Will IndyCar Restore Order To The Universe?

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Last week, I was listening to Trackside. Early on, Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee were talking about NBC’s Month of May coverage and how maybe they could broadcast more of Indianapolis 500 qualifying than ABC had for the past few years; or if qualifying should be tweaked to protect the fulltime drivers. In my mind, I took it a step further. I sent a question to Kevin via Twitter that asked “What are the chances that NBC will restore order to the universe and ask that Pole Day be moved back to Saturday and Bump Day back to Sunday?”

I could tell by their response that it was a touchy subject. When he read the question on the air, Kevin seemed to sort of sidestep the question. He acknowledged that it was possible, but thought that it probably was not going to happen. Curt was more blunt. He flat-out said it wasn’t going to happen. He explained that they want their climactic moment to take place on Sunday, not the day before.

By using the word they, I’m assuming they is code-speak for Mark Miles. After all, I think this whole new and convoluted qualifying format is his brainchild and he probably sees nothing wrong with it at all. Mark Miles is Curt Cavin’s boss, so I seriously doubt that Curt would publically denounce his boss’s idea – even if he secretly disagreed with it. I don’t blame him. If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t go public against something my boss came up with. It would be career suicide.

But other than those that work for IndyCar and IMS, does anyone really like the current qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500? For the record, in case anyone had any doubts – I do not. Not only are the details hard to understand, it just seems like a crime against nature to decide who makes the field before you know who wins the pole.

First of all, I know it has always been the logic behind the argument for the new format, but I’m not sure that winning the pole is the defining climactic moment for qualifying weekend. It certainly wasn’t this past year.

Quick! Without thinking – who was on the pole for this year’s Indianapolis 500? If you said Ed Carpenter, you were right. But how many of you had to think about it for a few seconds before it popped into your head? Quite honestly, I had to think about it before I remembered it. Is Ed Carpenter winning the pole the one image from the 2018 qualifying that sticks in your mind?

It’s not mine. Six months after the fact, when I look back on this past year’s qualifying I automatically think of the two drivers who didn’t make the field – Pippa Mann and James Hinchcliffe. The images of those two drivers climbing out of their respective cockpits after they failed to crack the field of thirty-three will be seared into my brain until the day I die.

The intrigue surrounding the Fast Nine and Carpenter winning his third career Indianapolis 500 pole didn’t come close to matching the drama from the day before when two fan-favorites were met with the harsh reality that they would not be in the biggest race in the world the next week.

Failing to qualify had a profound impact on both drivers. Pippa Mann usually works all year long putting together various sponsorship packages just to make that race. In some years, she may drive in a few other selected races on the schedule, but her year is built around making that one race. When you saw her reaction to not making the race, you were seeing raw emotion spilling over because all of her work the previous year was now in vain, simply because she was a few tenths of a second too slow.

With James Hinchcliffe, it was different. He is and was a full-time driver. Up until that point, he had a respectable season going. He had one podium finish and had no finish lower than ninth. But facing that he was about to miss a race paying double-points, he knew any hopes for being in the running for the championships were dashed at that moment. He knew he had created a hardship for his crew, his car owner and his sponsor. Hinchliffe ended the season tenth in the points.

To me, who got bumped was a much bigger story for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 than who got the pole.

That’s the way it has been for decades. Not many people can tell you that Scott Brayton won the pole in 1995, but they sure know that Marlboro Team Penske failed to make the race that year. It was the same in 1993, when Arie Luyendyk won the pole for Ganassi. He won the pole, but all the qualifying headlines the next weekend were about the defending CART champion, Bobby Rahal, failing to qualify.

When this kooky qualifying format first went into effect in 2014, bumping was rare. There were normally only thirty-three cars entered and bumping was non-existent. Qualifying runs on Saturday basically decided who was eligible to run for the pole on Sunday and what drivers would make up the last row in the race. Those not eligible for the pole were still forced to requalify again on Sunday, but there was no way they could start any higher than tenth.

Essentially, Sunday is a yawner except for the last hour. There are few surprises for those qualifying for tenth on back. Then at the end of the day, the Fast Nine come out and have their one run for the pole based on their times from the day before. If you were fastest on Saturday, you are the last to run on Sunday. It is rare that there are any real surprises among the Fast Nine either.

I understand that times have changed and there is no way to ever expect qualifying to take place over four days that cover two weekends. Those days are long gone and I’m not really advocating for a return to that. But a return to normalcy would be welcome. I could be wrong, but I think the vast majority of fans would prefer for Pole Day to return to Saturday, while Bump Day be returned to Sunday.

