A Qualifying Format I Can Live With

It’s probably a good thing that the NTT IndyCar Series or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway doesn’t ask me for input whenever they are looking to revamp things. My idea of revamping things would be to go back at least a couple of decades, whether it made sense in today’s world or not. Some would accuse me of taking things back to the Stone Age.

There is one side of me that knows that going back to four days of Indianapolis 500 qualifying spread over two weekends will no longer work in today’s IndyCar environment for a lot of different reasons. First of all, it is not economically feasible for the teams. Second, television is not going to devote that much time and effort. Even on Pole Day in the early nineties, there was just way too much down time. Cars would try to qualify for the first hour or so, but there would usually be a break in the line from about 12:30 until about 4:00 – simply because it was too hot.

Another reason is that Days Two and Three would be cash drains on the track. They would have to staff everyone from Yellow Shirts and concessions to medical personnel and track officials. It costs a lot to open IMS up for the day. With few paying customers to offset those expenses – I’m sure that’s an awfully big dollar figure to cover. In the eighties and early nineties, Pole Day crowds were estimated at 200,000. Today they hope to get ten percent of that.

But there is another side of me that desperately wants to return to what I call the traditional format. Breaking it down to basics, there were four days spread over two weekends to fill the field. After they lopped off the first week of May in the seventies, Opening Day would usually be on a Saturday. They would practice all day, every day for a week. Then Pole Day would be the following Saturday (weather permitting). Every car would be given at least one shot at the pole. If you broke out of the qualifying line at any time – that was your shot, in case the day ended early or the gun went off before you ran. If you were always in line and circumstances prevented you from running on Saturday, you were still eligible for the pole during the next qualifying day.

If you did not qualify on the first day, the Day Two qualifiers lined up behind the Day One qualifiers on the starting grid. Therefore it was not uncommon for the pole-winning car to not be the fastest car in the field. Arie Luyendyk set the track record in qualifying for the 1996 race – a record that still stands today. Yet he was not on the pole. He started in the middle of the seventh row, because he was a second-day qualifier. That was one aspect that made that format so unique.

Once the field had thirty-three qualifiers, bumping began – so that those cars and drivers that were not yet in could still bump their way in. If a car bumped its way in, it could be bumped back out.

The rule of thumb was that the car qualified, not the driver. Cars got three attempts to qualify. An attempt was defined as taking the green flag to start an official qualifying run. Once you took the green flag, that was one of your three attempts. If you were not happy with your speed, it was probably wise to wave off your attempt on the third lap or so. Once you took the checkered flag at the end of your fourth lap, the car was qualified. If a car was once qualified and then bumped, it was no longer eligible for the race. It was done. If the driver wanted back in, he or she would have to go to a backup or make arrangements to get into another car.

The last minute wheeling and dealing for drivers scrambling to somehow make the field before the 6:00 gun went off, made for some legendary drama. When Eddie Cheever could not get his year-old Penske chassis driving for Turley Motorsports up to speed in 1993, he struck a last-minute deal to climb into one of John Menard’s backup cars. Bobby Rahal had struggled all month with the RH-01, which was the old Truesports chassis. Ironically, Menard had offered that same chassis to Rahal earlier and he turned it down. That same car bumped him out of the race late Sunday afternoon. Rahal climbed into his backup car with barely any time left, but he was too slow and out of the race – as the defending CART champion.

Many of us remember the drama that unfolded on Bump Day in 1995, when Marlboro Team Penske failed to put either car in the race as the reigning Indianapolis 500 champions.

Drivers like George Snider and Bob Harkey were famous for hopping into a strange car at 5:30 on Bump Day and putting the car into the field with very few practice laps, at the expense of someone else. That was part of the intrigue of Bump Day.

But the hand-wringing didn’t start on Bump Day. It sometimes started on the first weekend. The vulnerable car in bumping was not the last car to qualify, but the slowest in the field – regardless of which day the car qualified. Arie Luyendyk’s 1993 pole speed was 223.967 mph. On Sunday, Bobby Rahal accepted a speed of 217.140. He wasn’t comfortable with it, but felt like that was all he could get out of the car. Had the time held, he would have started on the outside of Row Five. It didn’t.

But no matter how fast a car went on Bump Day, the highest it could move up on the grid would be behind the slowest qualifier from the previous qualifying day.

