Random Thoughts On Qualifying

The IndyCar Grand Prix and the qualifying weekend for the Indianapolis 500 are now behind us. The grid is set and all that’s left now is the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500. There was not a lot of drama in qualifying this past weekend, other than the obvious – the horrifying crash of Sébastien Bourdais. Those who were expected to be fast, were; and those who were expected to be slow, were slow. There were no surprises either way.

The wild card for the weekend was the weather. We were there all three days, including Fast Friday, and it rained every day. The rain delays made for a disjointed weekend for fans, drivers and teams. When it takes two to three hours to dry the track each time, it tends to throw a wrench into things. For us, as fans – it worked out fine because we were able to go to the IMS Museum and the gift shops and not have to miss any on-track activity.

As many weekends as we have spent at IMS over the years, I’m always amazed at how quickly each day goes by. It seems like we arrive in the morning, we blink and it’s the afternoon and suddenly the sun is going down and the day is over. So here we are with one weekend to go and then the Month of May will be over for another year. This coming Friday is Carb Day which is one of my least favorite days at the track in the Month of May. The final practice runs so early that is over by the time we get to the track.

This year Susan and I are even toying with the idea of driving up Thursday night after work just so we can be there when the cars run. To me, that is the main reason to be at the track on Carb Day. I’m not all that interested in the Freedom 100, but will probably watch it if I’m there. The Pit Stop Competition can be entertaining, but I will admit that we usually watch it from the confines of the IMS Media Center. We are too old to be in the middle of a bunch of drunks to watch an even older Steve Miller Band try to recreate their bad songs from the seventies. I never cared for Steve Miller during his glory days, why should I subject myself to him now? We have been to a couple of the Legends Day concerts, however, we are not going this year unless it’s an act we really like, we find it too difficult to get a good night’s sleep before the race.

We do plan to go to the Carb Night Burger Bash on Friday night. Last year they moved the Burger Bash from its previous location at 96th Street Steak Burgers to the Pan Am Plaza downtown, just across from Lucas Oil Stadium. I’ll be honest, I was not wild about the new location last year. It seems the Burger Bash has grown up. The previous setting was much more intimate and quaint. It was just a lot of race fans gathered around in folding chairs watching the different drivers be interviewed as they came. Now they have a big stage, they sell alcohol, it costs money to park, and they have a band playing afterward. That will appeal to a lot of people, but I preferred the simplicity of its previous format. But we will still go because I enjoy seeing all of the people there.

But of course, the main reason we will be in Indianapolis next weekend is for the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. I’ll discuss more about the upcoming “500” later this week.

TV Coverage: I’ve heard mixed reviews over ABC/ESPN’s coverage of Qualifying this past weekend. Some of the negative things I’ve heard pertain to Eddie Cheever apparently insisting that Bourdais was fine after his crash. I did not see it personally, nor have I gone back and watched the DVR yet. I have heard more than a couple of people tell me he said that, which is unacceptable, and he should know better. My only complaint that I am certain of, having not seen the replay of the broadcast, is that their coverage was way too short both days. We got spoiled in the old VERSUS days, when they would broadcast six hours a day for both days of qualifying. Of course, VERSUS morphed into NBCSN. Perhaps if NBC gets the new TV contract, they will go back to that. We can only hope.

The Current Qualifying Format: I spoke to a lot of die-hards this weekend and I don’t think I came across a single one who could correctly explain all of the nuances of this qualifying format. This format has been in place three to four years. If the die-hards don’t understand the rules of this format after that amount of time – it’s too confusing. In the past, the last row was locked after Saturday’s Qualifying. Many of you correctly pointed out to me Saturday night that this was no longer the case. When I asked around on Sunday morning, most were under the impression that the last row was to be locked after Saturday. As it turned out, that was no longer the case. Otherwise, Pippa Mann and Buddy Lazier would be starting from the last row on Sunday.

