Mark Wilkinson's thoughts on the new Indy 500 qualifying format.
Sorry for the turgid prose of the title. A kernal of truth is in there, but really, “a new day is dawning”? And I have the gall to write that after a week of rain delayed practice. I have no shame. What I do have, though, is a good feeling about how the new Time Trials format at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to play out. So what if it is hard to understand. The old formats required a little thought, too.
First a word about Time Trials. I’m going old-school here and calling this weekend’s activities Time Trials instead of qualifications. It adds an aura of authenticity and tradition to a month that has recently been described as ignoring it altogether. Maybe if IMS will dress up the weekend with this moniker, it will help disguise the disgust that some people feel about it. My mom always told me to wear clean underwear in case I was in a wreck. There may be a corollary here. Or not.
The points earned this weekend make Time Trials worth another race to the drivers. A driver can win points equal to a race, and more, by simply driving fast. No passing, no pit stops, no fuel mileage calls – just raw speed and iron balls. That by definition is compelling on TV or at the track. That is a reason to get after it. I don’t think the regulars in the Verizon IndyCar Series are going to want any one-off teams to out-qualifying them. Expect competition, not complacency.
Even though Time Trials have been condensed into one weekend, most of the available track time on Saturday and Sunday in recent years has been taken up by practice. An aficionado of open wheel might not mind this, but the casual fan, and more importantly ABC, find it less than entertaining. So IMS squeezed the qualifying times into neat little TV windows to interest the fans and appease the network. And it is about time. Now everyone knows exactly when the Fast Nine are going to be on TV. Will more people watch? A few. Will more people know about it? Definitely. It’s just one more baby step on the 500′s march to greater relevance. And as the 500 becomes more relevant, so to will the series. Hopefully.
The fact is that Bump Day, for all the angst about its demise, just hasn’t been that good, except for the last 30 minutes or so, for a long time. As fans, we always seem to want what we don’t have. The last minute jumping into cars has been gone for over a decade. The lines of cars waiting to take a last shot at making the field had dwindled to a mere handful. We no longer have the cars or motors to ever bring it back.
Will the new format be the vehicle to drive the race to new viewers? Who knows? What I do know is that the 33 men and women who take the green flag in qualifying attempts this weekend will risk lives, equipment, and reputations for a chance to be one of the 33 on the grid for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 on May 25. Isn’t that enough?