Another Change For The Month Of May
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?