Not to name-drop, but we saw IMS President, Doug Boles immediately after qualifying, he asked if we were driving back Sunday night. I told him we were and that the weekend went too fast. He half-kiddingly responded by saying that we need to go back to two weekends of qualifying. I told him I was going to quote him on that and he laughed and walked away.

I’m not sure what the answer is for Qualifying, but I don’t think the current format is it. For almost a hundred years, the run for the pole always took place on the first day of Qualifying. They are kidding themselves if they think they can change everyone’s mindset to forget about what has happened every May in their lifetime. To me, it almost seems like a crime against nature to have the run for the pole be the last thing of Qualifying Weekend. Whether we are talking about one or two weekends of qualifying, the field should be set from the front to the back – not the other way around. The end of Qualifying should be reserved for bumping or arranging the back of the field. This year, like many recently, there was no bumping. We will probably never get back to the days when fifty to sixty drivers were trying to squeeze into a field of thirty-three. As recently as 2011, however, there were forty cars entered and the bumping provided as much or more drama as the run for the pole.

I am hopeful that a potential third engine manufacturer will make entries more plentiful. With only two engine manufacturers, they pretty well cap the field and limit the amount of cars that can be entered on each side. Until more engine programs are made available to potential teams, we will see very little bumping in the near future.

My hope is that Doug Boles, Jay Frye and Mark Miles will get together to come up with a more traditional and simplified qualifying format.

Dale Coyne’s Choice: Many people I spoke with Saturday night and Sunday morning were certain that Stefan Wilson was the obvious choice to replace Sébastien Bourdais. I saw on social media where some thought it was completely distasteful for any driver to lobby for the open seat while Bourdais was probably undergoing surgery on Saturday night. I disagree.

As ghoulish as it may seem to some; keep in mind that Bourdais crashed about eighteen hours before the next practice. Race officials needed to know if there would be a replacement and who it would be. Remember the question of whether or not there would be thirty-three cars in the field was hanging in the balance. Above all else, this is a business and the show goes on. While some may find it callus, I have no problem with drivers posturing for that seat. It’s what drivers do, and to think that a driver should just sit around and hope that Dale Coyne calls them is naïve.

As for the choice of James Davison over Stefan Wilson, I think Dale Coyne made the right choice. Not only does he have two Indianapolis 500 starts, compared to Wilson’s one, one of Davison’s starts was with Coyne in 2015. With only today’s practice to get acquainted with the car and the team, the familiarity between Davison and the Coyne team was probably a huge factor.

Stefan Wilson was the sentimental favorite for many, not only because he is the younger brother of the late Justin Wilson, but he also essentially gave up his ride in this year’s “500” in favor of Fernando Alonso. Many feel Wilson was entitled to the next open seat. Had Bourdais had his accident on the first day of practice last Monday, I might understand that. With no practice time in the car and the unfamiliarity with the team, going with a less experienced driver did not seem like the best option on the Sunday morning of Qualifying. Besides, he was assured he would be held for a ride in 2018, not this year.

Penske Woes: Chevy was embarrassed by placing only three cars in the first seventeen starting spots, only one of those three belonged to Team Penske, that being the car of will Power, who will start on the outside of Row Three. Team Penske has had a horrendous effort in qualifying. After Power starting in the ninth position, you have to go all the way back to the eighteenth starting spot to find the next Team Penske driver, Juan Montoya. From Montoya back to the twenty-third starting spot is where you find the rest of Team Penske. This past weekend’s performance by the Penske cars was very un-Penske-like. It can’t just be the Chevy package because Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand seemed to make it work.

I don’t know what the problem was with Team Penske. Was it adding a fifth car for Montoya? Did they guess wrong on the set-up? I’m not sure that anyone has the answers to these questions, but everyone was scratching their heads after looking at their poor results on Sunday.

A Win For Honda: After a strong start to 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Season, Honda has taken it’s lumps in the past three races – all won by Team Penske. Since practice started last Monday for the Indianapolis 500, the time charts have been pretty well dominated by Honda. That was even more evident yesterday when Honda had fourteen of the top seventeen spots. I think most knew going in that Honda would have the advantage in the Indianapolis 500. I don’t think anyone expected this much domination. Does that mean they are assured to win the race on Sunday? Absolutely not.

