The Week Of May

Well, the first bombshell of the new IMS regime that affects fans directly was dropped on Tuesday, when it was announced that qualifying for next year’s Indianapolis 500 has been trimmed from four days to two – over a single weekend, one week before the race. Pole Day will be held on Saturday May 22 and Bump Day will take place on Sunday May 23. Opening Day will be on Saturday May 15 for Rookies and Veterans needing a refresher. All drivers will hit the track on Sunday May 16. Race day is Sunday May 30. With only a week of practice, two days of qualifying and then the race, this is barely more than the WEEK of May.

The primary reason given for this is to save the teams money. While I’m sure that’s partially true, I think that new CEO Jeff Belskus sees this as a way for the Speedway to cut costs as well. It drains an enormous amount of cash from the IMS coffers to staff the Speedway for every single day that the track is open to the public.

Do I understand the need for this? Yes. Do I like it? Of course not. There is too much of a traditionalist in me to like it. It’s sort of like going to Best Buy and wanting to walk out with the latest seventy-two inch plasma TV. I know that economics simply won’t allow it, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Plus, I selfishly want cars on the track for every day possible.

Although I use tradition as an excuse to complain, this is certainly not the first time that I have seen qualifying messed with. Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember when the Month of May was just that – a full month. The track was always opened for practice on May 1 and the race was always run on May 30 — which was always the traditional day for Memorial Day – no matter what day of the week it fell on. The only exception was when May 30 fell on a Sunday, which pushed the race back to Monday May 31. My how times have changed.

In 1971, a law passed by Congress took effect that moved the observed date for Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. From 1971 to 1973, the race was scheduled to run on Saturday. In 1974, it was decided that the 500 Festival Parade would be held on Saturday and the race would be permanently moved to Sunday, with Monday in reserve for a potential rain date.

That was not the only change to the schedule in 1974. In response to the energy crunch of the early seventies, qualifying was cut back from the traditional four-day two-weekend format to two days. For some strange reason though, they chose to run both qualifying days on consecutive Saturdays. As luck would have it, both days were effected by rain. They also trimmed an entire week of practice off of the beginning of the month, which never returned. The four-day format was reinstated the following year.

Qualifying was also heavily tweaked in 1998. This time as a direct result of the dwindling crowds for qualifying that have never returned. I attended Pole Day in 1995 and the place was packed. Pole Day used to be considered the SECOND largest single-day sporting event in the world. Go back and look at old videos and the stands are practically full for Pole Day.

When the split came, Pole Day is where the apathy was most apparent. The crowds still showed up for Race Day but not so much for qualifying. What was once a packed house quickly dwindled to what you see nowadays at qualifying – a respectable gathering behind the pits with a smattering of bodies spread throughout the outside grandstands, with tons of space in between each one.

The thought was that cramming more into two days of qualifying made those days more intense. It didn’t work as the collective yawn continued. In 2001, they added a third day on the Sunday following the first weekend to be designated as Bump Day. Then car count took a hit and the only drama on Bump Day was whether or not there would be a full field.

Then for 2005, someone got the bright idea to create some artificial buzz. The idea was to add the fourth day back and to qualify only eleven cars each day. The same car would be given three qualifying attempts per day – an unheard of concept under the old format – and there would be bumping amongst those eleven qualifiers each day. It was a silly and contrived format that didn’t actually get to be tried until 2007 due to Pole Day being completely rained out in 2005 and 2006. Yes it generated drama and excitement, but it was about as authentic as an infomercial. It was strictly “Made-for-TV”.

So now they’re going back to a schedule similar to that of the late nineties. There are a couple of silver linings in this; first there is the possibility that they might ditch the contrived format of withdrawing cars and bumping every day. Secondly, the fact that Opening Day will be on a Saturday with all drivers hitting the track on Sunday is a vast improvement over the most recent format that saw Rookies on the track for Sunday and Monday with all drivers taking the track on Tuesday. Tuesday?

I might consider driving from Nashville to Indianapolis for the opening Sunday, but never for an opening Tuesday. That schedule was prohibitive for most fans wanting to be able to show up and watch a day of practice. This schedule is more fan friendly for those of us who live out of town, although I had already started making plans for attending Pole Day next year on May 15. Now I’m going to have to adjust my whole schedule for May. I’ll have to look at several different options before figuring out what to do.