If you can qualify on Saturday, your spot in the field is set with other first-day qualifiers. But if your speed is iffy, that spot could be in jeopardy on Sunday – once the field fills and bumping begins.

Saturday is about the fastest cars, while Sunday is about the slowest ones. It’s two different types of drama, but many will argue that bump drama is a lot more captivating than pole drama.

If IndyCar is concerned about a lack of bumping, then do what it takes to get more cars entered. At this point, there have to be some older DW12s that can be fitted with the new body kit for a much cheaper price than buying a new one from Dallara. That chassis will be on its eighth year next season. Is that not an option?

Is it lack of engines? About fifteen years ago, there was a rule that each manufacturer had to be able to supply 60% of the field – and that included Indianapolis. That would equate to almost twenty engines per manufacturer. Nowadays, they gripe if they have to go more than seventeen each. That only comes to thirty-four engines available for a thirty-three car field. How can they ever expect any type of bumping when only one car can go home?

Is it money? Either come up with a way to make one-off entries more affordable or greatly increase the purse to entice people to want to come (you’ll notice how free I am with other people’s money).

Yes I’m old and I’ve been following this sport since the sixties. But this has nothing to do with age or the way things used to be. I think most fans that are half my age would prefer to see Pole Day moved back to Saturday and Bump Day moved back to Sunday. While I criticized Mark Miles heavily for not listening to the fans in the early years of his tenure, he has gotten better at it in the past few years. But Miles needs to know if fans want order restored to the universe.

Not that Mark Miles reads this site, but I do know that some within the IndyCar offices come here occasionally. If you feel the way I do, or if you think I’m wrong – now is your chance to sound off and comment. If enough of you make your case strong enough – it might just make a difference. It may not be for 2019, but it may give them something to think about going forward.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Will IndyCar Restore Order To The Universe?”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Well, I’ll probably get run off the blog for this opinion! When bumping wasn’t happening, I liked the new qualifying format. The previous format didn’t make sense when there wasn’t bumping and it made Sunday a bit of a waste of time as a spectator because watching spots 10-33 get filled isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff. By having the pole shootout on Sunday it made both days entertaining.

    With bumping happening the old system would work, but if I’m honest I believe last year was a bit of a fluke and in all likelihood the people getting bumped will probably be also-rans who nobody really cares about. In 20 years I’m not going to remember that James Davison and Jay Howard getting bumped was a big drama. If we can get 40 cars trying to enter the field then bumping may be interesting, but if there’s only 34-35 it doesn’t add much excitement for me.

    Is it May yet??

    • billytheskink Says:

      While I do prefer the traditional arrangement regardless of the number of entries because I am generally a traditionalist, I do think this point is well taken. Given the entry list ranging between 33 and 35 every year of the DW-12 era, I have not really been bothered much by the current qualifying format. It is decidedly made for television, and it is effective as a television show. Mark Miles undoubtedly got a lot of input from the television people before hatching the format, especially after NBCSN endured 2 consecutive HOURS-LONG bump day broadcasts in 2012 and 2013 in which pretty much nothing happened.

      It does become quite unwieldy if the entry list grows, of course, and would pretty much have to be altered if there are close to 40 entries.

      • BrandonWright77 Says:

        Yep. And for a few years there it looked like bumping was going to be a thing of the past and the qualifying format they were using doesn’t really work well if there’s no bumping (from an entertainment perspective). So they had to come up with something and what they came up with I thought worked fairly well for the circumstances. I never found it confusing either, it made sense to me for a no-bumping situation.

  2. What George said.

  3. David Rinehart Says:

    Mark Miles is tone deft , double point races and Indy qualifying are the two things that will stir up long time Indycar fans in a minute. And, yet, we still have both year after year, with no real explanation why. How do fans convince Mr. Miles that a change would be good?

  4. All they need to do is make a rule that says, if only 33 cars, then the current format makes sense, pole day on Sunday. but if 34+ and bumping exists use the 2008-2013 format where fast 9 on Saturday and bumping on Sunday.

    Bumping on Sunday allows teams with a bad day or crash on Saturday time to rebuild and recover. Right now, as with Hinchcliffe, teams can lose out on the race for a random mishap out of their control in a few hours.

    The biggest problem with the current format when you have 34+ is that there’s 2 different sets of teams fighting for track time at the same time some trying to get into fast 9 and some trying to get in the race, why make them compete for the track time.

    also if you’e fast enough to qualify Saturday you get to relax on Sunday. right now they pointlessly make everyone run multiple qualifying runs…

    • You bring up some additional good points that I wish I had made. – GP

    • billytheskink Says:

      To be fair, the multiple qualifying runs aren’t “pointless” as points are awarded for qualifying positions…

      I think a challenge making a rule that alters the format based on the number of entries could come from the television folks, though if you can guarantee the same time slots each day regardless of format it might not matter much.