Some speculate that Honda’s resurgence is due to the fact that they have turned up the wick on their engines, thus explaining the rash of engine failures we’ve seen in May with their engines. Many people, smarter than I am, think that we will see many Honda engines fail to go the distance on Sunday. That is just another element of suspense for Sunday’s race. It should be interesting.

All In All: Scott Dixon did a great job of turning the fastest laps we have seen at IMS in over two decades. He made it look easy. He was so smooth on his run you almost wondered if he was going slow because it appeared to be so effortless. Lost in the battle between Dixon’s Honda and Carpenter’s Chevy was the performance of the defending champion, Alexander Rossi, who put his car on the outside of the front row. Rossi quietly put together a solid week of practice and seems to be getting more comfortable on ovals every time he goes out. Don’t be too shocked if he pulls off another Indianapolis 500 win on Sunday without having to rely on fuel mileage this time.

And then there is Fernando Alonso. While some seem to resent the attention he has been getting this month, I think it is warranted. He has hardly put a wheel wrong all month, yet he appears to be taking this very seriously and seems genuinely humbled to be a part of this race. He will start in the middle of the second row. While the start may be a totally new experience for him, watch for him to improve throughout the race. While I do not expect him to win, I would not be surprised to see him earn a top five finish.

This weekend wrapped up the second of three weekends that Susan and I are spending in Indianapolis this month. As many weekends as we have spent here, it never gets old and we had an exceptionally good time at the Grand Prix weekend. It was so much fun, I was afraid we would be in for a let down on Qualifying weekend. That was not the case. I have no doubt that next weekend will be unforgettable as we experience all the Indianapolis 500 has to offer. This weekend can’t get here soon enough, but I’m afraid it will pass way too quickly as it always does.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Qualifying”

  1. I would rather see the slow Lotus engines out there just to have some cars on the track trying to bump in vs. what we have now. Why not change the format back or even merge the 2 ideas, let the whole weekend be open for the pole, but go back to the 3 attempts, etc. Or even better, you can pull a qualified car out at any point in the weekend and run for it again. Anything better than the forced re-qualifying that I can’t even follow.

    I was actually not upset with Cheever saying Bourdais was “fine”, I took it as a relief that he was alive, not the best wording but it was a raw emotion moment. I felt like we knew Wheldon and Wilson were gone rather quickly, to see Seabass moving, it made me feel like he was fine, he was alive and anything after that was going to be solvable.

    All in all though, still leaps and bounds better than what NASCAR put on the track this weekend!

    • Yes, I meant to address Cheever’s comments as well. I took it the same way that Bourdais was alive and not critical. Not that he wouldn’t have possible broken bones. When you see such ugly crashes live your first thought is “did he survive?”, “will he be Ok?”.

  2. Regarding the qualifying, I never liked having the front row locked in early. I don’t get too excited about qualifying anyway but I prefer to see the pole decided at the end.

  3. Indyspeeddmon Says:

    My quick and ugly thoughts. Not pleased by qualifying process but with only 33 so much drama is gone that I could live with most anything. I heard Cheever (on replay) and, since I don’t expect much from him, it was ignored. Davison crashed into BOTH teammates during a pit stop in 2015 and took 2 out of the 3 out of the race, never impressed me and I saw 4-5 others in the garages that I feel would be better and I’m sure their helmets were handy. That being said, it is a business and I have no clue of what happened that we don’t need to have knowledge of. Best of luck to Seb for quick and total recovery as he is one of the nice guys and will sorely be missed at DCR.