Regardless of whether I like it or not, it’s what we have to work with. If those days get rained out, we’ll see the field filling up just a few days before the race. It is just another step toward stripping the magic from the Month of May. I know that things change, but I hold the traditions of the Speedway sacred. What once took an entire month to unfold will now take just a little more than a week to play out. There is something a little sad in that.

George Phillips

22 Responses to “The Week Of May”

  1. I’m also a long-time fan of the traditions of the 500 George, but I think this is a good change. With the small number of entrants recently I’ve felt like they were artificially filling the four days anyway. This new system could add to the excitement of quals and make for a really fun weekend at the track–unless, as you said, it rains. (Then it will make for an exciting Monday?)

    It makes sense economically for the teams and the Speedway and hopefully will bring back a sense of urgency and action to qualifications.

    As you may surmise from my handle I’ been going to INDY for a number of years (Haven’t missed a year since 1946) and My take on this is that it will be another nail in the coffin for open wheel racing and especially the lesser funded teams to be able to compete. I crewed on such a team in 1984/85 and without the extra time of the second weekend we would have never made the field since we were not able to have all the track time (we had none) the deep pockets teams did prior to the 500. Street courses, road courses and 1/2 an INDY I’m glad I was here when there was American open wheel racing and most likely will not be here to see the last of this debacle.

  3. DAle Christenson Says:

    Remember when Tony George said “33 is just a number?” The damage that he has done to OUR beloved race is still being felt and will continue to be felt for years. I had 30 Indianapolis 500 races in a row until 1996 when I went to Michigan so I consider myself a fan. Having Buddy Lazier and Eddie Cheever and Kenny Breck on the Borg Warner trophy is a CRIME. Juan Montoya showed the racing world what a JOKE the 500 had become in winning the 2000 race. A newcomer to the track and he wins by TWO LAPS! Us old-timers need to realize that the 500 is just like Humpty Dumpty because it has been broken and it will never be like it once was. Sad, but true!!!

    • Montoya did dominate the 500, but nobody’s won by two laps in ages. Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989 was the last to do so (and the last to lap the field as well.) 2001 was the year the CART guys really stomped on the field with the Penske/Green/Ganassi cars lapping the field with 5 CART drivers and Tony Stewart. But still, not 2 laps. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the CART guys had come over in say ’98 that they would have lapped the field by two laps, but the IRL teams had raised their game somewhat by 2000-2001, although I acknowledge CART was superior until about 2003 when Ganassi/Green left and they were about even.

      I don’t see your Brack diss either. After leaving the IRL, he went to CART and proved himself as one of the best oval drivers there as well in 2001 (de Ferran won the championship because he was better on road/street courses, but Brack was kicking butt on the ovals.) I’d say Brack was more deserving than even somebody like Luyendyk…

      Cheever? Yeah, he basically had decades of not doing anything in open wheel and is the exact equivalent to Michael Waltrip winning the Daytona 500. Well, not exact, as MW along with Junior had by FAR the superior car, while Tony Stewart probably had the best car the year Cheever won.

      Lazier? It’s true he did nothing in CART, but he had horrible rides and is such a nice guy and won with a broken back. Although I’ll admit he doesn’t meet the CART standard for Indy winners, it’s so hard to knock him. Cheever is the only one I’d call a true embarrassment.

      Having said that, I certainly agree with you that the split was a mistake and is why the 500 isn’t taken as seriously. I agree with others that a full month when there aren’t many fans coming to the track and only about 35-36 entries doesn’t make sense.

  4. I understand how important the Month of May tradition is, but I think this was a move that had to be made. A condensed schedule not only saves money, but it stands a better chance of staying in the heads of today’s audiences. Back when the ‘500’ was king, there wasn’t as many entertainment options to choose from. Now, the ‘500’ is in rehab and we’re in the age of 24/7news (with some help from Twitter and Facebook) — there’s seemingly infinite ways to be entertained.

