Random Thoughts On Qualifying Weekend

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Barring a last-minute miracle, it appears that James Hinchcliffe will not be a participant in 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500. As much as I hate it for Hinch and Pippa Mann, I am still a proponent of the bumping system and the field remaining at thirty-three cars. Tradition has been mocked and scrutinized this weekend, and we have been told what a mess IndyCar has made for itself.

On the contrary, I firmly feel that IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 has been made stronger by the events of this past weekend. If you look back over the previous four years since IndyCar adopted this new qualifying format, each Saturday Bump Day blends into the other. There was nothing memorable to make any of those Saturdays stand out. No one will have trouble remembering what happened on Bump Day 2018.

Saturday’s bump casualties were not as shocking as in 1995 when Marlboro Team Penske failed to make the race; or in 1993 when defending CART Champion, Bobby Rahal was bumped. No offense to Pippa Mann, but her not making the race was not a total shock. Hinchcliffe’s struggles were. Many people felt that there would be a surprise entry that would fail to make the race. We just didn’t know who it would be.

That kind of suspense going in, and the ensuing drama when we all realized that Hinchcliffe was in trouble, is what made Saturday so compelling. There was a buzz going into Saturday and lots of conversation afterward. Consequently, fans were more engaged during this qualifying weekend that I have seen them in years. That is good for IndyCar and for the Indianapolis 500.

I hate to keep beating this dead horse, but I grew tired of the complaining that went on regarding sponsors that will not be in this year’s race, as well as popular drivers. If sponsors did not know going in that there may be a chance that the car they were sponsoring may not qualify for the Indianapolis 500, then shame on them.

If I am a decision maker for a company and I am asked to contribute a significant amount of capital, it’s up to me to examine and learn about every potential risk. I should not even depend on the information that the presenting team gives me. I need to research the risks on my own. Every sponsor on every car should already know that there is a chance their car may not make the starting grid. If that scares them away, they probably don’t need to be involved with the series anyway.

As far as the drivers go, they should never assume they are going to be in the race. Both drivers on Saturday took full responsibility for themselves and their teams not doing what it took to make the race. If you could have seen Pippa Mann’s emotional press conference on Saturday evening, it was apparent how much this race meant to her. Her entire year revolves around this one race and what we saw from her on Saturday was raw and unbridled emotion. As Al Unser, Jr. tearfully said in Victory Lane immediately after winning the 1992 race, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”

I think that fans, drivers, teams and sponsors all got a refresher course in what bumping is all about. Since they went to thirty-three cars in the early days, bumping has always taken place. It was only recently that economics made it a struggle to get to thirty-three entries each year, making bumping practically non-existent. Until this past weekend, the only significant bumping to take place in the past fifteen years was in 2011 when Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay were both bumped. It’s almost as if fans and media members have forgotten the harsh realities of bumping.

That’s why this race is so special. It should be tough to get in and those that do get in should be proud of the fact that they earned their way in. They didn’t just show up and get in. They worked hard, put everything on the line and earned their spot in the field.

I have heard the arguments against bumping and quite honestly, I just don’t buy them. This is not so much about tradition as it is about appreciating the accomplishment of simply making the race. If you open it up to all comers, it dilutes what this race has become over the decades. My thinking is that what happened this past weekend will actually intrigue potential sponsors, rather than scaring them off as so many people have claimed. End of rant.

TV Coverage:  Since we did not arrive home until late last night, I have obviously not had a chance to watch the broadcast of either day. However, I have seen enough unfavorable comments on social media regarding ABC’s coverage that I have gotten a pretty good idea of what to expect. I heard about poorly-timed and way-too-frequent commercial breaks during crucial qualifying runs and dramatic moments, to tell me that this was the typical ABC broadcast that we have come to know.

I had fans and friends tweeting and texting me throughout the weekend alerting me to multiple gaffes in the ABC broadcast. I will try to watch both broadcasts on my DVR this week with an open mind, but I would be lying if I said my opinion going into them had not already been tainted.

