Harris: Indy 500 Adapts To Times

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 3 2010
Cars will roll down Gasoline Alley to get to practice at Indy a little less often this year. (File photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

Cars will roll down Gasoline Alley to get to practice at Indy a little less often this year. (File photo courtesy of the Indy Racing League)

Tradition can be a wonderful thing. But not always.

It has taken officials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a long time to figure out that less can be more.

True, for many of the 93 years that the Indianapolis 500 has been run, the month-long schedule every year in May was the right way to go – a celebration of the speedway and the biggest race in the world.

But, in recent years, the 500 has been only a shadow of its former self. Until two years ago, the NASCAR race – a relatively recent addition at the famed Brickyard – outdrew the 500.

As the Memorial Day weekend race lost some of its luster and a chunk of what used to be crowds of 100,000 on pole day and more than 400,000 on race day, the elongated schedule continued.

It’s been decades now since it was the “Month of May at Indy,’’ with cars on the track every day for virtually the entire month. Changes have been made, traditions have been altered, but the schedule still kept teams and officials at the speedway for three long weeks almost every spring.

In 1970, when I first came to the sprawling track on the west side of Indianapolis, every day in May was like a holiday. School buses would line the infield parking lots, with entire classes of kiddies walking the grounds, watching the cars roar past and eating picnic lunches or buying elephant ears and corn dogs from the concession stands.

Guys in t-shirts and shorts would rub elbows in the vast grandstands with men in suits, playing hooky from their jobs to enjoy the atmosphere of speed and the smell of methanol.

It seemed as if there was a special dinner or gala ball every night throughout the month as the entire community took part in the 500 celebration. There was a very visible civic pride in the event.

In the ’90s, that scene began to change dramatically. People found other things to keep them busy in May. The kids mostly stayed in class and the businessmen kept their noses to the grindstone. The speedway grandstands stayed mostly empty until race day and there were fewer and fewer special events in the evenings.

But speedway officials dragged their feet. They shortened the time the cars were on track each day, closed the oval early in the week and changed the qualifying procedure, but everyone was still obligated to stick around for three full weeks.

Traditionalists were stunned when the speedway did shorten the schedule to two weeks from 1998 through 2000, but tradition returned when the track and the Indy Racing League decided that schedule was too limited.

Now, thanks to cost-cutting measures necessitated by the ongoing economic crunch, that two-week schedule is back – and welcome.

It was announced late last year that the speedway will open May 15 for rookie practice – a week later than usual. IndyCar teams will practice each day from May 17-21, with qualifying for the 33-car field limited to two days, May 22-23.

The 94th Indy 500 is scheduled May 30.

“I commend Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar Series officials for this change to the month of May schedule,” said Roger Penske, whose team has won a record 15 500s. “It will reduce costs for teams on several fronts and provide continuous activity as we build momentum from opening day through race weekend.’’

While the change will be good for the big teams, like Penske’s, it will be even better for the smaller teams with considerably smaller budgets.

The only remaining question is how cutting qualifying from four days to two will work? The new format will not be announced until after the first of the year, but Brian Barnhart, president of competition and racing operations for the IRL, is optimistic that it will enhance the show.

“By setting the 33-car grid on one weekend, there’s no room for mistakes by the teams and drivers,’’ he said. “The pressure will be on to deliver over the 10 miles, regardless of the weather and track conditions.’’

And, of course, Barnhart’s confidence is buoyed by the fact that Monday and Tuesday of race week – usually inactive days on track – are there as rain days, just in case.

For years, I’ve heard people ask, “If they can run every other race in two or three days, why do you need three weeks to run Indy?’’

Well, the resurgent Indy 500 still deserves more than three days. And it appears this is a schedule whose time has come.

It will be better for the teams, drivers, officials and, best of all, the fans who attend practice and qualifying and likely get to see action on track all day long.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 3 2010