It was a complicated set of rules, but a set that had been in place for decades. If you were a regular follower of the Indianapolis 500, you knew these rules backwards and forwards. They made sense. I’m not sure when this format went into place, but I believe it was sometime in the 1920s. The traditional format stayed in place through the 2004 race. It was comforting to know that the same rules that were in place when I was going to qualifying as a kid in the sixties, were still in place as I was in my mid-forties.

Yes, there were times when they flirted with two-day formats in the past. During the Energy Crisis of the early seventies, they cut down to two Saturdays, but still followed the same rules. Then in the late nineties, they experimented again with two days – this time over one weekend. Both times, they eventually returned to the four-day format.

But in 2005, that all changed. They came up with a new format known as 11-11-11, where they would qualify only eleven cars each day, each day lining up behind the other. As the eleventh spot was filled each day, they would have “bumping” as everyone else tried to bump their way into the field. In my opinion, it was manufactured drama created in case there would be no real bumping on the fourth day, which was totally reserved for real bumping.

Mercifully, this format was not utilized in 2005 or 2006 because of rain. The first time it was fully utilized was in 2007, and it felt very cheesy as Dave Calabro would announce that so-and so in the eleventh spot is now “on the bubble”. Technically, that was correct – but not as longtime fans interpreted the word bubble.

In 2010, the format was changed again – this time going to a one weekend format that would see twenty-four cars qualified on Saturday, along with the final seven qualified on Sunday with any necessary bumping. To further manufacture drama, they instituted the Fast Nine Shootout for the pole at the end of the day on Saturday. The Fast Nine drivers had their times wiped out and they could attempt to best their time as many times as they wanted to between 4:30 and 6:00.

In 2011, the Fast Nine Shootout was delayed due to rain, so each driver was allowed one attempt. Alex Tagliani won the pole in thrilling fashion at the very end.

With the beginning of the IndyCar Grand Prix in 2014, Mark Miles felt the need to spice up the Month of May – some would say complicate it. He created perhaps the most convoluted qualifying procedure that he possibly could have, but worst of all – he reversed the natural order of things by putting Bump Day on Saturday and Pole Day on Sunday.

All cars would make a qualifying attempt on Saturday just to either qualify for the Fast Nine or to qualify for the field. Multiple attempts could be made, but until last year – there was little drama in the back end of the field. Most repeated attempts were to get into the Fast Nine. Drivers that did not make the Fast Nine were required to return on Sunday and re-qualify their car, this time for position. There was something going on in the last row on Sunday morning, but I never understood exactly what that was about.

It was very confusing and I never liked it – mostly because it put things in the wrong order from the way it had been for decades. But I never liked the idea of having all cars re-qualify on Sunday. It just seemed pointless and stupid. Rick Mears always said that the four laps of qualifying were the most intense laps of the year. Under the 2014 format, not so much.

But the real issues appeared last year when we actually had real bumping going on. With open qualifying and multiple attempts going on all day, there were actually two totally separate things going on. You had the faster cars all trying to better their times and get into the Fast Nine, but you also had cars at the other end of the spectrum trying to simply make the race. With only one car allowed at a time on the track, it created mass confusion – for the fans and the teams. One minute you had Alexander Rossi trying to bump his way into the Fast Nine, the next minute there was Conor Daly barely squeaking into the field. There were just too many things going on at the same time.

For over eighty years, the qualifying procedures held fast and withstood the test of time. Last Thursday, we learned of our fourth overhaul of qualifying since 2005. With the first three, I disliked each new format when compared to the one it replaced. That was not the case last week.

If you watched the Two Sides Unite video that my good friend Paul Dalbey and I did, you heard Paul’s first reaction was that he didn’t hate it. Compared to the other reactions over the past fifteen years, I guess that’s pretty positive. I’ll go a step further – I actually like it, but I’m not in love with it.

Knowing that we will never go back to a four-day two-weekend format, I thought they improved what they had significantly.

First and foremost – it puts Bump Day back on Sunday…sort of. Saturday is still when drivers qualify for the Fast Nine. Those drivers will be locked into the first three rows, regardless of what they do on Sunday. But one big change is that the drivers that qualify for positions ten through thirty will be locked into those positions for the race. They will not have to come back Sunday and re-qualify. That is one of the biggest improvements of this latest revision.

