Changes to Indy qualifying have gone too far

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on May 16, 2014 10:30 am
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In an effort to bring more excitement and purpose back to both days of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, it appears the changes enacted by INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have gone too far, causing great confusion among drivers and fans and likely prohibiting either group from feeling any sense of drama.

There is no denying that Bump Day over the past 12 years has lost much of its luster and that most of the day is spent by qualified teams working on race-day setups.  Since Honda and Toyota came to INDYCAR in 2003, only a handful of times have there been more than 34 or 35 cars trying to find their way into the Field of 33.  When those years have come, the drama has been intense.  I vividly recall the qualifying runs of John Andretti and Pippa Mann over the years, where it looked like neither driver had the speed to qualify and both found the last couple of miles per hour on their final attempt.

In last year’s Bump Day, the main focus of the afternoon centered around the unrealistic hope that the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team would magically find 3-4 mph to get Michel Jourdain near the qualifying speed he would need to bump his way into the field.  In the end, he never came close and failed to even present himself for a qualification attempt, conceding the effort with nearly 30 minutes remaining before the final gun sounded.  INDYCAR and IMS knew they needed to do something to bring spark back to both days of time trials, and a plan was hatched to create excitement for both Saturday and Sunday.

The best solution, obviously, is to get more entries vying for the 33 positions.  There don’t need to be 40 entries to make qualifying exciting, though that would certainly do the trick.  In years when 36 or 37 cars were trying to get into the field, the drama on Sunday afternoon was always high.  Unfortunately, with budgets thin and engine manufacturers hesitant to field a greater number of entries, it appears unlikely that more than 34-35 cars will be trying to qualify in the next few years.

Instead, Indianapolis 500 Time Trials have been flipped around, and Pole Day, traditionally the first day of time trials, has been moved to the end of qualifying, theoretically giving fans a reason to stay until the end as the run for the pole position serves as the focal point of the escalating drama.

The efforts have been noble and the changes massive, but based on the general sense of fans and drivers, those changes seem to have gone too far.  When the most seasoned of fans and media, not to mention the drivers and team strategists, don’t truly understand the new qualifying format, what is to happen, and all the permutations of what could happen, it’s difficult to build any compelling drama.  How can people feel a sense of urgency or excitement when they don’t truly understand what they are witnessing?  It’s like watching a heartbreaking movie in a foreign language without subtitles.

While the old qualifying format wasn’t necessarily straightforward, it wasn’t terribly difficult to explain the gist of it.  In general, day 1 qualifiers lined up first with day 2 qualifying behind them.  Within each day, cars were ranked from fastest to slowest.  If any bumping was to be done, the slowest driver, regardless of which day he qualified, was removed from the field.  It was pretty much that simple.

As it currently appears to stand, all drivers must now qualify at least twice — once on Saturday to determine the fastest 33 cars and again on Sunday to set the order.  If only it was that simple, perhaps we could all understand what’s going on.  But it’s not.

In an effort to ensure that the biggest names of INDYCAR aren’t on the sidelines when the field takes the green flag next Sunday, a series of backup and alternate plans have been put into place to allow drivers to qualify on Sunday even without making an attempt on Saturday.  If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like that hated p-word, you’re exactly right.  The thought of having a provisional starting spot in the Indianapolis 500 sickens anyone who understands why the race is so great.  INDYCAR knows that, and as far as I’ve seen and heard that particular word hasn’t been uttered from any official mouth yet.  But fans understand what this procedure really is.

Rather than try to explain all the different scenarios of what could happen and how/why/when those procedures would take effect, I highly recommend the following video with Derrick Walker, the only person in the INDYCAR community who seems to actually have a full understanding of these new rules, as he breaks down everything that could happen.

This weekend will see the debut of these new rules, and to be fair, any massive rule change such as these will probably need a couple years to fully play out.  However, if people both inside and outside the ropes continue to be as confused about the new procedures as they are now, I won’t be surprised to see significant changes coming again in the near future.

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