    Now, some events that play out over an extended period — like say, March Madness — can get away with doing it, but right now, the ‘500’ can’t. It’s stronger than it was five years ago, but it’s still rebuilding. So why not kill the momentum lulls, ensure that fans at the track get more out of their $$$ (provided it doesn’t rain too much), and make TV watchers on ABC/Versus realize that if they miss something, they’re gonna be sorry? Bump Day is going to be a madhouse and if the old ‘three attempts per car’ format returns for qualifying, we’ll have Must See TV.

    Let’s give it a shot. Besides, if the economy gets better, fans can always pressure the Speedway to beef up the schedule again.

  5. I agree redd, I too love the Indy traditions, one of few lasting in motorracing. But still, if we want to keep the 500 this might be a step that needs to be taken.

    Now, I’m not sure about this, but if the complete month of may has been there from 1911, wasn’t this to try out innovation? If so, there’s not much innovation left in the current formula, so not much to try out anyway.

    Still it’s sad to see this tradition go.

  6. Mr. 20 Prospect Says:

    I have to agree. I understand all the reasons for the change (head), but can’t get excited about it (heart).

    Hard to believe they will ever go back, but you never know what the future holds.

  7. Savage Henry Says:

    I loved the idea of having the whole month of May as a build-up to the 500. But let’s admit it, it isn’t the same race anymore. In the past you had race teams from all over the world coming to Indianapolis just to try to win the race. Some of them came with innovative designs that needed to be shaken out and improved on the track. There were track records every year (pretty much) through the early ’90s. There was enough excitement to fill the month. There was drama because lot of teams didn’t make the show after working for the entire month.

    Now the 500 is a spec race. Only 34 or 35 cars are legitimately trying to make the field. With this 8 year-old chassis/engine/tire combination the Penskes and Ganassis are rolling off the truck ready to go with the setups that they have already perfected. There is also no chance for track records. There just isn’t enough to fill a month. Add the budget crunch to the mix and this is a necessary, sensible move.

    I hope that the 500 finally completes its rehab and more teams come to Indy for the prestige and purse of an Indy 500 win. Hopefully they’ll bring design innovation and new track records with them so that using the entire month of May makes sense again.

  8. Dale Christenson Says:

    Sorry about the 2 lap victory margin. However, Montoya led 137 laps, Greg Ray led 26 & 2 others led for 7. So, no matter how you cut it, he covered the field that day and showed the mighty IRL that they were NO WHERE as good as they thought they were. I HOPE that Open Wheel survives because I believe that we are in serious trouble. Hopefully, for the sport that I love, Tony George didn’t take our sport and ruin it so badly that it can never recover.

  9. And so a discussion of an innovative yet tradition-breaking schedule once again veers off track back to the CART/IRL sword fight…

  10. I’ve got expanded thoughts on the matter over at my place today (yeah, two posts in one week! Call the Pulitzer and the Guinness folks!), but the main thing that I don’t care for is the effective elimination of second-week deals. Plus, SEVEN days of practice leading up to Pole Day? Who needs that?

  11. I like it to be honest. The shorter build-up time focuses the news on the 500 rather than having the event dragged over four weeks – which in this day and age is far, far too long.

    Add to that, the fact that Kansas is now looking like the very end of April / start of May; it only leaves two weeks between that race and the start of qualifying.
    Add to that, the week before qualifying begins can now effectively be utilised as a media build-up to the 500 – prior to that the three/four week gap would be too long.

    People get forgetful nowadays and this new schedule reflects that – the old tradition was fantastic, but if the IRL is to rebuild itself and focus on younger generations, then maybe this is the way forward.
    As momentum moves, I don’t see why a new tradition cannot be created.

  12. tim nothhelfer Says:

    I think when there is a need and demand from the competition to develop setups for new cars the schedule will change to accommodate.
    The series must change to rehabilitate IICS to relevance.
    While the IICS may be in a painful stage of resurgence, NASCAR is already well into it’s own decline of un-sustainability. They just don’t believe it yet.

  13. H. B. Donnelly Says:

    One word: Television! I see TV as the reason pole day (and every other day) crowds have diminished so much. Someone from Chicago or Cincinnati or Louisville who really wants to see who wins the pole has no further to go than their living room. I think VERSUS should cut their qualifying coverage to a wrap up show at 6PM…which, of course, will never happen. I understand that qualifying was fully televised before the split, but I think the crowds stayed at 6-figures because the cars were still setting records.

