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The Time Trials at the Indianapolis 500

Even with all the changes to its format over the years and the possibility of more to come, the pathos of qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 never gets old.  The Time Trials both test and reveal character every year.  The true cognoscenti of IndyCar racing understand and savor the power of these raw moments of human emotion.  John Mellencamp, a good Indiana boy, sang that we live “Between a Laugh and a Tear.” That describes the Time Trials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the drivers and the teams.

With a series and a venue on the cusp of change, both major and minor, decisions are in the offing regarding every element of the race.  The question is what to do with the Time Trials.

One suggestion, even with changes in format, is to keep the historical moniker of Time Trials.  In an era of homogenization, the IZOD IndyCar Series needs to find ways to get noticed.  As much as the current formats of the series and the race are going to change, anything that defines you as different, particularly historically different, needs to be accentuated.  As much as the name Brickyard or the slogan The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the term Time Trials shouts Indianapolis 500.  Recent comments by Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., suggest that both IMS and the series do not want to be wedded to a past that not only comes with some baggage, but often seems to stifle forward thinking.  Instead of being guided by its past, IMS needs to use its history to define its product to a modern audience.  The name Time Trials does that.

The most obvious element of Time Trials is the true humanity that is revealed every year.  The ticking of the clock down to 6:00 PM on Bump Day creates a tension that is absolutely not artificial.  A game is not on the line as time counts down; a chance to participate in one of the world’s most iconic events is.  It doesn’t get much more compelling than that.  The faces make for perfect TV drama.  The moments that bring tears, sighs of relief, and joy always do.  The pit scene with Ed Carpenter after he secured the pole for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 was a moment custom-made for television.  Those David and Goliath stories always are.

Lack of interest and the cost of opening the doors at IMS may doom even the current two-day Time Trials, which were pared down for those same reasons from the four-day Time Trials of the past.  Will the future bring a shortened week one with Fast Friday being the opening day followed by one or two days of qualifying?  The shortened attention span of the modern sports fan says it will.  The drawn out two weekends of track activity will most likely be packed into a much shorter time span.

Of much more concern is the viability of Time Trials on television.  NBC Sports was unfairly pilloried on Pole Day because they cut away from the Fast Nine shootout to show a Preakness post-race show.  It has to be assumed that contracts and paid advertising were in place for that live show.  IMS made the decision to extend the Fast Nine not only beyond 6:00 PM, but past the 6:30 PM coverage window of NBC Sports.  Doing so most likely created a fair and equal opportunity for all participants to have a chance to practice and qualify, but if social media outrage is any indicator, the switch infuriated fans who had invested hours of their Saturday in watching the lead-up to the Fast Nine drama and then were denied the pay-off.  IMS made the best decision for its drivers and teams; unfortunately, this decision put its television partner in a bind.  If a series or race is looking to expand its media reach, locking out viewers or telling them to go to live streaming may not be the best avenue to pursue.  With that said, in ten years switching from broadcast or cable networks to live streaming will simply be a button on the remote.  Maybe IMS is just way ahead of the times.

The nexus of television, live streaming, compelling drama and the modern fan’s attention span is changing how we interact with our sports.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection suggests that organisms must evolve or diminish.  The Time Trials at Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been evolving over the past twenty years and must continue to do so.  If not, the concept of the Time Trials will be just another grainy newsreel of a diminishing past.

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