The Indy Racing League has placed a new qualifying format in effect for the 89th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race that it believes will generate added interest in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, set this year for May 29th.
MBNA Pole Day is set for this Saturday, May 14th. Contrary to prior years, only the fastest eleven cars will be set after the first day of time trials. Once those spots are full, bumping will ensue for the balance of the six-hour qualifying schedule in order to determine MBNA Pole and the balance of the fastest 11 qualifiers for that day.
"We're trying to increase excitement and drama here at Indy," declared Brian Barnhart, president and CEO of the Indy Racing League. "At the end of Pole Day there will be 11 cars in the field. This carries over the traditions that have existed for a long time as each car will have three attempts per day," only this time for both primary and T cars.
Cars can either be withdrawn or bumped when faster combinations complete their four-lap, ten-mile runs. "Theoretically," Barnhart explained, "there could be 12 attempts per chassis and we believe this will extend the life of the equipment as we return to the tradition of four days of qualifying."
The new structure in place gives team owners more scenarios to work with. "We're still trying to absorb the format and we've been talking about it a lot" as qualifying gets closer, said Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. "A lot can happen during qualifying and probably the thing we must be most careful about is tire use.
"We get 35 sets of Firestone Firehawks per car for the entire month," Hull continued. "Tire use could be an issue. After all if you don't qualify the first day you have to start the process all over again and realistically, for race day you want to have 12 sets available to support the event.
"With the current tire allotment, you've got to peak and the right time and not screw up your chances on race day," Hull contended. Hull's entries for veterans Scott Dixon and Darren Manning have been augmented by a third car for rookie Ryan Briscoe. "We have one driver who's never been here so we'll make attempts" for Briscoe from the start.
With the new rules, on the second day of time trials positions 12-22 will be filled while, on the third day positions 24-33 get locked in. On the final day of qualifying May 22nd, standard bumping will ensue and any qualifying attempt that is faster than a qualified entrant in the 33-car field will bump the slowest qualifier from that field, regardless of the original day of qualification.
The "bumped" entrant will be removed from the field of 11 rows of three and the remaining field will move ahead one slot in the starting field with the newly-qualified entrant in P33 - or a higher position if faster than the other fourth-day qualifiers, according to League rules for this race.
Drivers will have added pressure with the new format, according to Super Aguri Fernandez Racing, Delphi Fernandez Racing and Investment Properties of America/Mo Nunn Fernandez Racing co-owner/managing director Tom Anderson. "Weather and the 6PM gun [that signals the end of the six-hour qualifying stipend] make strange things happen at this place."
"I think the big thing is that nobody wants to be 23rd on Sunday night so that will make P22 very, very important," Anderson said. "On the first day, if a driver qualifies second and thinks there might be a better four-lap average in the car than what stands as Pole, then it might be the right time to re-qualify."
"There are so many variables to qualifying," noted Tim Cindric, president of Marlboro Team Penske. "We've got to focus on the Pole run and deal with strategies and how they play out. Weather has a lot to do with what we'll do and we have to figure what's realistic," Cindric explained.
"Do we go for Pole or the elite 11 on Saturday," Cindric queried? "I think Friday night into Saturday morning we'll discuss different scenarios, as to whether we withdraw an early qualified car [for Sam Hornish Jr. and/or Helio Castroneves] and go later in the day." The kings of strategy should prevail, Cindric believes.
Even technical inspection rules are changed for this race's four days of qualifying. Cars that qualify between noon each day and 4:45PM will pull into the photo area and then return to the garages for technical inspection as they always have, Barnhart stated. There's usually "a 55-70-minute lag to have the car available again.
"From 4:45-6PM those cars that qualify will stop at the start/finish line and be impounded. "That area will be a 'no-touch zone' if the car is among the top-11 fastest it will stay there until the 6PM gun; if the car is bumped it can return to the line," according to Barnhart.
Teams can sign a withdrawal sheet if they anticipate a bump and immediately get back in line, Barnhart explained. "Once in impound car owners have multiple choices" under the new format. "At 6PM the cars will in impound will go for their photos and straight to tech."
Wave-offs are still permitted and will use up a qualifying attempt as they always have each day but this time the wave-offs are for a single day, not for the entire qualifying meeting.
"When a car has been withdrawn for re-qualifying," Barnhart stated, "either from the impound corral or the head of the line, we will make an immediate PA announcement and the timing and scoring monitors will be revised to immediately remove the car from the list of qualified entries."
"The top 11 will sure sleep better this Saturday night as most Indy winners come from the first three row," Cindric said. "Qualifying on Saturday will allow teams to use Sunday [and the following weekend] as preparation days instead of having to qualify."
Hull concurred: "The first three rows are important here as is pit selection," making a successful first-day attempt necessary for teams such as his, Cindric's and the three-car assortment from Anderson's garage: Kosuke Matsuura, Scott Sharp and team co-owner/driver Adrian Fernandez.
Once qualified, Anderson explained it takes only about two-three hours to change to race trim for further preparations. "It's a fairly easy transition."
Barnhart isn't concerned about the possibility of having no cars to bump on the fourth day of time trials. "We think this format creates a scenario for more cars to be used. I think you'll see final weekend deals come into play because these rules make it easier for people to make deals."
There's always the possibility that 11 cars might not qualify the first day, due to weather concerns or time constraints, even with a full six hours allocated to time trials. "We've taken that into consideration," Barnhart declared. "If 11 cars have not qualified the first day, whatever spots are not filled with carry over to the next day, and so on."
Practice for the stress-filled qualifying weekends that begins this Saturday, May 14th continues today and on Fast Friday, the 13th. With clearing skies this morning, it appears the storm fronts that inundated central Indiana may have dissipated and a full day of practice will ensue.