    • BrandonWright77 Says:

      I like this idea.

  5. Looks like Mark Miles voted in your Poll. Poll day on Sunday has one vote.

    Based on your opening paragraph it looks like bump day is again under threat. I don’t think guaranteeing spots went over big when Tony George did it. Why do we want to go back to it? Miles is tone deaf.

    The Fast Nine has been STUPID since the beginning. Doing it on Sunday is even worse. Pole Day should be on Saturday. With the fastest car in qualifying winning the Pole. Everyone (well almost everyone) knows that.

    I have not liked the news coming out of INDYCAR Land of late. This just adds to it.

  6. Right at the top of this comment, know for certain that I LOVED the old format in my formative days as an IndyCar fan (this would be 1991-1995). I reveled in the fact that it was somewhat confusing, and that there were different stratifications of qualifying speeds all over the starting lineup (for instance, in that first 1991 year that I followed nearly every day of, fastest qualifier Gary Bettenhausen started 13th, as he qualified on Day 2, and was EIGHT MILES AN HOUR faster than Scott Goodyear, who started just in front of him; Buddy Lazier in 23rd was nearly 4 MPH faster than Bernard Jourdain in 22nd, and Willy T. Ribbs in 29th was also over 3 MPH faster than Roberto Guerrero in 28th, with speeds all over the map from 13th on back). As a Super Nerd, I enjoyed the fact that I managed to understand the system better than casual fans, who likely mostly looked at the lineup and noticed the star-packed front couple of rows (Mears, Foyt and Mario up front, Rahal, Michael and Al Jr. just behind) and didn’t worry too much about the speeds or what happened on Days 2 through 4.

    That being said, I think the current format (setting aside the issues that my blogmate Allen mentioned above) makes WAY more sense than the old format. Yes, Hinch and Pippa getting bounced from the field made for great drama that we’ll all remember for decades to come. But, regulars like Hinch are rarely the ones who get bumped from the field. Will we bounce our grandkids on our knees and regale them of the tales of Michel Jourdain Jr. getting bumped from the field in 2013? Or Buddy Lazier being the only driver who didn’t make the field in 2014? Because those stories are WAY more representative of the “typical” Bump Day drama of the current era (and if Sunday becomes Bump Day again, know that outlier events like a James Hinchcliffe or some other regular missing the field will become even more rare, as they’ll have a second day to use their greater engineering and equipment resources to sort out their issues). With this being the case, does it make sense to move this action to the “apex” of the weekend late in the day on Sunday, while somewhat burying the “feel good” drama of the Fast Nine (where upsets do happen; did anybody really see James Hinchcliffe sitting on the pole coming in 2016? Or Ed Carpenter outrunning all four Penske drivers and knocking them back to 2-3-4-8, where Helio only really wound up 8th because he chose to take a giant swing at knocking Ed off the pole?)? Put simply, more often than not, Bump Days end in frowns, while Pole Days generally end in smiles and celebrations. Which ones make more sense to splash across the tops of sports pages, especially given the rarity of series regulars being the ones frowning at the end of Bump Day? Which ones are easier to explain to non-avid fans at the end of a weekend? I’ll weigh in on this second question right here, as I had a heck of a time explaining to my own parents and my in-laws what happened to the guy they all knew I was rooting the hardest for. Frankly, I’d rather that the focus of the end of the weekend wind up on who’s the fastest, like basically every other qualifying session of every other racing event worldwide, as opposed to who’s slowest.

    Taken on its own merits, and setting aside what we knew for decades before the current system was hatched, I think the current system makes a heck of a lot of sense. I have a hard time coming up with any sort of tangible reason to go back to the old “Pole Day, then Bump Day” order.

    • This is all very well said. Bump day is usually one-off entries competing to make the show. Jourdain and Lazier missing out are not compelling for most viewers. Drivers casual viewers may be familiar with are going to be in the Fast 9, and that’s who should be on TV late Sunday afternoon.

      Hinch missing out was the exception, not the rule. The last time a DNQ was a big deal was 1995 – over 20 years ago. Hinch almost certainly would have qualified had he been given another chance on Sunday (teammate Wickens was 20th, over 1 MPH faster than 33rd).

  7. I do not normally leave comments even though I have been a long time follower, but I specifically chose to go to Saturday instead of Sunday to watch bump day. It was incredibly exciting and was far better than pole day on Sunday. Especially since Sunday is one shot qualifying.

  8. “Is it money?”
    yes.

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