IMS 2013: Paul’s qualifying weekend thoughts

IndyCar — By on May 20, 2013 1:00 pm
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Qualifying for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 has come and gone, and a native Hoosier will be leading the field to the green flag next Sunday.

Taking on the entire armada of Andretti Autosport and Team Penske, Carpenter went out fifth in the Fast 9 shootout and had to withstand qualification attempts by Helio Castroneves, Carlos Muñoz, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Will Power before his spot atop the pylon was assured.  In doing so, Carpenter became the first Indianapolis native since Pat O’Connor in 1957 to earn the pole position.

One of the most pleasing aspects of Carpenter’s great performance was the genuine outpouring of support from both fans and the INDYCAR community.  Within moments of confirmation that Will Power would not be able to knock Carpenter from his perch, reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay pushed his way through the celebratory crowd to congratulate Ed.  Tweets and other message flowed in throughout the evening showing just how popular Ed is.  Everyone knows how hard Ed has worked to build this team from the ground up, and with folks like Derrick Walker, Matt Barnes, Tim Broyles, and so many more, Ed Carpenter Racing has established itself as one of the great oval racing teams in the paddock.

On the other side of the fence, Carpenter seemed to be far and away the fan favorite and drew massive applause when his run was completed.  Few drivers spend more time throughout the year engaging with fans at various off-track functions, and those efforts have endeared him to a great number of people who supported him on Saturday.  Whenever INDYCAR has a fan function, be it the Winter Indy Tweetup, INDYCAR night at the Pacers, the Indy Family Foundation event on Main Street, or any other local event, Ed is almost always in attendance.  With his everyday-guy persona and a family that seems like your friends down the street, Carpenter has been able to make fans relate to him on a personal level.  Gone are the days when people chided him for only having a ride because he is Tony George’s stepson.  Ed has proven his value and skill time and time again as one of the premiere oval racers in INDYCAR and now stands in the elite class of drivers who is considered a favorite at every oval race on the calendar.

Of course, for every celebration of success at Indianapolis, there are half a dozen stories of heartache and disappointment.  This year, the pain was felt by Michel Jourdain, Jr. and his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team.  From the outset of practice Jourdain struggled to find speed in his car, and by the time teammate Graham Rahal tested the car on Sunday afternoon it was too late to find the gremlins that kept the car from reaching its full potential.  Though the team replaced nearly every part that could be replaced, the chassis failed to respond and Jourdain was left out of the field of 33.  It is the cruel aspect of Indianapolis that has made even qualifying for the event a special achievement for generations of drivers.  The very best of the very best have at times been left to watch the race from the sidelines.  It’s a pain that team owner Bobby Rahal knows all too well, having been bumped from the field as the defending National Champion in 1993.

I would be somewhat remiss in not at least commenting on the overall lack of drama on Bump Day, given that Jourdain was really never even close to having the speed and never actually presented to make a qualification attempt.  Once the field was filled shortly after 1:00, the rest of the day was spent with qualified cars turning a massive number of race-simulation practice laps.  It was the second consecutive year that the event saw no bumping after gut-wrenching Bump Days in 2010 and 2011.  Obviously the drama (and of course the disappointment) is increased when more cars are involved, and most of the drama was zapped from the day.  Gone are the days of 40-45 cars showing up to battle for the 33 positions, but even with as few as 35 or 36 entrants the drama is increased exponentially — as was demonstrated in 2011 when the likes of Paul Tracy, Jay Howard, Sebastian Saavedra, and others battled for the last couple of spots.

INDYCAR and its partners need to take a serious look at what can be done to reduce the cost of entry into the Indianapolis 500 and how more players can be involved.  Because sponsorship is incredibly difficult to secure in these times, there seems to be a prevailing theory that adding cars beyond the first 33 is bad as a bumped car could lead to a jaded sponsor and make future fundraising efforts even more difficult.  If the cost to play can somehow be reduced and the return on making the race simultaneously increased, then the pool of entrants becomes much larger and suddenly getting to 36 or 37 car/driver combinations becomes a less daunting task.  The Indianapolis 500 is going to have 33 cars starting for the foreseeable future regardless of what the prognosticators will write each and every March.  Getting more entrants vying for those 33 spots is the best was to rejuvenate Bump Day and add drama back into the mix.

The lack of drama on Bump Day though, in the grand scheme of the weekend, was overshadowed by the great drama on Pole Day.  (Warning: if you know much about me, you might want to sit down in preparation for what is to come.)  Saying that, it might be time to admit that perhaps this goofy, gimmicky shoot-out thing isn’t necessarily such a bad thing after all.  As a matter of fact, I’ve actually come to enjoy it over the past couple of years and think perhaps it might even be better than the old qualifying system.

Now, before my good friend George Phillips of Oilpressure.com completely disowns me and pens a 4,000-word treatise on how change is bad, let me rationalize my thoughts here (kind of) briefly.