The Current Format:  Since this new qualifying format was introduced prior to the 2014 Indianapolis 500, I was skeptical at best. It seemed convoluted and reeked of manufactured drama. Since we finally got to see actual bumping this weekend, my opinion has not changed. One thing that we realized for the first time under this new format, was that it is chaotic and counter-productive to have some cars trying to get into the Fast Nine while other cars are simply trying to make the race. If the powers that be are insistent on having a Fast Nine shootout for the pole, it should be structured so that only cars with a realistic shot of making the Fast Nine would make additional qualifying runs at a specified time, while leaving time for those cars just trying to make the back end of the grid.

It was confusing—it seemed almost unfair to have cars already in the Fast Nine taking up valuable track time simply to try and better their position, while cars that had been bumped from the field sit nervously and watch as time ticks away. I’m not sure which segment should go first or last, but to have different drivers trying to achieve different goals is confusing to fans and nerve-wracking for the drivers.

Get the Message Out:  Over the weekend it became apparent that the two bumped drivers and their teams were not exactly sure what to do in the bumping process. In Saturday evening’s press conference, James Hinchcliffe flat out said that he did not know that the gun went off at 5:50. He thought the gun went off at 6:00. I don’t know what time his crew thought the gun went off, but a driver that has been through this current qualifying process for five years now not knowing when time runs out is a sign of poor communication. Did the communication break down at IndyCar, at the team level or did Hinchcliffe just not get the memo? In the press conference Hinchcliffe also referenced a couple of other points of confusion that he did not get further into.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was not the only team that was confused. It seemed that the crew of Pippa Mann was unsure of which line to get back into or when they should do it. Word had it that with Dale Coyne trying to get two cars up to speed, that they were waiting on Coyne himself to make a decision as to what to do.

Long-time fans that remember times when bumping was a way of life on the fourth day of qualifying, know that there are certain tactics that teams used to put themselves in a position to re-qualify at just the right time. It was almost an art form to watch the teams that always had to bump their way into the field on the last day. They knew exactly what to do and when to do it. On Saturday, it seemed that none of the teams in trouble knew what to do or when to make a move. Is it because they are so out of practice in dealing with the bumping system? I don’t know. But it was painful to watch as the teams in peril scrambled around not knowing what to do.

My Suggestion:  I am a traditionalist, but I am also a realist. I know that in this day and age, two full weekends of qualifying is no longer feasible. The old days of a car getting only three attempts charged to it are long gone. Teams do not have backup cars that they can roll out at a moment’s notice. The teams that do have backup cars, have no engines in them due to today’s rules. Therefore, I have no problem with cars being withdrawn and re-qualified multiple times, which could not be done in the “old days.”

But I do prefer going back to a system where the pole winner and the front portion of the field is decided on Saturday, while Sunday would be for filling the back of the field and bumping. That way you reward those that were able to qualify early. Those teams can either choose to take the day off or they can focus on race day set-ups, full-tank runs or even practice pit stops during the open practice portion when no one is making a qualifying attempt.

If they choose to, IndyCar could still preserve a Fast Nine shootout, held at the end of the first qualifying day. But that would be done and over with when the struggling teams are trying to make the field on Sunday. This would give you two distinct days—the first day trying to make the pole, the second day—trying to make the race. It’s a basic structure that has worked since the 1920’s. It’s a structure that could still work today if the television partner was not making all the decisions.

A looser format, like the one I described, also helps out in the case of weather interruptions as we saw Saturday. I feel confident that had there been no rain Saturday, James Hinchcliffe would be in this weekend’s race. But the tight schedule of the current qualifying format does not allow for any flexibility in the case of rain.

I support open practice sessions when qualification runs are not being attempted. Under the old system, teams had the option to pass on their qualifying spot in the heat of the day in order to make an attempt late in the day under cooler conditions. Sometimes this would work against them if it rained later in the day, but they are the ones that made that decision. This would create a gap in the early to mid-afternoon which was not great for television, but allowed teams to practice while there was no qualifying going on.

The system we saw on display this past weekend was way too rigid in structure. The weather seemed to play havoc with a schedule that was planned almost to the minute. Wet weather in May in Central Indiana is practically guaranteed. IndyCar needs a system that allows teams a lot more flexibility in the case of rain.

