Changing Times For Indianapolis Qualifying

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Some that know me may be surprised to find out that I have mixed emotions on the new qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500. Paul Dalbey, from More Front Wing, actually expressed disappointment to Curt Cavin on Trackside’s Blogger Night that I wasn’t up in arms and defending the stance of the pure traditionalist. Don’t worry, I still treasure true traditions.

But the system that was in place was no tradition. If you’ll recall, I was somewhat in favor of the idea when Mark Miles first floated the idea in November. It’s not that I enjoy seeing all of the traditions I grew up with, being tossed out the window. But once they allowed cars to re-qualify in pursuit of the silly 11/11/11 format they instituted a few years ago – the tradition had already been trashed. This is just the latest in a series of tweaks we’ve seen over the last decade.

I have used the 1994 race as a reference point a couple of times lately, not because it was such a great race – it wasn’t. But since it was exactly twenty years ago, there are some stark differences between then and now. Twenty years seems like a long time ago, but most readers of this site still remember it.

The 1994 race saw forty-nine drivers try to squeeze into the field of thirty-three. Of the sixteen that made qualifying runs but failed to have the speed were notable names like Gary Bettenhausen, Pancho Carter, Jim Crawford, Davy Jones, Buddy Lazier and Roberto Moreno. To qualify for the race was a big deal and Bump Day actually meant something. Lots of Sunday morning optimism faded into disappointment when that final gun went off at six o’clock.

Back then, a car was allowed only three qualifying attempts over the two qualifying weekends. If a car accepted a slow time on Pole Day, once the field was full – that car was vulnerable all four days through Bump Day. If a car was bumped, it was done. The driver of the bumped car had to go to a back-up car or find another car in the paddock to try and bump his or her way back into the field. It was that way for decades.

Those magical days are long gone and they’re not coming back – at least, not anytime soon. Even the best funded teams have backup cars with no engine, so the same car is allowed to re-qualify many times over. It’s been that way since 2005, when the 11/11/11 format was announced. This was a plan to have four days of qualifying. Only eleven cars would qualify each day. There would be bumping among those eleven spots each day, as cars were allowed three qualifying attempts per day. Once the field was full on the third day and all through the fourth day – bumping throughout the field would take place. The idea was to spice up the show on days two & three.

Of course, in Indiana in May – Mother Nature has the final say. Due to Pole Day being completely rained out in 2005 and 2006, the 11/11/11 format did not get tested until 2007. By that time, there were so few cars entered that there was little or no bumping. With the exception of 2011, when close to forty cars were entered, that has been pretty much the case up until now. Most doubt any more than thirty-four will be entered for this year.

For 2009, we saw the introduction of the Fast Nine. By erasing the earlier times of the day, for the first time, there existed the true possibility that the pole speed may not actually be the fastest speed of the day. Although it provided some late afternoon drama, I found the Fast Nine to be gimmicky and contrived.

So, I really got the bad taste in my mouth almost a decade ago, when they first deviated from the format that had been in place since the twenties. But even that got altered between 1933 and 1938, when a qualification run lasted ten laps. Still, the qualification format had withstood the test of time from 1939 until 2005. We are now on the third revision in the past decade. Once they deviated from what I grew up with, any changes after that were meaningless in my eyes.

Putting aside my tendency to be a curmudgeon that is mired in the past – I am not vehemently opposed to this latest version. At least it isn’t too hard to explain. If there are thirty-four cars entered, one of those cars will be odd man (or woman) out. Thirty-three will qualify to be in the race on Saturday. Then, everyone that qualified comes back on Sunday. Those with times that were slower than ninth-quickest will have their times erased and run again. This time, their speed will set their place on the starting grid. After positions 10-33 are set, the Fast Nine Shootout will take place, determining the top-three rows including the coveted pole position.

I understand their logic. With the low car-count of recent years, Bump Day Sunday had gone from anti-climactic to boring. Last year’s Sunday drama consisted of watching qualified cars do full-tank runs and practice pit stops, while Michel Jourdain, Jr. trudged around not even getting close to having enough speed to bump Katherine Legge from the field. That did not make for riveting television. The few that were in the stands had little more to do other than work on their tans while watching cars go by. To me, that’s a pretty good way to spend a Sunday; but most seek more entertainment than that.

This way, the excitement builds to a crescendo throughout the weekend. Fast Friday will still be Fast Friday. All cars will run on Saturday and all qualified cars return on Sunday to set the grid and determine the pole. Is this perfect? No.