On Sunday, they will have what will be known as the Last Row Shootout. This is the part I don’t like. All of the remaining cars that are trying to squeeze into those last three spots will only be allowed one attempt each. It’s essentially one and done. Had I been designing this, I would have had a ninety-minute open qualifying session for cars jockeying back and forth. When you look at the traditional format, it was the last hour and a half when most of the drama got serious anyway. It just seems that more strategizing could take place on Sunday if they had time to make adjustments and go back out. At least it certainly puts the pressure on for one run on Sunday.

The Fast Nine Shootout to determine the pole and starting order for the first three rows will follow the Last Row Shootout. Then there will be a Sunday practice for all cars from 3:15 until 6:00 on Sunday. That is followed by a two hour final practice on Monday. The Friday Carb Day practice has been extended from one hour to ninety minutes. So there will be lots of practice time after the grid is set. It used to be that once qualifying was over on Sunday, the cars never ran again until Carb Day. Not anymore.

Paul and I batted around a few thoughts in our video posted last Friday. Over the weekend, I read more comments from others. Most feel like Paul and me – they are somewhere between not hating it and kind of liking it. But no one has really jumped out and said this was the greatest thing to happen at 16th and Georgetown since the bricks were laid in the fall of 1909.

Paul brought up a good point that the possibility will exist that a car that has a faster speed than the car in the thirtieth position may not make the field. If that happens, they will not be able to say that the field consists of the thirty-three fastest cars. Weather conditions may dictate that all cars on Sunday are faster than that car that qualified thirtieth on Saturday. That may be true, but if a car was capable of finding more speed, they should have found it on Saturday and not find themselves in that position on Sunday.

This new set of rules puts a great deal of importance on Saturday’s run, and a type of bumping will occur after there are thirty qualifiers on Saturday. Sunday is just sort of a last chance.

A drastic change in weather between Saturday and Sunday, could also dictate that the driver that barely misses the Fast Nine on Saturday may also be faster than any of the cars in the first three rows. That’s a little extreme, but it could happen.

Until the last few years when the bulk of the field was set on one day, it was not unusual at all to have faster cars behind slower cars. In fact, it was the norm. Under the traditional format, it was highly unusual for the entire field to be ranked by speed and have it the same as they would line up.

Even after Bobby Rahal got bumped in 1993, the slowest car in the field was Kevin Cogan with a speed of 217.230 mph. Where did he start? The middle of Row Five. He had six rows of faster cars behind him. Two years earlier, Rick Mears was on the pole with a speed of 224.113 mph. Gary Bettenhausen qualified on Day Two with a faster speed of 224.468 mph, but he started from the fifth row. In fact, the fifth row of Gary Bettenhausen, Arie Luyendyk and Emerson Fittipaldi had a faster qualifying average than the iconic front row of that race that featured Mears, AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti. That’s just the oddity and uniqueness of Indianapolis 500 qualifying.

So if you’re wondering my overall opinion of the latest reboot of Indianapolis 500 qualifying, I would say that I’m pleased. Could it be tweaked to improve it further? Sure. Anything can be. But since they first started tweaking with the rules, this is the first time I thought they actually improved it over what they had the previous year. It’s not perfect, but I can live with it. What would be perfect? Going back to the traditional format over two weekends. But I’m afraid that will never happen again.

George Phillips

13 Responses to “A Qualifying Format I Can Live With”

  1. BrandonW77 Says:

    To be fair, just about anything would have been better than last year’s format. Personally, I’m mostly pleased with the changes. I wasn’t really paying enough attention in the old days to have any connection to the old format so that doesn’t really figure into it for me. The last row shootout idea is kind of odd, I think the last three rows would have been better, that way Sunday is setting the first three and last three rows. And yeah, they should get at least two shots for the last row bumping. But Sunday looks like a far more entertaining day than it has been in the past, with practice, two groups of qualifying, a break for tenderloins, and then everyone out on track for nearly 3 hours of practice.

  2. New process needs some tweaking. Need to give last row qualifiers at least 2 chances for a traditional 3 for the weekend. Time limit of 90 minutes , take an hour or so away from open practice on Sunday afternoon as there no drama in an open practice

    • BrandonW77 Says:

      Have you ever seen the practice on the final Monday where all cars are out doing long runs and practicing drafting? It’s crazy fun and high potential for drama.

