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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.

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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*

Ten Worthless Opinions: 2014 Month of May Edition

Living in central Indiana offers very few perks most of the time.  There’s corn and soybeans.  And humidity and mosquitoes.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our provincial outlook on politics and life.  And, uh…well, I’m sure there are many other features of Midwestern life that I’m missing, but you get the picture.  As the monochromatic landscape of winter gives way to the burst of color that is springtime in Indiana, we suddenly have the month of May and the Indianapolis 500.  In other words, central Indiana does have at least one truly redeeming characteristic.  I would like once again to offer my ill-conceived and poorly rendered “Ten worthless opinions: 2014 month of May edition” to identify some of the perks of this year’s race.

1.  IMS finally fixed the road course to make it racy for IndyCars.  We are not being relegated to a support series show with just the USF2000, Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights.  You want on track action? All three support series will race on Friday, May 10 and Saturday, May 11 followed by the Verizon IndyCar Series on Saturday afternoon.  There are cars on track both days with seven total races.  It may not quite be the Field of Dreams mantra, but they built it, so they will race.  That’s the idea, right?

2.  The return of former Indy champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve and the addition of Kurt Busch is so combustible that you just know it’s going up sometime in May.  Best case scenario: all three get in an altercation and start swearing at each other in different languages.  I assume that hand gestures will fill in any missing context.  Make this happen, racing gods!

3.   The IMS Radio Network, after years of foisting Mike King on the listening public, finally bowed to public opinion and threw a bone to the die-hard fans by bringing back Paul Page as the voice of the Indianapolis 500 and the Verizon IndyCar Series.  Does his voice still resonate with older IndyCar fans?  Absolutely.  Do younger fans care?  Not at all.  They do not listen to the race on the radio.  They either go or watch it on television.  Game changer?  Nope.  Nostalgia?  Yep.  And that’s good enough.

4.  Enough cannot be said about the value of ABC covering the month of May from the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to qualifications to the Indianpolis 500.  The series, as well as the 500, has lacked any traction nationally for a long time.  Should IMS bow and scrape to the TV gods to create buzz for the race and the series by adding races and butchering the traditional qualifying program  The NFL, NCAA, and NASCAR do it all the time because it is good for their properties.  This is good business.  The race is the tradition, nothing else.

5.  How about that change in the qualifying procedures, huh?  The die-hard fan screams, “It ruins the month of May!”  The casual fan says, “There’s a qualifying procedure?”  They still go four laps.  I can’t say I’m enamored of the extra day to set position.  The fact is qualifying at Indy is a dangerous proposition and everyone knows it.  I don’t mind a change in the qualifying procedures; I do mind a change that creates unnecessary risk.  This change, made exclusively for television, creates unnecessary risk.  Unfortunately, risk equals interest.  And that’s your answer.

6.  The 500 will be the first real test of new series sponsor Verizon.  They are a telecommunications company that wants to be known as a technology company.  Here’s some advice: make my Verizon phone work at the race.  Don’t upcharge me to make my mobile communications device do what it is supposed to do.  I want to text, tweet, update Facebook, and utilize the Verizon IndyCar app during the race.  You’re on the clock Verizon.  Signage and other activations are vital to the business, I know, but make my phone work, please.

7.  Huge ups to IMS for taking risks and making big changes to almost everything.  They rebuilt the road course, changed qualifying, hired new people, restructured management, added new races, scheduled a big concert, hired a new food service, and offered glamping inside the track.  I’m sure I missed something.  IndyCar fans have long shouted for IMS management to fix everything but change nothing.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think it works that way.

8.  Pork tenderloins become a big topic in Indy in May.  Indianapolis is stuffed with tenderloin joints that all have their own take on this pounded, breaded, and deep fried delight.  If you plan on coming to town in May, give me a shout on Twitter (@newtrackrecord) and I will hook you up with this Midwestern delicacy.  And yes, it is a direct descendent of the schnitzel brought to the Midwest by German immigrants.  You can find a pretty good one at IMS.  It’s not fresh cut, pounded, and breaded on site, but it still does the job.  I’m not such a snob that I won’t eat a frozen fritter.

9.  One common complaint heard from the casual fan is that there is nothing to do in Indy over Memorial Day weekend except the race.  Granted, much of what happens socially is directed to the local populace, but I think the weekend is pretty packed.  From Carb Day on Friday until the race on Sunday, you can drink, watch cars, drink, eat tenderloins, drink, watch the parade (it’s exceptional), visit Indy’s thriving brewing scene, watch live music, and drink.  Some of Indy’s best nightlife can be found in Broad Ripple, on Mass Ave., and in Fountain Square.  Hey, IMS can’t plan your whole weekend for you.  Do a little homework.

10.  Apparently, there’s this soiree on Sunday, May 25 that’s been around for a while.  There are bands, princesses, celebrities, military personnel, balloons, iconic songs, prayers, and someone says something about engines.  And then they race cars.  Sounds like an outstanding time.

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