Indy: Pole Day thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on May 23, 2010 2:18 pm
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

All of the alterations to procedures and schedules for this month’s Indianapolis 500 have certainly created a lot of talk, questions, and buzz.  Positive or negative, people are at least talking about Indianapolis again — and that it is a good thing. Here are my opinions on several of the stories that came out of Pole Day at Indianapolis.

Danica Patrick: Of all the stories that came from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday, no subject has garnered more attention than Danica Patrick.  On my two-hour drive from Indianapolis to Champaign this morning, easily 80% of the airtime and callers were devoted to Danica and the boos that she received after claiming, quite vocally, that she was not the problem with her car.  Most of the callers were critical of Danica and her attitude, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was an overwhelming majority.  While I think that Danica certainly could have and should have handled the situation better, I honestly don’t think that she was slamming her crew or suggesting that they were not giving 100% as well.  I did not see or hear her interview on Versus TV, but I heard what she said on the PA system and on the radio broadcast.  What I heard was her saying that she didn’t think that she, as the driver, was the problem and that the car itself was scary to drive.  I did not hear her say that it was her crew’s fault, though.  It just sounds like they together have not been able to find the right combination to get the car running fast.  To her credit, I believe that her qualifying laps were the fastest laps that she had turned all month, so that tells me that she was standing up in the seat and leaving all she had on the track.  Furthermore, the struggles across the board for Andretti Autosport this month certainly lend credence to the fact that there may be some deeper issues going on than just the drivers.  If two or three of the other AA drivers had qualified in the Fast 9 yesterday and Danica languished in 23rd spot, it would be easier to point the finger directly at her performance.  However, given that Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified a disappointing 16th and 17th respectively, John Andretti didn’t attempt to qualify, and Tony Kanaan  has now wadded up two cars, Danica’s claims that her lack of speed may not be driver-related could have some weight to them.  Could she have voiced her frustrations in other ways?  Absolutely, but I think her words have sadly been taken out of context, or at least misconstrued.  Danica’s a competitive driver.  She expects good results from herself and those around her.  She’s not getting them.  She’s frustrated.  She’s not the first athlete to express her frustration, and she won’t be the last.

Condensed Month of May schedule: I admit that I was disappointed that the Month of May has been pared down to the Two Weeks of May, but honestly, it hasn’t been a Month in many, many years.  Since I first started attending in 1988, the Indianapolis 500 has been competed over three weeks, save for 1998-2000 when the schedule was reduced to two weeks.  While I would like to see practice and qualifying continue to be competed over two weeks, the economy and the rules package currently in place in the IZOD IndyCar Series really leave no good reason for having multiple weeks of practice.  Team strategies and allocation of time have now become critical, forcing teams to not rely solely on qualifying or race setups.  Minutes, hours, and days become more critical and less of a friend to all of the teams trying to make the race and run it successfully.  From a fan standpoint, it is exciting that teams are running more laps each day and more actions is occurring on the track.  Those locally based fans that choose to shut down the live streaming online video and actually make it to the track are treated to more action on the track each day the track is open.  As Rick Mears told me recently, more action on the track will likely bring more people in, which creates better atmosphere, which brings even more people in.  Is this change going to help get 200,000 people back into the stands on Pole Day?  No, but with a bit more atmosphere and maybe some higher speeds, it might not be inconceivable to see 100,000 people there someday again. (Not next year, but someday…)

Fast 9 Shootout for the Pole: The general consensus seems to be that the shootout for the pole position was a success, and most people that I talked to say they enjoyed it.  In fact, while eating breakfast at my hotel this morning, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman who I could tell had been at the track yesterday and gauged his opinion on the day’s activities.  He mentioned that he had been coming to the track off and on over the past 15 years but that qualifying days over the past several years have been a bit lackluster, even with the previous 11/11/11 qualifying format.  The new shootout format, he said, encouraged him to hang around all day long because the pole-sitter would not be determined until the end of the day.  Of course, that shootout would have been even more exciting if Helio Castroneves hadn’t put down such a blistering time as the first qualifier, but sometimes things just happen that way.  Helio had earned the right to be first in line by virtue of having the fastest four-lap qualifying average during the first session of the day.

The format, in my opinion, still need some tweaking to really enjoy more drama, though.  Under the current rules, a driver may make up to three attempts during the 11-4 qualifying period to reach the top 9.  During that period, a driver’s previous time must be withdrawn prior to the second qualifying attempt commencing.  I still don’t like the fact that a car’s time can be withdrawn and then re-qualified, but at least there is a bit of risk involved in that situation.  However, in the shootout, the car does not have to be withdrawn prior to successive qualification attempts.  As we saw yesterday, there is absolutely no risk involved with running two, three, or four qualifying attempts in the final 90 minutes.  This, to me, is unacceptable.  Would we have seen Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti each run three qualification attempts in the shootout yesterday if they’d had to withdraw their previous time?  I don’t think so.  Is the allure of $175,000 and the prestige of starting on pole worth the risk of putting a car in the fence and starting in ninth?  Likely not.  From a show standpoint, I understand why it’s being done the way it is, but I still don’t like it.  Without wanting to sound too Robin Miller-ish, qualifying at Indianapolis used to be about conquering the pressure of making 16 perfect left-hand turns, any one of which could hamper your attempt.  Now, each turn and each lap carries less weight because if you screw it up, you simply withdraw your time and try again later.  There is much less pressure on the drivers now to stand up in the seat, find the edge, hold their breath, and dig down for more.  I guess I miss that aspect of the old days, but maybe I need to take my own advice and realize that this is the way it is now — accept it and move on.

Check back soon for more thoughts from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway here at Planet-IRL.com.

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