Possible Changes to Shoot-Out Qualifying

Last week, it was reported in a Racer.com article by Marshall Pruett that IndyCar is in the final stages of a plan to alter the shoot-out qualifying format that has worked so well on non-ovals for years. This isn’t just changing something for the sake of change (because everyone knows that Change is Bad!). This is a direct result of the anticipated increased car count next season and beyond.

When there are twenty-seven entries, like we saw once or twice this past season; that creates a scenario when there may be as many as fourteen cars on-track for one of the groups in Round One. At some of the shorter tracks, that has created a problem for drivers to get a clean lap in qualifying when there are that many cars on-track. While it may not be a problem at Road America, it could get congested at street circuits like Long Beach, Toronto or St. Petersburg; which are all less than two miles in length. It could even get a little dicey at shorter road courses like Laguna Seca or Mid-Ohio.

So the end-result needs to be to have fewer cars on-track during qualifying. That means more groups with fewer cars in Round One.

Currently, the regular qualifying format splits the field into two groups for Round One. When there were only twenty-two cars; that would put a manageable eleven cars out there for each round. No matter how many cars are in each group – the top six cars in each group would advance into Round Two. Those twelve would battle to reach the Firestone Fast Six, to decide the pole-winner and the first three rows.

What has been proposed is to expand Round One into three groups. Even with twenty-seven cars entered, that puts only nine cars on the track for each group.

Where things change is that only three from each group advances. Furthermore, Round Two will be done away with. The top three cars from each of the three groups of Round One will advance to the final round to be known as the Fast Nine. Those nine cars will battle for the pole and the top nine starting positions.

I have an idea that the rule of unintended consequences may come into play. Depending how each group is loaded (usually set by practice times), there may be some very fast cars that only post the fourth quickest time in the group that get left out of the Fast Nine. It once was good enough to run mid-pack in a group, in order to advance to the next round. That won’t be the case under this format. Is that a good thing? You tell me.

Under the current system, it is possible for one of the smaller teams to post a mid-pack speed that is just quick enough to squeeze into the next round. That will be much more difficult under this new system. I’m not saying that’s bad or good, but it made things more interesting when a Foyt or Carlin car made it into the next round.

On the flip side, If three Ganassi cars and three Penske cars all end up in the same group – three of those cars will not be in contention for the pole or a high starting spot. If one group mostly consists of teams that usually start in the back of the grid, three of those cars are guaranteed to start no lower than ninth – while three normally fast cars will start no higher than tenth. I know that can potentially happen under the current system, but when only one-third of the group advances, it seems like that possibility is greater.

Theoretically, it should all work out the same – the fast cars will start up front, while the slower cars will start in the back. But there seems to be a much greater chance to shake up the field under this new plan. Is that a good thing? I don’t know.

I’m wondering if it might be a better idea to have three groups in Round One, and take the top four in each group. Then take those twelve and have the normal Round Two that we have under the current system. Then proceed as we currently do from there, ultimately having a Fast Six to decide the pole.

I don’t know if that fits into the current time window for television, but I think it would give a more accurate representation of faster cars for Round Two. I’m just afraid under the proposed plan that a fast driver can still be held up just enough to keep him or her out of the top three in the respective group. While it’s nice to see a wild card make it in every once in a while, don’t you really want the truly fastest cars to battle for the pole in the final round?

Fortunately, IndyCar wants to run all of this past the drivers before putting it into action. They should. Drivers are the ones that will think of all possible scenarios and how they might be directly affected. IndyCar would do well to listen to the drivers and get their input. After all, they are the ones that will have to live with the unintended consequences.

I remember in 2011, when IndyCar imposed their will and simply told the drivers that they were going to go with double-file restarts at all races – including the Indianapolis 500. No matter how much the drivers expressed their objections, IndyCar ignored their wishes because it was determined that the fans wanted it. Fortunately, there were no serious accidents related to double-file restarts that season; but the potential was always there. In 2012, single-file re-starts were re-instated at Indianapolis, Texas and Fontana as a result of driver’s pleas for safety. By 2013, single-file re-starts were a thing of the past. It took two years, but IndyCar finally listened to their drivers. They need to listen to them on the plans for altering the qualifying format too.

Overall, I’m for making changes. I do think that having too many cars on smaller tracks during qualifying can present problems. My hope is that the format they come up with will be used at all of the non-ovals – not just the shorter ones. If they do it at Toronto, they need to do it at Road America. Don’t keep fans (and drivers) guessing from week to week which format they will use each week. Finalize a plan and stick to it.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Possible Changes to Shoot-Out Qualifying”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    I think they need a new format. Many times it’s to hard to get a clear run. And as it is now to many times a driver is called holding another up. He’ll there are many times there is no where to go. Knockout Qualifying is just a gimmick to make a show, for the casual fan. You want to know who is the fastest, go back to one car at a time. Otherwise there alway a chance of a fast car getting screwed. I agree they need smaller groups, so hopefully they come up with a good plan.

    • I agree with one car at a time. A warm-up lap followed by a hot lap. Start the next car when one car is on the other side of the track and repeat until all have qualified. This way, the fastest drivers/cars will be at the front. No one gets screwed because of a red flag during qualifying, or because they had the misfortune of drawing a stacked group. Don’t the races provide enough drama for race fans? I don’t need road course qualifying to be anything other than what it is…..qualifying.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I’m guessing proposed change eliminated the intermediate 12 car qualifying round so as to keep qualifying at 4 sessions and roughly the same length as the previous. I don’t think this is necessarily for TV time constraints, since qualifying rarely was/will be a live broadcast on a programmed network, but rather to help road/street race promoters with a lot of support races and other events on their schedules keep to a similar schedule as they had in past years.

  3. I agree with George, there should be 4 cars out of each session and then two sessions after that. (12 and 6) If they eliminate a round then the tire strategy fir the final teams is easier. Let the teams play with tires. Who cares if there is a fast 9, like the 500? 12 then the Firestone fast 6!

  4. Let me throw out another possibility. What if you go to three groups in round one with the top three cars advancing. The last three positions are “wild card” entries regardless of the group from which they came, based on lap time..

    If you want to add even more excitement, run a “semi main” in which all the cars NOT in the fast nine compete in an additional round for the last three spots . (The problem with that, however, would be tire allotment.) Those in the “last chance semi main would obviously find their tire allotment limited.

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