Another Change For The Month Of May

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On Friday, we first started hearing reports that IndyCar CEO Mark Miles was going to unveil a major facelift for Qualifying Weekend for the Indianapolis 500. The Month of May was already going to look drastically different with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis set to kick off the month by running on the infield road course. I wondered what other sacred traditions would be kicked to the curb.

Those that know me and are long-term readers of this site know how hard-core of a traditionalist I truly am. They also know that I live by the mantra that “change is bad”. My wife and my boss both roll their collective eyes whenever they suggest a change in procedure. They know how much pushback they can expect from me. But I like to think I don’t hide from all change. After all, I haven’t owned a flip-phone since the first iPhone was introduced in 2007. Then last year when the iPhone 5 was launched, I had one two days after it was launched. My phone now has iOS7 and I have a touch-screen all-in-one computer that has Windows 8.1 – although I will confess that it is loaded with Office 2003.

So, yes I can embrace change – so long as I see a reason for that change. Change for the sake of change is pointless and counter-productive. It takes a lot of ramp-up time to get comfortable with a lot of changes just to get back to where you were before the change was even implemented. What’s the point? It’s sort of like those people that choose a different route to work, just for the heck of it. Why would you do that? But then again, if I know there is something ahead that will delay my usual route – I’m not going to hesitate to change my route. That’s changing out of necessity. If you don’t change when necessary – get ready to be left behind.

So, with those analogies out of the way – I suppose you now understand that I can embrace change when needed.

After seeing reports of possible changes for qualifying, I immediately thought the worst. Then on Saturday, I saw an online video with Mark Miles describing the changes in broad terms. There are still a lot of details I haven’t seen, but what he described in the video is interesting to say the least.

In essence, the two days are being reversed. From what I understand, the thirty-three cars will all qualify for the race on Saturday. It’s simple – the fastest thirty-three cars will make the field. That’s good. That’s the way it always has been and should always be. If there are thirty-six cars trying to get in, and the fastest thirty-three get in on Saturday – those three slow cars go home. Then on Sunday, the remaining thirty-three will all run again for position. Then at the end of the day on Sunday, the Fast Nine will run as it has for the past couple of years. Therefore, the Pole Position will not be determined until 6:00 on Sunday.

My fellow traditionalists may want to burn me at the stake, but at first blush – I kind of like it. The main reason why is because the anticipation for the pole builds until the last minutes of qualifying weekend.

If you’ve ever been to Indianapolis on Bump Day, you may have seen one of the most exciting days ever, but you also may have seen one of the most boring days as well. I’ve seen both. My oldest brother and I were in the stands on Bump Day in 1995 when the two Marlboro Team Penske cars of Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi failed to bump their way into the field. I was also there this past May when there was not a single car to bump its way into the field once the field was set. The only drama of the day was watching Michele Joudain, Jr. trudge around in the third Rahal car trying desperately to get it up to speed. He never came close.

I am of the mindset that there is no such thing as a boring day at a race track – especially the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, I am acutely aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for watching cars go by all day – including my first wife, who hated the place.

I also have to assume that NBCSN was not ecstatic to devote seven hours of continuous Bump Day coverage to watch cars practice full-tank runs, crews practice pit-stops and teams scuffing in tires for the race. In a society that demands emotional drama at every event, I’m sure the execs at NBCSN could hear the collective sets being switched to something else across the land. After all, there are just so many features that Jon Beekhuis can do on weight jackers to keep viewers engaged. The hard-cores will eat that stuff up, but it’s the casual fan that IndyCar covets. They are the ones who can eventually become die-hards, but they are also the ones not watching when there is no bumping on Bump Day.

This past year was not the first time that there was no bumping on Bump Day. Several times in the last ten years, we have seen Bump Day become a misnomer. This new format eliminates that embarrassment if there are only thirty-three cars entered. Of course, my first question is – if there are only thirty-three cars entered (or less) is there even any point to run on Saturday if the order of the field is not set until Sunday?

