For two thirds of my lifetime there were always three major plays in May: Pole Day, Bump Day and Race Day. The first was usually electric with Tom Carnegie’s booming voice resonating through the packed grandstands with “it’s a new track record.” And nothing was more sadistic or satisfying or seismic than the final hour of time trials when brave men jumped into strange cars to put them in the show or hang ’em on the wall. Or watching Carlos Guerrero make the race and two-time winner Emerson Fittipaldi miss it.
But the politics and economics of IndyCar racing pretty much eliminated the second act during the past 25 years.
Instead of four days, qualifying was reduced to two because the puny car counts and for several years IndyCar had to financially help field fillers just to get to 33 cars. Making the show didn’t require big balls or a particular type of chassis — just four laps at any speed.
Then last year 35 cars showed up and two were sent home — including 2016 polesitter James Hinchcliffe.
This May we’re looking at 36-37 cars, so bumping is again assured but so is a ramp -up in intensity. IndyCar president Jay Frye tweaked the qualifying format to accommodate NBC, pack Indy’s raw emotions into a couple hours and give the fans an entertaining Sunday afternoon.
Positions 10 through 30 will now be decided on Saturday, while the last row will be determined on Sunday, just like the pole position and Fast 9 shootout. A three-hour practice session then follows.
The smartest thing Frye did was to eliminate the biggest waste of time, equipment and money at IMS. The previous Saturday plan had drivers qualifying twice — once to get into the Top 30 and then come back Sunday to determine whether they started 10th to 30th. For a race that woefully underpays (a third of the field earned a whopping $203,000 in 2018), this was utter stupidity as the risk vs. reward factor was laughable.
“It just wasn’t productive,” said Frye. “We looked at the past four years and it was only an average of three spots’ difference (from Saturday to Sunday). It just made sense to make Saturday more meaningful and save Sunday for bumping and the pole.”
Of course the changes have brought out all the critics who still pine away for the good old days (which ain’t ever coming back) of 60 cars going for 33 spots, the run for the pole and drama of withdrawing your time as teams waited out the weather and the gut-wrenching, made-for-television footage of following the “bubble” driver as he sweats out one run after another up until 6 o’clock gun.
“It’s very different from 1982 when I showed up,” said Bobby Rahal, who won Indy in 1986 and also missed the show in 1993. “Back then you had four days of qualifying and if you didn’t have your act together you had ample time to figure things out. Now you had better be ready to go or you’re in trouble.”
Tony Kanaan, who will be going for his 18th straight start at Indianapolis, applauds the format change. “I like it,” said the 2013 Indy winner. “It’s tough enough to qualify sometimes but doing it all over again the next day without having a spot didn’t make much sense. I think putting the Fast 9 and last row on the same day is awesome.”
Rahal, who is fielding cars for son Graham, 2017 Indy winner Takuma Sato and rookie Jordan King, also appreciates how Frye tweaked things.
“I’m really pleased with new system,” said Rahal. “As usual Jay asks your opinion and takes advice from everyone and makes a decision. I think it’s fair, but there is still pressure for sure and it’s going to be no less exciting than it’s ever been.
“I know Jay is trying to pay respect to the race and its tradition and people’s feelings, but you’re never going make everyone happy. I like it — it’s a great common sense plan and I think it’s going to create a lot of excitement.”
Now, is it possible that Saturday’s top speed will be faster than the polesitter turns on Sunday? Sure, especially if the weather changes, and that’s always a bit confusing to the casual observer trying to explain why a driver that went fastest on Saturday wound up starting ninth. Could a Saturday qualifier be slower than a Sunday qualifier? Absolutely, especially if a top team has problems on Saturday or, again, if track conditions improve. Is it then possible the fastest 33 cars won’t be in the line-up? Yes — and that is unfortunately a potentially serious flaw of this system.
Nobody is saying this is a perfect format but in terms of doing what is best for national television exposure, the paying customers, teams’ budgets and trying to maintain some of Indy’s mystique, it looks pretty damn entertaining.
And when your series is trying to regain its relevance with the American sporting public and also improve TV ratings, that’s imperative.