    • That’s all I could surmise–that Davidson was able to bring money to Coyne. Ideally American Honda and INDYCAR would’ve ‘helped’ Coyne with a replacement car or cash to put Stefan Wilson in the seat.
      But I don’t know why Wilson wants to race an IndyCar after his brother suffered a broken pelvis one year, a broken spine one year, and then a fatal head injury.
      After Bourdais’s injuries (this month and earlier), I would not be surprised if he quits racing for underdog Coyne in order to race top-flight sports cars with roofs.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    This qualifying format would be awful if there 35+ entries, but there aren’t. I cannot speak to how it works at the track (it seems like it would provide a lot of on-track action, frankly), but I would argue that it works better for television than the previous format did when there wasn’t anyone to bump. In 2012 and 2013, all there was to see were slower qualifiers fighting over spots in the last 2-3 rows.

    I would say that most of the nuances of the qualifying format have largely been removed since it was first introduced in 2014. This year, same as last: Saturday establishes the fast 9 who will run for pole, Sunday establishes the starting order and pays the points.

    Indycar has, however, done a poor job of communicating the changes that have happened to the format prior to last year.
    – In 2014, points were paid for Saturday’s runs with the fast 9 only earning additional points on Sunday (I actually preferred this to the 2016-17 format). The fact that this changed for 2016 was not announced that I ever heard.
    -2015 was thrown for a loop by bad weather (wiping out Saturday) and flying Chevrolets, and saw each car get one attempt, no qualifying points. It also saw a special last row “shootout” session where the 4 slowest qualifiers had to requalify for the final 3 spots. I don’t recall if this was added on the spot or was always a part of the 2015 format, but this seems to be where the belief that Saturday’s 3 slowest qualifiers were locked into the last row comes from. It has not been announced as part of the procedures the last two years.

    Anyways, the point is that this format is fairly understandable if it is properly explained. At this point, it clearly is not.

  5. Bob Butler Says:

    With only 33 cars I think this works. I’d love to go back to the old days but right now that ain’t happening. I was pretty entertained by the qualifying. ESPN 3 had the parts that weren’t on ABC.

  6. On qualifying-Go back to two days with the field set fastest to slowest, with first day qualifiers in front of second day qualifiers. Each car gets three green flag attempts.
    TV-I don’t have TV but saw the replay of the TV coverage of the crash. Cheever’s choice of words wasn’t the best but I completely understood his reaction was to the fact that Bourdais was obviously alive. Anyone who has seen the Gordon Smiley and/or Scott Brayton crashes, especially a former driver, would have a similar reaction.
    I really feel for Dale Coyne. A season that started really, really well has gotten very expensive.
    Of course there are many in this field who can win but, once again the Andretti team looks very strong. When that team is on they have an amazing way of varying strategies so that they have every contingency covered to have one of the team cars out front when the checkered flag is shown.
    I don’t remember the exact year now, but the year the race was stopped at least twice by rain and Marco got upside down on the back stretch late in the race (I was working on the Safety Patrol and positioned at the gate where emergency vehicles could enter the track from the end of the back stretch. As he flipped through the grass, Marco was heading right for me. When his car came to rest facing the infield and he lifted his visor we made eye contact) Andretti cars were at the front each time.
    And for a very different trivia, but significant question George, how far does the winner actually travel from start to finish in the 500. All laps involving pit stops include using the pit exit lane so those laps are on a shorter circuit, so no driver actually travels 500 miles to win the race.
    Every year I get a feeling about something about the race. This year it was that the 33 announced drivers for the race would not be the 33 starters.
    This should be another great race. My biggest hope is that every driver is physically able to participate in the Victory Celebration.

  7. tonelok Says:

    – tried streaming the IMS broadcast on my laptop with a remote speaker in my hand while watching ABC. That way I could mute out most if not all of ABC accept for the video feed and the occasional interview which are pretty much the same anyway. Such a better experience that way than listening to Cheever ramble on repeating every cliche in the Indy book and talking about himself. Goodyear is just as bad but not as offensive to our intelligence as Cheever. I’ll never forget that brain fade Eddie Cheever had right before his retirement running Marco Andtetti off the race track. I can’t remember which track that was. I digress.