But I like the idea of building the excitement through the weekend. The one thing I’ve noticed when Mark Miles has discussed the Month of May, he continues to use the word “momentum”. It would be even more emphatic if he used the Bobby Unser slow annunciation of the word (Mo-MENT-um). He keeps talking about building momentum throughout the month through Race Day. Over the past fifteen years or so, Bump Day has done more to kill momentum than it has to build it.

Pole Day on Saturday ensured that the intensity was dialed down for most teams on Sunday. Consequently, there were smaller crowds on Sunday. This new format avoids the anti-climax of the second day. Instead, it builds excitement toward it.

The new format also will probably encourage sand-bagging on Saturday. I can see Helio Castroneves or Scott Dixon having only the twentieth best time on Saturday to just get into the field, and then showing their entire hand late Sunday afternoon when they run for the pole. That’s OK. Indianapolis has always had gamesmanship. That’s part of the allure of the place.

For my fellow die-hards that are bemoaning the fact that another tradition has gone by the wayside, well – that happened a long time ago. Twenty years ago, there were four days of qualifying spread over two weekends. But that was also when Pole Day drew well over a hundred thousand people. Those days are gone. The 1994 Indianapolis 500 had sixteen cars that failed to qualify. Those days are gone as well.

Since those heady days, qualifying has been shortened to two days, expanded to three and shortened to two again. In 2005, they abandoned a sacred format that had been in place for decades in favor of a format that saw only eleven cars qualify each day over two weekends and featured multiple qualifying attempts for cars. That format never caught on with fans and was abandoned in 2010 for a format that saw twenty-four cars qualify the first day, then the top nine cars had a shootout for the pole for the last hour and a half. The remaining cars filled out the field on Sunday and then they had bumping, if there was any. To be fair, Bump Day in 2011 was electrifying when two of the five Andretti Autosport cars were bumped. The sizzle died the next day however, when Andretti bought the second Foyt entry and booted Bruno Junqueira for Ryan Hunter-Reay.

But with new cars and a limit on engines, the chances were good that Bump Day was going to be non-existent again in 2014. Something had to be done to build momentum for the most important day of the year for the historic oval.

Mark Miles has been criticized here and other places for seemingly sitting still and letting things happen. Now that he has changed the status-quo for the Month of May, he undoubtedly will receive criticism for doing too much – further emphasizing what a no-win position he sits in.

But if you were upset about the changes for Qualifying Weekend that Miles is making, and you came here knowing I would be against another tradition thrown out the window – you’ve come to the wrong place. If the race ever gets back to six-figure crowds for qualifying and almost fifty cars entered each year, maybe they will revert to the old days. But if this way was succeeding, what would be the point then.

No – the good old days are gone and they’re not coming back. But I’m old enough to remember those that decried the rear-engine car would ruin the 500 forever. It’s done pretty well since 1964 and Things will evolve well enough through his change, as well.

But what happens if it rains on Sunday?

George Phillips

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20 Responses to “Another Change For The Month Of May”

  1. Steve Jarzombek Says:

    18 years of various qualifying format changes haven’t helped stem the slide in popularity of qualifying for the 500. The root causes are economic: lack of sponsorship resulting in small fields of spec cars. Making everybody in the top 33 qualify twice instead of only the top and bottom nine doesn’t move my needle at all; it just dilutes what has become a less-than-compelling event over two days.

    The gist of the feedback I see suggests that locals who will easily attend both days as always are saying “We gotta do something, something is better than nothing”. Those fans who have typically attended Pole Day, but live more than 2 hours from the track–and who must, or highly prefer to, leave on Sunday before the gun sounds–are saying they will likely forgo qual weekend attendance entirely. The change is likely to bring in some additional local attendance that will more than offset the number of those who choose not to attend. I have my suspicions that this is primarily driven by ABC/ESPN…and yet I don’t see them providing full coverage of either day. From a competition standpoint, I think it’s negative–especially for any one-off teams who would effectively have one less day to make the show.

