added more importance to qualifying by actually putting additional Izod IndyCar Series points up for grabs. The pole winner will receive 15 additional points, with the other front row starters earning 13 and 12 points respectively. Then the amount of points decreases all the way down to positions 25 through 33 earning three points apiece. There has been a cash increase, but I’m not sure that raises eyebrows among the competitors as much as the available points.

Some have asked why not only the top six spots, like they do in Firestone Fast Six qualifying on road courses. The skeptics say that there are not nine cars that have a realistic shot at the pole in any given year at Indy. That’s true, but after acknowledging that this is made-for-TV drama, the real drama will not simply be the run for the pole.

A lot of strategy will be played out. With the times erased, no one can sit on their time. Being on the pole at 4:00 can still mean that you may be on the outside of the third row by 6:00. With nine spots in flux, the overwhelming embarrassment of dropping like a stone may be even more compelling than the pride of being a front-row starter…maybe not.

About the only thing I don’t like, is taking the best time of the session. This is where the traditionalist in me rears its ugly head. Indy has always been about taking risks. If you already have a third place time, how much risk is involved in going for the pole? Not much, when you know you already have a front-row start sewn up – no matter what. If they are going to manufacture drama, why don’t they make it truly dramatic and have a ninth place start a possibility if things don’t go as planned?

With upwards of forty cars as a strong possibility this year, this certainly makes the two days of qualifying interesting and packed full of drama. The first day will be to (a) get locked into one of the top twenty-four spots so that teams can work on their race day set-up on Sunday (b) position yourself within the top nine spots to eventually run for the pole or at least secure a prime spot on the grid. Then Sunday, there could be over fifteen cars going for the final nine spots remaining in the field. If everything plays out right, this could be some of the most interesting and entertaining rounds of qualifying we’ve seen in years…unless it rains.

George Phillips

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20 Responses to “Indy Qualifying Was Not That Sacred”

  1. George.
    I have to agree with you. The days of a full month of testing followed by two weeks of qualifying made sense in the days when each team showed up with a car of their own design. That amount of testing was needed. With a spec series nowadays, it doesn’t make sense.

    I’m not sure the new format will be any more compelling than the 11-11-11. Its not easy to manafacture drama. (see NASCAR’s playoff for another example). There are two things that will bring the drama back. Car counts above 40 and the posssibility of a “new track record!”

  2. George, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. If IMS had simply reverted back to the qualifying format from 98-00, that would have produced plenty of drama. If they really wanted to tweak the schedule and add a bit more non-contrived excitement, they should have considered extending the qualification time until 7pm, thus bringing about the return of the traditional “happy hour” when the track really cools down and the speeds come up. There is plenty of drama to be had by forcing teams to decide early in the day whether or not to accept their run, knowing that once accepted the car cannot be requalified if it is either bumped or knocked off the pole. Anyone that was at Pole Day in 1996 when Scott Brayton withdrew his 2nd place run (at that time) and went for the Pole in his backup car knows that there is plenty of drama to be had in the “traditional” qualifying scheme.

    The the other end of the spectrum, if you wanted real bump day drama (since we are now looking at 40+ cars), eliminating this rule of letting a previously qualified or bumped car re-qualify would do the trick. Half of the strategy that went into making the field in the “old days” was understanding and guessing where the bump speed was going to land. You didn’t see teams accept a terrible number on Pole Day for the simple reason they knew they would eventually be bumped and their car would be out of competition. Bring THAT aspect back and now you really put teams in a position to squirm and make those tough choices. IF you do that, then you see plenty of drama on Bump Day. Ask Billy Boat was when he had a dozen guys taking shots at him in 2001 (or 2002) and sat on the Bubble for an hour. Robin Miller will tell you that Bump Day ’95 was the greatest at the Speedway. I’d argue that it was the day Billy Boat dodge bullet after bullet after bullet to make the field!!

    RE: the points for qualifying… While I agree that Indy qualifying should be special, I actually think they’ve gone too far. Let’s be honest – there are only 5 drivers in contention for the Pole and unless a slightly less supernatural event occurs, there are only 5 guys vying for the front row. All you are doing with these extra points is throwing a few more points into the Penske/Ganassi point coffer. The smaller teams are already facing an uphill battle against Penske and Ganassi on the ovals and this scheme simply hands the big teams a few more points. You want to make it special, how about a half-million dollar bonus for breaking the track record!?

    In the end, is Indy qualifying sacred? Probably not but there is a lot of drama to “the old way” and this just smacks of Made-for-TV gimmickry. I understand that things have been changes with qualifying previously but it is still a tradition. I mean, other than the race being 500 miles, I don’t think there is ANYTHING that has been continuous since 1911 (and even the mileage got changed for a couple years). Hell, even “Back Home Again in Indiana” has only been around since post-WWII and with Jim Nabors since 1972. Yes, things do chance but in this case, the change really went the wrong way at the wrong time.