Prior to the Fast 9 shootout, Pole Day seemed to have a greater quantity of drama from drivers trying to eclipse the track record than it did from guys actually trying to beat each other off of the pole position.  More times than not, there were three or four drivers who had a serious, legitimate shot at winning the pole position, and those drivers would be scattered throughout the qualifying line.  The tension would build until one of those drivers attempted his run, and then the drama was past until the next guy had his turn.  Once those guys were done, the drama was done.  There was little to entertain fans for the balance of the day as teams were previously not allowed to requalify the car once a time was accepted.  (Yes, I know Scott Brayton and Team Menard withdrew their car in 1995 to make a great run at the pole, but one example in 80 races [to that point] does not a trend make.)

Under the new format, drama is present throughout the day as one set of drivers is vying to secure a spot in the Fast 9 while another set of drivers is trying to lock themselves into the top 24 as a first-day qualifier.  Once the top 24 are set, the Fast 9 shootout puts all of the fastest guys with a shot at the pole against each other in non-stop action for 90 minutes.  Is it a bit gimmicky?  Yes, it admittedly is, but having watched the scene play out firsthand over the last three years and seeing the tension and elation of Sam Schmidt Motorsport, Team Penske, and now Ed Carpenter Racing when they realize they have bested the strongest punches to earn the #1 qualifying position, accepting a bit of gimmick seems like a fair trade-off for this type of drama.

I do still have a problem with only allowing 24 qualifiers on the first day, but I suppose there is a bit of merit there.  Nonetheless, it seems that this format is working in drawing some fans back to time trial days at the track.  While we will never again see 200,000 people, this year’s crowd was certainly respectable and seemed larger than last year, which seemed to be larger than the year before that.  Given the late-morning rain that pushed qualifications back a few hours, that says a lot.  With the changing entertainment landscape, forcing fans to find interest in whatever they are presented with is no longer an option.  The track must present its product in such a way that fans can easily digest and embrace it, and the shootout does just that.  The buzz has been fantastic and swells palpably with each car that heads onto the track.  Just imagine if the shootout format included the possibility of record-breaking speeds…!

And now that I’ve thrown away my “traditionalist card,” allow me to throw this suggestion out as well: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway seriously needs to revisit the idea of extending track hours to 7:00.  Since the State of Indiana (finally) adopted daylight saving time several years ago, the idea has been floated on numerous occasions but was always ultimately rejected by IMS because they are leery of disrupting the locals within the Town of Speedway that late into the evening.  Let’s be honest, though: On any given practice day, allowing the crowd to hang around until 7:00 is not going to significantly disturb anybody.  Crowds on most practice days likely number well less than 10,000, and even if they all left at once the disruption to the community would be minute.  Even if IMS chose to maintain the standard 6:00 pm closing time for practice, extending the hours for Pole Day should be a given.  Faster speeds on the cooling track can only serve to excite the crowd even more, increase the drama, and give the day a bit more of a big-time feel.  I honestly cannot see any drawbacks to this scenario.

(Now, if you’ll excuse me briefly, I must grovel at the feet of Donald Davidson and beg his forgiveness in accepting such a tawdry and goofy qualifying procedure!)

Not surprisingly, the on-track speeds of this weekend confirmed what had been suspected all week long: Chevrolet once again mopped the floor with Honda and left them too far behind to even suck on Chevy’s exhaust fumes.  In what was a dominating display of power from Chevrolet, Bowtie teams secured all nine of the Fast 9 positions and relegated Alex Tagliani, the fastest of the Honda entries, to 11th starting position, good for the middle of the fourth row.  Last year’s practice and qualifying sessions saw similar trends, but of course Honda came back strong on Carb Day and Race Day to take the biggest prize of the month.  I would be shocked beyond belief if Chevrolet was caught napping again this year.  I look for Honda-powered teams to have a long day this Sunday, and if any of those driversbrings home a top-five finish it will likely have to be considered a successful day.

What we don’t know to this point is how the Hondas and Chevys compared with fuel mileage.  There has been little indication throughout the first four races of the IZOD IndyCar Series season that Honda has an advantage in that regard and definitely no sign that makes up for its teams lack of power through the first week of this event.

One final note to leave you with and something that has become abundantly apparent over the past year: Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka is the best, most activated sponsor that INDYCAR has had since the glory days of Marlboro in the 1990s.  No matter what track the series visits, Fuzzy’s has a prominent display of signage, massive vehicles throughout the grounds, and people representing their brand everywhere.  The brand is also the Official Vodka of INDYCAR and the title sponsor the the Fuzzy’s Triple Crown.  If a handful more of the INDYCAR teams could get sponsor activation like Fuzzy’s, the entire Series would see amazing things happen and exposure would blossom exponentially.

More Front Wing will be continuing its coverage of the 97th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing with Miller Lite Carb Day on Friday before the running of the great race on Sunday.  In the meantime, stay tuned for our podcast this week as we recap all of the action from a busy qualifying weekend and preview next weekend’s Indianapolis 500.

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