    -I will never understand the entertainment choices of IMS. Are they living in some sort of time warp at 16th/ Georgetown? The Steve Miller band?! Seriously? Lol. Where does one even begin with that? Seriously it is an embarrassing joke the choices made by IMS top brass for entertainment. Why don’t they have KISS perform with the “I am Indy” slogan woven throughout their songs? Both bands are about the same age incidentally. How do the millennials relate to the Stever Miller Band? I am curious. Where is the logic there? I would love to hear it. It is truly baffling some of the decisions made from those corporate offices.

    -I felt better hearing that most of the die hards you talked to did not have a handle on qualifying either. I feel clueless every year.

    -It dawned on me that the reason there are not 40-60 cars attempting to qualify anymore was evident in Sebastien Bourdais’ crash. To purchase a chassis that will protect a driver like that one did, is no small task to purchase. If you want to play, you have to pay and there are not a lot of smaller organizations out there that can afford to do that anymore and I don’t think that is ever going to change. Unless IndyCar can attract global participants like F1 does. Back in the day the cars were not this expensive and a lot of drivers were simply lost because of the lack of safety technology. That is just the way it was.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    Speaking as someone who recently suffered a brain seizure and underwent emergency surgery to remove a tumor, if Eddie Cheever were to say I am “fine”, I would be happy with that. With the help of good surgeons and a little duct tape Bourdais will continue to be fine when one considers the alternative.

    I thought the ABC coverage of qualifying was excellent. Consider this: Sitting in my recliner with a beverage nearby I could see and hear every second of every car’s qualifying run, the telemetry, and the wind sock. So what is left for any announcer to say other than cliches and such? If you can easily see and hear everything there is to see and hear, then Cheever’s “Less is More” approach is “fine” with me. I don’t recall ever reading any complaint about Cheever and Goodyear that also included what the complainer thinks they should say or what the complainer would say if he or she were behind the mike. Complaining about Cheever and Goodyear has now become the cliche.

    I will once again be grateful that those horrible old concrete rest rooms that traumatized my childhood are gone. Now if only a way could be found to get rid of the drunks.

    As for the music…….I would much prefer that the Steve Miller band and such be replaced with the sound of a Novi pounding down the front stretch on a loop.

    • tonelok Says:

      Hey Ron- Good to hear you are doing well. Are they tearing down grandstands at Milwaukee yet? Any news? Are you going to Indy this year?-Dan

    • Ron, I love 9/10 of that which you write. But Cheever and Goodyear do not have ‘the gift of gab’ and are often boring, insulting, and wrong. They should have been dismissed years ago. ABC-ESPN is clueless.

  9. Ed Emmitt Says:

    Qualifying the entie field of 33 for 2 day’s is foolish.We know the best teams are going to be up front and the low budget teams are field fillers.
    These day’s if a driver has a bad qualifying day he can come from the back and win the race.Year’s ago that wasn’t the case.

    We don’t need to keep slamming the announcers, they are done after Detroit I believe.I watch a lot of baseball on TV and find most announcers talk to much. Sunday night baseball on ESPN have 3 talking heads that never shut up. In the end I simply turn the sound off.

    What I have started to do this year is set my tablet up to the IndyCar website and watch the drivers track position and speed and watch the broadcast on mute.

    I bought some extra data time for my smartphone and will tune into that IndyCar website on race day to follow the drives as those beautiful HD video boards are difficult to read drivers track position.

    Hats off to Scott Dixon on his fabulous run to the pole.

  10. I liked the qualifying format in 2011 more. I don’t remember the exact differences (and yes I know there were more cars) but the original fast 9 format seemed like a really good one. As for Davidson vs. Wilson, while I am not super emotionally invested in Wilson, it would have made a lot of sense to have him in the car instead. If it were between a truly experienced veteran like say Tagliani or Bruno that would be one thing, but both Wilson and Davidson are fairly inexperienced drivers and 1 500 start two years ago with Coyne doesn’t really change that. I would assume Davidson brought money, or had the money and could not get a ride because even MCLAREN AND HONDA could barely find an engine for ALONSO.

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