  3. It’s better but doesn’t go far enough. Dump the fast nine and let the cars not in have that time. Would be better for Sunday to be for the last 2 rows.

  4. I’m with you and wish it was the old format. I’m also like you and don’t like change. You hit it on the head that it will never happen due to lack of interest from fans and media. New format is an improvement and extra practice for the starting field is a positive.

  5. There are some positive and negatives to it. However we’re only 30% of the way back to being good. Not qualifying twice is an improvement. But really that’s about it. The Pole should still be won on Saturday, and bump day Sunday. And traditional bumping by traditional rules. Four days are never coming back, but many of the old rules should still be in place. The fast nine is bogus and really not fair. The fastest car of the day should win the pole. With this set up, it may not happen. The cars should not run again after Sunday until Carb Day. More practice time on Carb Day is good, and probably should be at least two hours.

  6. George, one of the things I never really understood was the whole “the car is qualified, not the driver” thing. If the car was what was actually qualified, then why did Mario (or anyone else) have to start at the back when HE didn’t qualify the car? To this day that makes no sense to me if THE CAR was what was qualified.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I’m pretty sure television time slot availability has heavily influenced, if not dictated, the changes to the qualifying format over the past 20 years and I’m sure it did again this year. That is not ideal for us die-hard fans, but it is an understandable course for Indycar to take. Television is rather important to the continued existence of the series…

    This is quite similar to the qualifying format used in 2015, minus the requalifying requirement on Sunday (which, to be fair, was for points). Additionally 2015’s “last row shootout” was timed, rather than one and done, but only involved 4 cars going for 3 spots (it was pretty much just a question of whether Lazier’s jalopy could find enough speed to beat KV’s junkie 2nd and 3rd cars).

    I think the new format’s one-and-done approach is an attempt to exert more control over the on-track action for television purposes. I too would prefer a more traditional timed format, but I think it is also fair to point out that all cars will have a chance to compete in such a format on Saturday to avoid putting themselves in a one-and-done position on Sunday. This will make avoid big setup misses and/or wrecks on Saturday especially critical.

  8. My problem with this format is that another tradition potentially bites the dust, that being the “Fastest 33” qualify. Currently it looks like there will be 5, maybe 6 cars bumped this year. It’s entirely possible that the times they post on Sunday will be faster than the cars that qualified for Row 10 on Saturday. It’s happened before that a car thought to be safely in the field was all of a sudden scrambling because conditions on another day led to faster times. I’d have as many spots as cars above 33 up for grabs on Sunday. For example, say there are 38 cars this year, have spots 29-33 open for qualifying. That would give every car a chance to qualify on speed Sunday. And I’d give them a 90 min window to run as many attempts as possible.

    • BrandonW77 Says:

      But it’s often been the case that the fastest driver was not on pole due to people qualifying on the second, third, or fourth day going faster than they were going on day one. That could be the case again this year if conditions on Sunday aren’t as favorable as Saturday. No real difference in my opinion, and I don’t really see either as an issue.

  9. I like it. Do agree with just about everyone that the “bump” period should be timed and allow drivers to go more than once. But otherwise, I like it.

  10. SkipinSC Says:

    Watched “Two Sites Unite” video last night and while I got the nuts and bolts of the new format, it confused the Hell out of me.

    The one thing that I can’t stand is that it actually locks in the 30th starter, regardless of what speed the “Bump Day” qualifiers achieve. Aside from that, the only downside I see applies to BOTH shootouts: One try and one try only, you get what you get. If you expand the Fast 9 time period to 2 hours, and the Last 3 shootout to 1 hour and allow unlimited attempts within that time frame, THEN you approach the excitement and suspense we used to enjoy.

    Face it, if the current upward trend in IndyCar continues, we MAY not be far from the day of having 40 or more entries for the race. When that happens, this format will definitely have outlived its usefulness, having as many as 10 cars competing for the last three spots.

    At the other end of the spectrum, I have long felt that the Fast 9 format took away more excitement than it provided because of limiting each contender to one attempt. One bad gust of wind and you’re now in row 3. Imagine doing this in the days of the often faulty pop-off valve?

    Still, this is a good start. Keep working on it!

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