In preparation for the Indianapolis 500 next month, INDYCAR announced a new qualifying format to set the 33-car starting grid for the 98th Indianapolis 500 in May. The new format will feature three sessions across two days – May 17th and 18th.
INDYCAR announced that the changes were announced in an effort to increase entertainment value, fan attendance and TV viewership.
“These changes we believe ensure that fans will enjoy two days of exciting track action,” Mark Miles, CEO of INDYCAR, commented. “I think in the last many years, Saturday has been the day in qualifying, but there’s been an opportunity to add more compelling content on Sunday and that’s what we’re trying to do here.
“Saturday will determine who will get into the Indianapolis 500 race, and Sunday will determine where the cars who got into the race will start on the grid for the race itself. These two days will culminate, lead up to, the setting of the first three rows and the positions in the first three rows and who will start the race in the pole position.
“We think that makes for more compelling experiences at the track, and for television viewers all over the country we believe the same.”
The format is as follows:
• Saturday, May 17 (11 a.m.-5:50 p.m. ET)
o The fastest 33 cars compose the starting field (but not starting positions).
o All entries are guaranteed at least one four-lap attempt to qualify.
o The fastest nine entries advance to the Fast Nine Shootout.
• Sunday, May 18 (10:15 a.m.-1:30 p.m. ET)
o Saturday times are erased and entries 10-33 must complete another four-lap attempt to determine their starting position in order of the slowest to fastest from Saturday times.
• Fast Nine Shootout, Sunday, May 18 (2-2:45 p.m. ET)
o Each entry will receive one four-lap attempt in the order of the slowest to the fastest from Saturday times. Aggregate times will determine the Verizon P1 Award winner and top three rows.
INDYCAR added in their announcement that both days will include new points incentives to be announced at a later date. Practice sessions before time trials commence are scheduled for both days as well.
ABC has announced that they will televise qualifying as part of their extensive coverage of the race. The network will televise qualifications live from 4-6 p.m. (ET) Saturday, May 17, and 1-3 p.m. (ET) Sunday, May 18, in addition to the 200-lap race Sunday, May 25, marking its 50th consecutive year of coverage of the race. Additional hours of qualifying will be carried on ESPN3, ESPN’s multi-screen live sports network, with the full schedule to be announced at a later date.
The changes to the format go along with INDYCAR’s announcement earlier this year with adding the Grand Prix of Indianapolis to the schedule. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis will be ran on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course at the beginning of May, leading up to the Indianapolis 500 fesitivites.
“We couldn’t be more excited about the Grand Prix,” Miles commented. “It’s going to be so cool to show Graham and his fellow drivers off across the country that they race in different conditions, different tracks, different skill sets, what that’s all about, which I think is about the quality of IndyCar, the diversity of the challenge that the drivers confront, and a different feeling for the race at the Grand Prix.”
Mark Miles went on to say that the changes are part of the objectives that they are working towards for the 100th running of the event in two years. Part of the objective for that race will be for a new track record to be set during qualifying.
“We do believe that’s something we can do while increasing the safety of the drivers and it’s something that can be done gradually between now and 2016,” he commented. “As that happens, we believe that’s a really important storyline about IndyCar racing, particularly at IMS. These changes to the format where the entire qualifying weekend experience culminates with the setting of the pole we think it’s sort of like building a bigger stage for that drama as that story unfolds going forward.”
From a competitive standpoint, officials do not believe that the changes they’re making make qualifying for the race less of a challenge than it was before.
“It’s something that’s always difficult at Indianapolis, something that the teams work hard on trying to achieve,” Derrick Walker, the president of operations and competition for IndyCar, said. “I don’t think that will ever go away. There’s still a huge challenge in front of them. This different format is different, but I don’t think it lessens the challenge at all.”
Walker added that they are currently reviewing the schedule and will make sure to allow the right amount of allotted practice time prior to qualifying and after qualifying so teams can work in their race set-ups. He added that they are also working on additional ideas for the schedule in case weather is a factor.
Graham Rahal feels that the new format is intriguing and hopes that he is part of the top nine shootout – as any driver hopes they’ll be.
“As Mark said, the most important thing to realize here is we have to give our fans a better product both on TV and at track,” Rahal added. “As we know Sunday in the past has been a moot point. Now I think there’s going to be quite a bit of buildup Saturday, see who the 33 will be, then go into Sunday and wait till the very end to see who the pole winner is going to be.
“I’m pretty excited for the changes that are ahead. Of course, I am a traditionalist, but I’m always one that’s open for change as well. I’m looking forward to this month of May.”
Rahal added that he believes other drivers will be in supportive of the new qualifying format as well as they all understand that Miles and Walker are looking for ways to improve the racing product and increase the fan base.
“I think it’s been pretty stale in recent times so this will add a whole other element,” he continued. “For the teams, it’s going to be a nerve-wracking element. As Derrick said, when weather comes to Indy, it changes things completely. I can tell you the biggest sigh of a relief as a driver is when you got in on Saturday, and on Sunday you didn’t have to think about doing four more laps. Now we have to think about that all the time.
“I’m sure there’s going to be more tension, a bit more nerve-wracking for everybody involved. But that’s what it’s all about. That’s why these drivers and teams are the best in the world. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a new challenge. I’ve done May where I’ve had to qualify at least twice, three times before, so I think for me, fortunately or unfortunately I have experienced that. But now it’s a whole different thing because it’s going to count for so much.”