    • Are any teams other than Penske or Ganassi going to be contending for the championship, though? They already sit 1-2-3-5-6 in points, and we haven’t even seen an oval, where they hold a much bigger advantage over the rest of the field. I say better to give them more incentive to slug it out amongst themselves on Pole Day, and give the TV and in-person crowds more of a show to watch. Bump Day is already going to be interesting with so many cars, and now they’ve made Pole Day more compelling as well.

  3. I am all for manufacturing drama. What’s wrong with making quals interesting for spectators and making good television?

    I’m also a traditionalist, but sounds interesting to me.

  4. George-
    you are really becoming a good old boy…for the new republic.

  5. I think it’s a great call. I’ve skipped watching Pole Day on TV almost entirely since about 2004 (probably corresponding with about the time I got a significant other and found stuff other than watching racing to do with my time). Now, I’m guaranteed to be on my couch between 4:00 and 6:00, which simply hasn’t been the case for years. People have been complaining at length about how the TV numbers are horrible. Well, shouldn’t the League do stuff to try to improve those numbers? Tradition is all well and good (and I am also a hopeless traditionalist), but qualifying hasn’t been “traditional” for almost 15 years now. Best to maximize the potential for drama and maximize the chance for a good TV audience (because the audience at the track is almost always going to be entertained because, duh, they’re hanging out at the Speedway).

  6. I’m with George on this one. As a fan, I have no problem with the league manufacturing drama in this manner. It provides a lot of strategy and game theory moments. Certainly, as Paul said above, there were plenty of dramatic moments before and with 40+ cars qualifying, adding an additional level of drama is probably unnecessary. However, if you can change the rules to make it more interesting for the fans by making quals more important to the drivers through points or money, then I say go for it. It doesn’t change the essence of the game. The fastest cars will be in front. What it does is change the stakes for the players. More strategy, more drama, more fun!

  7. Chad Paff Says:

    As long as we never see “provisionals” at Indy, then about any format will suffice.

    We can all guess right now who the 9 drivers will be. It will be the predictable suspects. But what will also be fun about Pole Day, will be the great fight for 24th and which drivers will be stuck having to sweat it out on Bump Day (since all will be on “Full Month” deals, EVERYBODY will be trying to qualify on Pole Day).

    Sunday this year, weather permitting, will be terrific. Like it should be.

    • yeah. right on about the provisional thing.

      this car gets a provisional because twelve years ago the owner finished third at the all-star race…dumb.

  8. I may be in the minority, but I actually liked the qual format. Last year was exciting with Lloyd getting in at the last minute, and Andretti and RHR putting great runs in the end to make it.
    I am willing to give this new qual format a shot… I doubt there will be too much green flag practicing during quals anymore, at least not until the field is full. This should make both days more exciting per minute, although having the possibility of 10 cars missing out will do the same.

    And while we are pretty sure about the ‘fast 9′, lets really think about it.
    Penske and Ganassi will each have 3 at the track. Andretti will have 5.
    Already at 11, and we haven’t even included guys like Dan Wheldon and Ed Carpenter, who are fast at Indy. Matos was last year too, to go along with Lloyd. Worst case scenario is we see all Penske/Ganassi/Andretti up front, but even still they will be dueling to get those points.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    The old 2 week 11-11-11-bump format would have been great if there 45+ entries.

    I do like this new format, should make the television broadcast better this year. I sat down and watched pole day on TV last year but followed the rest of the sessions over the internet on the IMS Radio Network while I did some work. I didn’t want to just be sitting during non-qualifying runs like I was doing on pole day.

    I thought the additional points simply for making the field were a very interesting development. While I like that it ought to make the qualifying sessions more interesting, I haven’t decided if I like that it makes the Indy 500 no longer equal to the remaining races in terms of points awarded.
    One part of me says that Indy is far and away the richest, longest, biggest, most-watched race on the schedule so it’s only fitting to reward drivers more for performing well there.
    The other part says that it’s a silly gimmick that will irritate me quite a bit if those extra qualifying points decide the championship.

    • Mike Silver Says:

      The winner of the 500 used to get 1000 points under the 2 points/mile rule ibn the lates 50’s/early 60’s. That provided a huge advantage. The points system is cheap enough with everyone getting points just for showing up. I don’t like cheapening the points system, but I like the new format.

  10. Gurney Eagle Says:

    Do I understand that the top 24 on Pole Day are locked into the field? And that bumping will only occur among the second-day qualifiers? It seems to me that this is the most egregious break with tradition and I am vehemently opposed to it. Even with the 11-11-11 format a first day qualifier could be bumped if his/her speed was not in the top 33. I have always looked forward to, and frequently attended, Bump Day but not this year.

