INDIANAPOLIS – Call this year the “Bizarro World” of the Indianapolis 500.
Bump Day is now on the first day of qualifications, instead of the second, and Pole Day is on Sunday and not Saturday.
It’s the latest attempt to generate interest in Indianapolis 500 Qualifying – an event that used to draw race day-sized crowds to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway just two or three decades ago.
Since the infamous open-wheel racing split between CART and the Indy Racing League in 1996, Pole Day and the rest of qualifications have fallen off the radar in terms of drawing a crowd to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Without any cars to knock out of the lineup, Bump Day had turned into a practice day and, for the few fans that showed up, there was little drama to keep their attention.
Enter Mark Miles, the CEO of Hulman & Company – the owners of both IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Along with IndyCar President of Competition Derrick Walker, a new qualification format was devised that basically guarantees cars on track for both days of action.
So let’s have a course in Indianapolis 500 Qualifying 101
– All entries are guaranteed one attempt to qualify between 11 a.m. and 5:50 p.m.
– The fastest 33 cars will make up the provisional field for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 based on the fastest four-lap average time.
– If only 33 cars qualify, without a 34th entry being declared by 7 p.m. on Saturday, then positions 31-33 will qualify with group 2 Sunday.
– If more than 33 cars qualify Saturday, the top 33 will be locked into the race, but positions 31-33 will qualify in a group 3 Sunday.
– All 33 cars must re-qualify on Sunday to determine final starting positions.
– The fastest nine cars advance to a shootout on Sunday to determine the Verizon P1 Award.
There will be two qualifying lines at the end of pit lane:
Line 1: Cars that are unqualified or have withdrawn their previous qualifying times. Priority will be given to this lane.
Line 2: Cars that have already qualified but want another attempt and have not withdrawn their previous qualifying times.
Multiple attempts are permitted without withdrawing a time by entering Line 2.
Teams can withdraw their time and enter Line 1, which will have priority over cars already in the field.
Teams that make multiple attempts can only improve their times if they have not withdrawn their time to enter Line 2, meaning, even if a driver records a slower four-lap average, that driver’s previous (faster) time will stand.
To add even more incentive for drivers and teams to turn fast laps on Saturday, is the amount of points that will be awards for Saturday.
The fastest driver will earn 33 points, second fast gets 32, third 31 with one-point decreases all the way to 33rd position getting one point.
– All Saturday times are erased and positions 10-30 will re-qualify to determine starting position.
– Order will be the reverse of Saturday’s rankings.
– Lineup will be determined based on fastest four-lap averages.
– In the event that there are only 33 cars entered, this group will determine positions 10-33.
Group 2 (Only used in the event there are more than 33 cars):
– All Saturday times are erased and positions 31-33, and any entry that has yet to make one attempt to qualify, will re-qualify to determine the 11th row of the race.
– The top nine cars will run in reverse order based on Saturday’s times.
– All cars will make one attempt.
– At the end of the session, the cars are ranked 1-9 based on their four-lap average during the segment.
Qualifying Points, Sunday:
- 1st – 9 points
- 2nd – 8 points
- 3rd – 7 points
- 4th – 6 points
- 5th – 5 points
- 6th – 4 points
- 7th – 3 points
- 8th – 2 points
- 9th – 1 point.
The Indianapolis 500 will award double points for race results, but the qualifying points and any bonus points awarded for leading a lap (1 point) or most laps (2 points) will not be doubled.
Walker and Miles believe this new format will increase the action. It also adds much more confusion and complication to the process.
“What this is about for us is that we have a desire to give fans more opportunities to see IndyCar drivers on the track when there’s a lot at stake, not just with practice, but where they are out there with putting it on the line in a way that matters,” Miles said. “These changes we believe ensure that fans will enjoy two days of exciting track action.
“Saturday will determine who will get into the Indianapolis 500 race, and Sunday will determine where the cars who got into the race will start on the grid for the race itself. These two days will culminate; lead up to, the setting of the first three rows and the positions in the first three rows and who will start the race in the pole position.
“We think that makes for more compelling experiences at the track and for television viewers all over the country.”