All In All: This was the most memorable qualifying weekend I’ve been to since 2011. That’s primarily due to the bumping we all knew would be happening. Although I’m sorry for Hinch and Pippa, the process played out as it should have. Simply put, had they gone faster, they would be in the race this weekend and someone else would be out. That is the nature of bumping. And that is why it is so intriguing and has made up some of the most memorable moments in the Indianapolis 500. The basic concept of qualifying has always been the same; the fastest cars start up front, the slower cars start in the back and the slowest cars go home. That concept has never changed and never will. How they arrive at it is what needs tweaking.

While everyone will remember what happened Saturday, Sunday had a few twists and turns of it’s own. Ed Carpenter won his third pole, AJ Foyt Enterprises had their best day of qualifying in years and Alexander Rossi had one bad qualifying lap on Sunday and it landed him in the last row. Helio Castroneves is trying to win his fourth Indianapolis 500 and Danica Patrick is trying to make her own history at the place that made her famous thirteen years ago. It’s all setting up for multiple story lines heading into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Qualifying Weekend”

  1. Well said, George. I agree this system of qualifying is a confusing maze drivers and teams h ave to figure out. :

  2. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Did you know drivers have “tools” in the cockpit they can use to adjust the balance of the car?! Scott Goodyear told us that on the broadcast……about a dozen times.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    Well said George, I could not agree with you more. Nothing to add ,covered it.

  4. Agreed 100%. Well said. And, can’t wait for you to enjoy that broadcast coverage. Sheesh.

  5. Couldn’t agree more, George. The drama of Indy qualifications was back this weekend and I thought it was great. I also agree that the rules of qualifications could be tweaked a bit (and just might be depending on how much influence their new “broadcast partner” will have.) I have mixed emotions about Hinch possibly buying a ride. I understand that’s a sort of historical tradition also, but I don’t much like that one. Whatever they do in the future, I think it’s important that qualifications actually mean something and it’s equally important that only 33 cars start the 500.

  6. Bumping is the Indy 500. You don’t get a participation trophy at the 500. You have to earn one of the 33 spots. To me arguing otherwise is ludicrous. Sponsors know the rules as well as the teams. At least I thought the teams knew the rules. Now, not so sure.

    Lets at least move Pole Day back to Saturday and Bump Day to Sunday. Making cars qualify twice needs to end. I’d like to see the fast nine go away. But at least let’s start with moving Pole Day back to Saturday and Bump Day to Sunday.

  7. The broadcast was terrible. When it became apparent Hinch’s time was in jeopardy (several hours from the end) I thought they would cover that – what are their thoughts? What are they doing? Nothing at until he was on the bubble. The biggest story of the day missed. Can’t wait for NBC!

    • I totally agree. I even watched the ESPN app prior to switching to ABC at 1:00 Pacific time. It has lots of advertisements too! Very disappointing!

  8. I’ve never cared for having the pole decided a day before the rest of the field is set. It feels anti-climatic to me.

    And they really need to set aside plenty of time for bumping/qualifying. It doesn’t look good on the sanctioning body when a car that will probably make the field sits there waiting for a turn that won’t come.

    No mention of the tire-sensor rattling around in the wheel. Who mounts the tires on the rims. Who supplies the tire sensor and mounts it? Who owns the rims? Is this a failure on Firestone’s part or someone elses?

  9. Mark J Wick Says:

    George, I agree with you.
    I saw that Arrow has invested as much as $1 million for a hospitality tent on Race day. The Arrow logo will be on at least one race car for the race, Hinchcliffe will be very visible all week, and I expect those in the hospitality tent Sunday will really enjoy having him in there with them. Arrow will get it’s money’s worth.
    I still don’t understand how Pippa’s sponsorship with a non-profit works, but I am sure there was more exposure because of the bumping drama than there would have been with only 33 cars entered. I expect there will also be some Race Day accommodations made there, also.
    Saturday was riveting, Sunday kind of anti-climatic.

  10. LOVE HINCH! But, other cars got multiple chances to go out and qualify. Hinch made one run and had the problem on the other run. The team failed the driver here. I would feel a lot worse if they had made 3 runs and not gotten in.

    As far as Pippa, not popular to say but she is a D+ driver out there at best. The field does not have a glaring hole without her in it.

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