Indy Qualifying Was Not That Sacred
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.