Indianapolis 500 qualifications: It’s a new track tradition
What to take from the 2014 Indianapolis 500 qualification weekend. The best perspective might be to ask what did IMS want to achieve with the new format. The lack of cars on track due to available motors had clearly made the recent truncation of qualifications from four days to two even less compelling than they had been. Bump Day had devolved into a glorified practice day with little, if any, drama. The leadership at IMS and IndyCar knew they had to do something to bring back drama and package it into a neat little TV frame for ABC if they wanted more exposure and more live attendance. I’m not sure if they succeeded on either of those counts this year, but at least they created a package that contains that potential.
Qualification Saturday at Indy has gone from pole day to BUMP DAY ALL DAY SATURDAY. The TV audience on ABC was given two hours of almost non-stop qualifying action as drivers continued to make multiple attempts to get their cars into the Fast Nine round on Sunday. Alexander Pope, an 18th century British poet, wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”¹ Nowhere is that more evident than in auto racing. Every driver thinks that the next run will be the one that gets the job done. With the equipment and speeds so close in the Verizon IndyCar Series, any driver in the top 20 had a legitimate shot to bump his way into the Fast Nine. Over and over the drivers gave it a shot. The most compelling moment did not come to pass as Kurt Busch had to head to Charlotte to drive in NASCAR’s All-Star race. How excited would the fans, both live and on TV, have been for Busch to make multiple attempts to make the Fast Nine for Sunday?
Not only was there multiple bumping, but just think of all the decisions that had to be made in the heat of battle. At first, I thought the idea of an “express lane” for qualifying was too gimmicky, but after watching teams make the choice to pull their times at the risk of an accident that might put them in “relegation row” with no qualifying time, it was apparent that teams were willing to take risks to have the chance to start up front. The teams could have simply got in the slow lane, which allowed teams to keep their earlier times if their new times were slower. But as time counted down to 5:50 PM (thanks to the TV window, 6:00 PM is gone forever), the teams that were willing to take a gamble for the Fast Nine had to actually roll the dice. Compelling.
The teams in the middle were, as 20th century American poet Robert Frost wrote, “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.” ² They had no reason to re-qualify unless they had a chance to get into the Fast Nine. Most of those teams decided to stand pat. That made a lot of sense. Why risk an accident when the real race for the grid was not going to be until Sunday?
The issue to the slowest teams was if more than 33 cars were entered. If so, then the bottom of the grid would have been much more nervous and willing to go again. As it was, some of the teams at the bottom went again on the rumor that Katherine Legge might be added as a driver before the 7:00 PM deadline. Why is that an issue? If only 33 cars present themselves to qualify, then the cars at the bottom of the grid have nothing to worry about. They are in the race and have a chance to re-qualify to better their positions. The Legge rumor, if it had been true, would have added a 34th car and changed everything for the bottom of the grid. If more than 33 cars attempt to qualify, then the bottom of the grid would be like the bottom of the table for Premier League soccer. In that league, the bottom three teams are relegated, or removed from the league, and teams from other leagues move up. You can call the slowest three on Saturday “relegation row.” Imagine a scenario where the last three teams on Saturday continue to try to bump out of the final three while teams not in the race try to bump in, and teams near the bottom three try to improve their positions to keep from being put in the last three. All this will take place at the same time as the Fast Nine teams are bumping and being bumped. Confusing and exciting.
Sunday was more anticlimactic as teams outside the Fast Nine re-qualified and jockeyed for position on the grid. They got one shot. It was a couple of hours and then it was done. The Fast Nine was a made-for-TV moment. That’s it. Nine drivers re-qualified and Ed Carpenter snagged the pole with a run of 231.067, edging out James Hinchcliffe’s 230.649. It’s clear that Sunday is designed for TV. Saturday was made for the fans.
Is the new procedure better than the old one? I guess that would be determined by which old procedure you mean. The new format is action-filled, exciting, and creates compelling drama on Saturday, particularly if more than 33 cars are entered. The Fast Nine on Sunday just goes by too quickly. The Fast Nine drivers having multiple attempts would certainly spice up the day. Will it make qualification better than what they were years ago? Probably not. But they will make them what they need to be today. And that’s the real goal.
¹ Name another auto racing writer that quotes Alexander Pope. That’s what we offer here: racing and literature. Just another service.
² That’s right, I just slapped down another literary reference. How about a quote from a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner who spoke at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. I have a Robert Frost tattoo on my bicep. *not true*