    Let’s just be glad that we haven’t gotten so made-for-TV that we’re holding 50-lap qualifying heats (*cough*Daytona*cough*).

  14. Trick Dickle Says:

    “So, no matter how you cut it, he covered the field that day and showed the mighty IRL that they were NO WHERE as good as they thought they were.”

    No, it showed that a world-class talent in the best funded and most experienced ride in the field, could win the Indy 500. Which we see at almost every Indy 500, in ANY other year.

    I don’t know what you are talking about with “IRL was not as good as they thought they were” stuff. Montoya kicked everybody’s ass in CART back then too, remember. Its not like Mark Blundell or Tora Takagi came over with their teams and won the race.

    And, BTW, Scotty Dixon led most of the laps 2 years ago in his Indy 500 win with the same team that Montoya raced for. Against all of the “big boy teams”.

    Buddy Lazier, Eddie Cheever and Kenny Brack all DESERVE to be Indy 500 winners. They showed up and raced and got to the checkard flag first in their given years. They have nothing to apologize for. And Buddy Lazier more then proved his merits as a racer, in both the 2005 Indy 500 and just qualifying for the 2008 Indy 500. Money and race teams matter BIG TIME in racing and especially modern-day Indy Car Racing. Lazier could run with ANYONE at Indy in a equally-prepared/engineered/financed car in his prime. So could have Brack.

    • oilpressure Says:

      A note on Montoya in 2000 – That was his and Ganassi’s first-ever experience with the IRL car. No matter how well-funded and experienced you are, there is usually some time involved to come to grips with a new chassis. To get that car up to speed and dominate in that short period of time, showed his talents were special. As far as Montoya kicking evryone’s butt in CART that season; while he won the CART championship in 1999, Montoya finished ninth in the CART standings in 2000.

      I do agree with you on Lazier and Brack. Lazier was always in horrible equipment in CART and Brack finished fourth in the CART standings in 2000 and second in 2001.

      Sorry to be “The Corrector”, but the Montoya statement was too off-base to let it go.

      • Trick Dickle Says:

        Mr. Phillips,

        Juan Pablo’s 2000 season featured 7 poles and 3 wins. Its not like he was “struggling”. Sure his points finish was not up to snuff. But that had more to do with bad racing luck (and a few uncharacteristic driver errors as he was already looking towards his F1 career) then how competitive he was in 2000.

        He dominated in 1999 though as a pure rookie.

        Sure he and Ganassi’s ability to get the 2000 Panoz up to speed at Indy (when they had no experience with the package) was impressive. But again that shows the professionalism and funding that the team had too. Plus back then, pre-season testing at Indy was allowed and Chip’s group tested at Indy A LOT in March and April gearing up for May in 2000. Vasser was also a big help to the whole organization and guys like Tom Anderson and Andy Graves also did a nice job getting things in order quickly. And it showed how “racer-friendly” the IRL package was (which TCGR commented on many times during the month that year). It wasn’t a “rubicks cube” they were trying to figure out. Just a formula-car on a oval. Which is what they were used to.

      • In 2000, Montoya & Ganassi had switched to LOLA chassis & TOYOTA motors when HONDA & FORD REYNARDS were the combo to have 💡

        Obviously Ganassi was looking for that Unfair Advantage. Chip went to Lola as Reynard got bogged down with F1 & by the end of 2000 Toyota was scaring the crap out of Honda ❗

  15. Shortening the 500 to 2 days unfortunately makes sense, interest on the national is waning and budgets for teams, league and speedway are paltry at best. In tough times you’ve got to make tough decisions and IMS and the IRL are having to make a lot of those decisions as we speak, money seems to be the driving force behind these changes and I’m sure we can all relate to that. As far as Juan Montoya goes, the dude’s a BADASS in any car on any continent, he is easily one of the most natural open wheel ovals racers I’ve ever seen (7 oval wins in 2 years+1 Indy 500). He would have contended for the 2000 CART title if his Toyota RV8E engines didn’t consistently spew proprietary engine parts all over the race track. Robin Miller calls Montoya “the throttle psycho” cause once the throttles flat he ain’t liftin’ no matter what happens next!

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