    Personally…I say H&Co should more than happily accept their added May income from the road course race, condense qualifying for the 500 to a single day competition, and be satisfied. I don’t see that many more folks showing up on Saturday to see at most a few cars bumped than show up on Sunday. The reason the Fast Six format makes road course qualifying compelling is that it condenses the action into a tight time frame with a climax that holds people’s attention when, as we hear time and time again “there are lots of other activities competing for their leisure time now.”

  2. George, M. Miles said in the video you referenced that the fast nine from Saturday would run for the Pole on Sunday afternoon which would (hopefully) decrease the possibility of sandbagging. That being said, what’s the point of fans even showing up on Saturday when it’s really going to be a glorified practice day? I just don’t get it. I am a “Traditionalist” like you (had a streak of 30 consecutive First Days attended from 1967 to 1996 going until I moved to Maine) and even with all of the recent changes the First Day of qualifying always meant something. Now…?

  3. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    I voted “other” because this is 3,248th case of Indycar treating the symptoms, not the illness.

    In my opinion, auto racing has, is, and forevermore been abt two things: The vehicle and the driver. With spec racing quite simply, the storylines and drama provided by the machines are gone as is the percentage of fans who care about such things.

    With the decline in popularity of Indycar, the drivers, who pilot very fast, relatively safe, and identically-appearing machines in locations that fail to inspire an audience inside or outside the local race vicinity, are hugely anonymous to the public on a larger scale.

    In my view, those are the real issues at play (and have been for 15+ years) with no apparent recognition or will to make the sea changes necessary to become a larger, more vital, more relevant sport.

    No amount of this futile tweaking and massaging to the minor issues will help on a scale of real importance.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I don’t really like the change, but I do think it will work fine… with the current number of expected entries at Indy. If the number of entries grows to the point where a significant amount of bumping will occur, the previous format will be much more compelling and (arguably) more fair, and should be reinstated. Here’s hoping we see that.

  5. So basically everyone gets only one shot on Saturday?

    I have been there for the past few years for qualify weekends and Saturday always seems that each driver really only gets 1 shot as they are queueing. Screw up your one shot and you are going home. This is going to really be tight if/when there are more than 33 cars even trying to qualify.

    What about that times when we get 15 minutes of rain and it takes 2 hours to dry the track? Now there is no chance for another run if you had a mistake there just isn’t enough time to get that many cars through.

  6. Mike Silver Says:

    I like the idea of not limiting the number of first day qualifiers. I was never in favor of that. Let’s see how this works. I hope they will offer a discounted 2-day ticket for Qualifying weekend. I see fewer out of town fans for the entire weekend.
    Qualifying has changed so much in history that I am not upset about the change itself. My concern is for someone who has a really bad day Saturday.

  7. As others have pointed out, a little rain on Saturday could really screw up this plan. Also, once a team is in the race, it seems to me that there is little incentive for them to risk a crash by trying to improve their position on Sunday. If you qualify 22nd, are you going to go all out to get to 19th?

    • Steve Jarzombek Says:

      Ron…my understanding is that Saturday does two things…sets the 33 that are in the field, and the Fast 9…the “Slow 24″ then ALL must requalify as the “Slow 9 and maybe a few more” have had to do in the past few years. In other words, you must run again…there’s no standing on your Saturday time. I’d bet if you choose not to run Sunday, you’re still in the race….just at the back of the field, ordered by Saturday times.

      So if you’re the 10th quickest on Saturday but are the only car that doesn’t requalify Sunday…you’re in the race AND win that $0.33 check from the Last Row Club. Woooohooo!!!!

      But if rain washes out full requalifying of the Slow 24 so not all of them gets a shot before the Fast 9 can hit the track…hmm, I guess the only solution is that everybody gets to go back to their Saturday time.