    • Not really. Pole day qualifiers were typically locked into their position. This is why they started 34 cars a few years ago… they had a slow pole day qualifier that couldn’t be bumped.

      The tradition was actually that people who didn’t have an honest shot at the pole didn’t take a checkered flag and keep their 4-lap time because they had the good sense to not lock themselves into a time before they had a clue what the bump speed was and they were considerate enough to the guys chasing the pole to keep the heck out of the way.

  11. You are a driver.

    You have done very few laps around the Speedway in your life, maybe none.

    Or you haven’t been in an IndyCar in a year.

    Now you have to get up to speed within a compressed schedule, perhaps futher shortened by rain.

    Wadding up a car might ruin your attempt to qualify, since the reduced schedule will leave your crew hard pressed to repair or replace your ride. Or go through the process of dialing in the T car.

    So you get up to speed, but not quite push it to ten tenths. The only time you will be hanging it out is in qualifying. Safe travels.

    The fast guys will have to hang it out too. Twice. Maybe five times. The points at stake could likely determine the season championship, if the standings in recent years are any indication of what this added wrinkle will bring.

    The drivers don’t care about tradition. I care about the drivers.

    Let’s hope the drama IICS has created will all be positive. The pressure has been pumped up in every aspect.

    It all looks to me like this is set up to get 100,000 people to attend weekend qualifying. May it all work out perfectly this May.

  12. Andy, ….spot on.
    And if they can get Sean Combs… who cares?

  13. There is a disgusting facet of this format that everyone seems to be overlooking. If a driver goes out early and sets the fastest lap of the month in the morning, there is a good chance that it gets thrown away.

    Can you imagine throwing away a track record and forcing the driver to risk putting it in the wall by REQUIRING him to try again? The reality is that when they were posting track records they weren’t running these underpowered, 2J vacuum car wannabes that can go fast without sliding up the track.

    The only TRADITION about Indy qualifying is that the fastest 4 lap qualification attempt gets the pole. That will no longer necessarily be the case.

    Regarding points: This is as stupid as any other idea. They need to DE-EMPHASIZE points, not start handing out more of them. The emphasis on the championship has made the series LESS WATCHABLE for most fans because it starts to overshadow the actual events.

    We’ve all seen Briscoe and Dixon refuse to pass slower cars at races simply because they put more value on championship points than they did on winning a race. That doesn’t make for entertaining events, it isn’t good for sponsors and it damn sure isn’t good for the series.

    Now you want to try and make it more important to make the front row because of Points? Are you serious? Its the freaking INDY 500! The front row is already important enough, don’t dilute that by talking about freaking points that casual fans don’t give a rip about!

    There is nothing in this new qualifying format that will attract new fans to the track or to their televisions on Pole day or bump day. Nobody is going to say “Oh, I wasn’t going to watch before, but I guess I will now since there are points!”. None of the drivers are going to say..”I didn’t really care about the front row until they made it worth POINTS! OH BOY!”.

    This whole thing is a sham to make sure that there is something on television during the final hour. All it does is make sure that nobody needs to show up during the first four hours . Who cares if you have to put a few drivers at risk, right? Its not like its the same event that banned the Hans device, is it?

    • “There is nothing in this new qualifying format that will attract new fans to the track or to their televisions on Pole day or bump day. Nobody is going to say “Oh, I wasn’t going to watch before, but I guess I will now since there are points!”. None of the drivers are going to say..”I didn’t really care about the front row until they made it worth POINTS! OH BOY!”.”

      Not true. Not even close. I’ve skipped watching Pole Day entirely the last 4-5 years because I’m not about to watch 7 hours of practice/qualifying in the hopes that something interesting will happen in the last 2 hours. There was a time that I used to do that and it was called “teenagerdom when I had no friends and nothing better to do”. Nowadays, I’d rather get some stuff done around the house in order to build up some brownie points that I can then blow on watching all of Bump Day and then on going to Race Weekend. Now, I can tune in for the last 90 minutes and know what’s going on. I really don’t think I’m alone on this. Also, when before the difference between pole and second was $100,000 (pennies for teams like Penske and Ganassi), teams were less likely to try to roll the dice, though many obviously did. Now, it’s a freaking shootout, because every point counts for the championship.

      I am one of the first people to get on a safety soapbox (as I’ve done a bunch of times at my site and a couple times here), but I don’t see that this is a huge setback for safety at the Speedway. For the most part, a driver knows if a car’s got Pole speed in it. It’s not like the old days when a driver couls hustle the last 0.5 MPH out of a car and then they were more apt to get in over their head. Is this more risky? Sure, slightly, but isn’t this a pretty risky line of business? They’re not scattering thumbtacks on the track or putting stationary cars on the yard of bricks, they’re asking guys to do 4 extra laps.

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