Anne Proffit gives her thoughts on IndyCar's new qualifying rules.
INDYCAR instituted a new qualifying system for the Indianapolis 500. This year, the Verizon IndyCar Series moved qualifying to two days with Pole Day on Sunday, rather than Saturday, as it’s always been. Purists, of course, bleated their objections before the procedure took place, never wanting to see an ending to cherished traditions. But with 33 cars vying for 33 positions for the Memorial Day classic, Sunday’s “Bump Day” just hadn’t been what it once was when technology reigned supreme at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Maybe that’s why there are only 33 cars at IMS; maybe it’s the economy or maybe Indy car racing has simply gone out of vogue. I hope it’s not the latter, as this series is a supreme test of drivers and their machinery, as it travels to super speedways like the Triple Crown of Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana, short ovals, road courses and street tracks. No other racing series performs at all of these types of venues, to the best of my knowledge.
Saturday at Indy was used, in 2014, to discern who the quickest - and slowest - drivers were. Sunday set their positions in the 500-mile race. The fastest nine drivers had a shootout to determine the pole sitter for the 200-lap race around this 2.5-mile oval; it was the final piece of the puzzle on Sunday afternoon, taking place at 2-2:45PM with the slowest of the nine going first and Saturday’s quickest driver, 2013 pole man Ed Carpenter, last up to the plate.
Before this occurred, the balance of the field had one last opportunity to show how quick they were. While on Saturday, teams and drivers could take three chances to show their speed - or more, if they withdrew their car’s speed and ran again - there was only one chance on Sunday. That made for big gainers and big losers amongst the group, with the biggest gainers from Saturday to Sunday being Oriol Servia, rookie Carlos Huertas, former pole man Alex Tagliani, four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais and last year’s winner of the Indy 500 Tony Kanaan.
Those whose Saturday times were far better included Ryan Briscoe, rookie Sage Karam, 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Charlie Kimball and Sebastian Saavedra. Obviously, they and their teams just didn’t get it right from one day to the next, as conditions changed tremendously - temps were easily 15-20 degrees warmer on Sunday. Nine drivers stayed as they were, including Carpenter who earned his second consecutive Indy 500 pole.
Saturday’s jockeying for position was exciting to watch, while Sunday’s single runs were, to me, anti-climactic. True, it was tension-filled to see whether Carpenter would be able to top Canadian James Hinchcliffe’s speed - or even to eclipse 10th-placed Juan Pablo Montoya’s fast four-lap average. In the end, he did, and those of us that chomp on our nails had plenty to bite about. The last time a pole holder’s speed was slower than another competitor’s came in 2005, when Kenny Brack (subbing for 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice) was faster than Tony Kanaan, who had earned his pole position the day before.
I tend to agree with Carpenter, who thinks Pole Day should be a singular event, not spread over two days. While TV ratings on ABC were pretty good, fans voted with their wallets - yet again - and stayed away. There was plenty of excitement but they didn’t want to spend money to see it.
And then INDYCAR decreed a final day of practice the day after Pole Day, on Monday. Don’t they realize the mechanics, who have been working here at IMS since Wednesday a week prior (for the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis road race and into the Indy 500) are too tired? They’ve got to prepare cars for the race on Sunday and then for next weekend’s Duals at Detroit pair of road races, and then for Texas and so on and so on and so on. Heck, even the media are burnt out and there’s still a race on Sunday!
Monday’s practice nearly went off without a hitch - but Indy “rookie” Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR champion, made a true rookie error while running in traffic. He admitted he lost his concentration and let the car get away from him. Busch whacked the Turn 2 SAFER barrier and ruined his car. Fortunately for him, even though his Andretti Autosport team will have to go to a backup for the 500, Busch gets to keep his starting spot - another change that has old-timers scratching their heads - again.
There’s another short practice session scheduled for Friday’s Carb Day and then it’s on to the 500-mile race Sunday morning. The field is tight - and fast, the fastest in history with an average of 229.382 mph and tightest from first to 33rd at a gap of 2.1509 seconds - and that bodes well for another fascinating Indianapolis 500.
But should Indy keep its current 2-day qualifying as a lead-up to The Greatest Spectacle in Racing? I’m not a traditionalist, per se, but it sure was strange on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to have only the two-seaters ferrying paying passengers around the oval between 3-6PM when the Indy cars could have been using that time for practice.