  8. Seems okay. Miles is tossing aside some old traditions, which concerns me, but on the other hand something proactive has to be done to maintain interest in the 500 and help grow interest in Indycar, so what the heck?

    Slightly off-topic George, but a pat on the back for your efforts. I’ve followed several Indycar blogs over the past years, but while many of them seem to be fading, if not folded all together, you continue to provide a place for interesting, consistent and civil discussion for we Indycar diehards.

  9. Whatever…
    just bring back the TASMAN SERIES for the Winter with Indycar and Super Formula teams/drivers

  10. Strongly disagree with you. Indy is all about tradition and the powers that be don’t get it. They already did severe damage with the face that is the shootout and now this road race in May.

    By doing what is proposed, Saturday is basically a waste of time. Call it what you will. Its an exercise in futility. You are also conceding that there will never be over 33-35 cars to qualify in the future. I’m sure the kids will love that.

    Why not reduce qualifying to two laps to save the teams money and help out ABC/ESPN? Have a rock concert before the shootout on Sunday to get even more young people “interested in auto racing” (Sarcasm intended)

    Tragedy is fast becoming farce in the world of what once was the greatest spectacle in racing.

    I’ve been to 29 Pole days stretching back to 1978. If this really goes though, not sure I am going to make it 30.

    Trash tradition at your peril.

  11. Why not a drawn out version of F1 knockout qualifying over the course of two or three days requiring 4-6 runs per car? Bumping would happen first, but the run for pole should be exciting.

    • Steve Jarzombek Says:

      LOL Steve K…I am sure the team owners will jump all over any proposal that costs them more money yet ends up yielding the same result.

  12. Whatever. I started out on Friday as being mortally opposed to the idea, but I’m not sure I really care anymore what the format is for Indy qualifying. Here’s hoping it works, though I can’t say that I see it making any real difference in TV ratings or attendance.

  13. Really bad idea. This will not make one more person show up to watch Time Trials. Especially since they added the GP of INDY. Just let them run hard once and hope it sticks. It’s not like they have 40+ cars. Qualifying doesn’t matter anyways with the current spec! These guys are clueless!!!! DUMB!!!!!!!

  14. Erik Stevens Says:

    I’ve debated my opinion of this topic back and forth already. First question what happens if someone wrecks on Saturday? In that scenario what if only 33 cars show up on Saturday and one wrecks? Other primary issue I see is I am not optimistic bumping will occur. Since ICONIC and DW12 we have had a total of 33 entrants, both 2012 & 2013 races. My big question for Miles and IMS is if they want bumping as it appears the contracts with engine manufactures don’t allow any additional engine leases. They have had two years to address that issue with no result, we just get fed that it costs Honda and Chevy too much to produce another engine for the field. I know Lotus dropped out, but still am waiting for an answer. The drama the past two years hasn’t been who will be bumped, but rather if we will even have a “full field.” If you have money to only go one day which day would it be? Bump day or Quals? For me Quals are not as exciting with no track record on the line, however bump day isn’t much fun with no cars to bump. That’s my two cents. Greatly appreciate the website and always look forward to the latest article. Thank you!

  15. I suppose this is considered an addendum. One question that seems to be coming yup here on a consistent basis is “What if someone crashes on Saturday?”. That has always been a concern and one that adds intrigue to qualifying. Had Buddy Lazier wadded his car up this past year on Sunday, did he have the time or money to get his car or any car in the field? Probably not. In that case, Michele Jourdaun, Jr. would have made the field posting whatever incredibly slow time he could produce.

    That has been one of the storylines throughout the history of the race. Remember in 2010, when Tony Kanaan crashed in Turn One on Saturday, then did the same thing to his backup car on Sunday? The crew thrashed the backup together in time for a last minute attempt. He barely made the race.

    Like it or not, that is all part of racing. I would imagine that if that were to prevent a full-field, provisions would be made early that week – as had been done in the 60’s,70’s & 90’s. Same with rain. Provisions have always been in place to ensure a full field. – GP

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