Let’s assume that defending Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan has his qualifying run late Saturday afternoon and stuffs his car into the fence – as he has done before on qualifying runs. That late in the day, his crew may not have time to switch the engine into his backup car. If IndyCar follows the rules as I read them, he would miss the race. I have learned one thing though – drivers are no longer required to withdraw their times before re-qualifying. So long as a driver has posted a decent time early in the day, a driver can still wad up a car late Saturday afternoon and still make the race. That should prevent the need for the dreaded provisional starting spot that NASCAR uses.

Rain has and always will be a threat to qualifying at Indianapolis. Supposedly they have contingency plans in place, so that should not be a factor.

But it’s also not ideal for fans that travel. We generally don’t leave the track until about 8:30 or 9:00 on the Sunday after qualifying. Gaining an hour back to Central time, still puts us back in Nashville around 12:30 or 1:00. But…I’m a die-hard. It also helps that I always take that Monday off. But for those that are not as hard-core and have to work on Monday, it makes it tough to stick around to see who wins the pole, even though that is supposedly the climactic moment of the weekend.

Overall, it’s not bad. Quite honestly, I’m not sure why many fans are up in arms over it. I like it better than the system it is replacing. Unless they go back to the way it was for decades up until 2005, some will never be happy. If they go back to having fifty or more cars entered, then maybe they can do that. But for these economic times with low car-counts, this is probably a good fix. And I’ve got news for you – I like it a lot better than the contrived 11/11/11 format. Compared to last year’s system, I actually like building the excitement through the weekend. So what if they now have to qualify twice? That’s still not as much pressure as being one of sixteen cars trying to squeeze into a field that is already full.

Since they tinkered with the sacred system that had been untouched for decades, I’ve always felt that all bets were off from that point forward. Any tweaking they do from that point is surely an improvement. So far, it has been.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “Changing Times For Indianapolis Qualifying”

  1. don’t even say the word “provisional.” someone at IMS might hear and think that is a good idea too. (it’s not.)

  2. Mike Silver Says:

    The 11/11/11 was a horrible concept and the 24/9 was even worse. Hearing “bumping” after 24 cars were in was an insult to my intelligence. This format has possibilities if there are more than 33 cars. If there are just 33 and a car has no chance at the fast 9, that car needs to just put in 4 whatever laps Saturday. Car count is the big flaw to this idea.

  3. what they are doing is an outrage and foolish. Nothing wrong to going back to what was used for decades. This has gimmick written all over it. Isn’t that what we want to get away from?

    As for only having 34 cars possibly trying to qualify, that seems like the area they need to fix.

    Indy is about speed. When the fastest car of the weekend does not get the pole……. tragedy becomes farce.

  4. So …… with these latest & greatest qualifying format……..Who enjoys being ‘force fed’ ?

  5. Rain during the sacred two-hour ABC TV window on Sunday might prompt changes again for next year…given the propensity of the current series management for “tweaks”.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    The new format fits nicely in ABC’s time slots, and that is good. I also think it ought to make for a greater amount of meaningful on-track action, provided there continues to be a limited number of entries for the 500. I think the many drawbacks, particularly those for in-person attendees, have been well-stated above and on other sites.

    I am surprised, though, that I have not seen many call this new format what it essentially is, knockout qualifying. Of course, all formats with the “Fast 9″ have been a form of knockout qualifying, this new procedure is simply an expansion of it, eliminating 34+ on Saturday and setting two qualifying groups for Sunday.

    For whatever reason, knockout qualifying is in these days. Indycar uses it on the road courses, Formula 1 uses it, even NASCAR introduced it this season. Much as 11-11-11 broke tradition, the fastest run on day 1 still won the pole. The real break was the introduction of knockout qualifying elements with the Fast 9. I do prefer the old way, but I will enjoy qualifying this year as I have even since the end of traditional qualifying. Indycars on track at speed? Name the time and channel.

  7. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    Not been a fan since the elimination of the traditional format. These stupid little changes only serve to mask minor symptoms and not treat the real illness.

    Another time for that conversation, but the fascination with tinkering with minutiae does nothing to alleviate the inherent and elephantine problem about the lack of interest in Indycar.

  8. I really fear a driver putting it into the wall and missing the show. On basically one day qualifying it is going to make teams/drivers cautious and I think we will actually see lower speeds as you no longer need to go as fast as possible, you just need to go faster than the 33rd car. Instead of your sights set ahead, everyone will be looking over their shoulder. Only car 33 will be going like a bat out of hell.

  9. I think you nailed it with your last paragraph George. It will be interesting to see how it plays out this year, and if anything will need to be tweaked going forward.

  10. As long as qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 is treated as the premier event it should be then I am happy.

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