For the teams and drivers, they are taking a simplified approach to the new concept. Put down the four best laps they can on Saturday and then come back on Sunday and do it all over again.
“We talked last night, Helio and I did, you have to be in that top nine tomorrow for Sunday,” said team owner Roger Penske, whose drivers have won more poles than any team in IndyCar history. “I think that’s going to be critical to get the three cars in that fast nine.
“We have a meeting after this to go over specific rules. We’ll have qualifying at key TV time on Sunday. As we promote the sport, someone is thinking about strategy from the standpoint of how we can execute better and get more fans.
“For these guys, they’ll make a run once, twice. They’ve done it before. You’ll see us take our time down, go out and run again.
“The way the cars are this year, we’re ready to go.”
Tim Cindric is the president of Team Penske and has also proven to be a master strategist when it comes to qualifications. But even a team as proven and savvy as Team Penske realizes they don’t know what to expect this weekend.
“With any new format, it will be interesting,” Cindric said. “Looks like the weather is going to be good. If the weather gets in the way of the format, we have a lot of different things to do. Certainly, as these guys said today, understanding really what your shot is here is really what you have to do.
“You have to understand, do you have a shot for the pole, is that realistic? And if you don’t, do you have a shot for the top nine? Your goals change throughout the day. That changes your strategy and how much risk you take.”
When it comes to road and street course racing, Will Power is a master at winning the pole with the Knockout Style of qualifications known as the Firestone Fast Six. But, on the big oval for the Indianapolis 500, Power is attempting to win the pole for the first time in his career.
“The first goal is to get in the top nine with not too much risk,” Power said. “You don’t want to go in the wall. That puts you really on the back foot. Like I said before, we’ve got no feel for it right now where we stack up. We’ll have to see how the format plays out.
“This point spread is really close between positions. You would expect all the championship contenders would be pretty close anyway. I’m sure if you were the one with the fast cars at the front competing for the championship, you would definitely go back out to gain some points.”
The last time Juan Pablo Montoya competed in the Indianapolis 500, he won it in 2000. But he nearly won the pole as well before Greg Ray withdrew his earlier speed and went out and knocked the 1999 CART champion off the top of the scoring pylon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I believe our cars are good enough,” Montoya said of his return with Team Penske. “Maybe they’re good enough Saturday to put us in the top nine. We’ll see for Sunday how much more we need. If we run Saturday, we’re not fast enough, we’ll see what we have to take out of the car and try to go quicker again.”
Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears is also the all-time Indy 500 pole winner with six. He knew how to play the game under the old qualification format and was asked if he would have liked to have had a chance with this new convoluted system.
“It’s whatever the circumstance are,” Mears said. “It’s all relative. It’s the same for everybody. You just look at the situation, you figure out, how am I going to do this better than the rest of them? You start doing your homework, digging into things, figure out all the scenarios, angles, everything you can do to figure out how to do a better job than they do.
“Either way I think maybe just having the one shot, I enjoyed that, only having one shot at it. I felt it really put the pressure on. You had to get four laps, every corner. If you blew one corner, you blew the whole deal. I enjoyed that pressure. So it’s how do we do it better than they do, that’s the main thing.”
Trying to get a grasp of how the new format will play out has been the talk of Gasoline Alley for all the teams and drivers entered in this year’s Indianapolis 500.
“The way we’ll approach Saturday is the way that we’re going to approach today — we’re going to get the most out of it,” said Mike Hull, the managing director of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. “That’s the way that we work. That’s really the simple answer. The strategy is developed simply from there. Yeah, we’ll have a very defined strategy internally for us. But we work really, really hard to get the most out of the day we have in front of us.
“People in sports talk about process. That’s what we’re all about. We’re about today’s process. It’s not a global view, it’s a process view. That’s exactly how we’ll work tomorrow.”
Team owner Chip Ganassi also believes every team is going to use every resource or trick they can think of to get an edge with the new system.
“It’s a big day in the month of May,” Ganassi said. “We’re going to play every card we have to play tomorrow for qualifying.”Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indy 500, IndyCar