Indy 500 Climbs Aboard Gimmick Bandwagon

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 8 2014

Good-bye Pole Day. Qualifying at this year's Indy 500 will be more about TV and less about tradition. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

INDYCAR fell into lockstep with the gimmick-it-up-for-TV crowd of sanctioning bodies Friday, unveiling a new qualifying format to set the 33-car starting field for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Qualifying will feature three sessions of time trials over two days, with the expressed intent of “increasing entertainment value, fan attendance and TV viewership” for the May 17-18 weekend.

“There is an enormous amount of talent in the field this year, which so far includes five former Indianapolis 500 champions,” said Derrick Walker, INDYCAR president of competition and operations. “The new format presents an additional challenge to drivers who have one chance to make the field on Saturday, and start over again on Sunday to determine their starting position.”

The revised format around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

Saturday, May 17 (11 a.m.-5:50 p.m. ET)

_ The fastest 33 cars will compose the starting field (but not starting positions).

_ All entries are guaranteed at least one four-lap attempt to qualify.

_ The fastest nine entries will advance to the Fast Nine Shootout.

Sunday, May 18 (10:15 a.m.-1:30 p.m. ET)

_ Saturday times will be 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 (2-2:45 p.m. ET)

_ 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.

Qualifying results on Saturday and Sunday will include new points incentives to be announced at a later date. Practice sessions before time trials commence are scheduled both days.

“These changes, we believe, ensure that fans will enjoy two days of exciting track action,” Mark Miles, CEO, Hulman Motorsports, said during a teleconference from Indianapolis. “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. ABC is going to cover all three weekends. They will cover live at least a couple of hours of both Saturday and Sunday. Their live coverage on Sunday will culminate with the setting of the pole. We think that’s putting our best action forward on qualifying weekend.

“Lastly, this is sort of an ‘out-there’ point. Derrick and we are working on the objective by the 100th running of the race of setting the new track record. 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.”

Two-time Indy 500 champion Arie Luyendyk holds the one-and four-lap qualifying records, both set on May 12, 1996. Driving a 1995 Cosworth XB-powered Reynard, Luyendyk clicked off a single lap in 37.895-seconds/237.498 mph and four-lap run in 2 minutes, 31.908-seconds/236.986 mph as a second-day qualifier.

“We believe that’s a really important storyline about IndyCar racing, particularly at IMS,” Miles said.”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.“

ABC will televise qualifications for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” live from 4-6 p.m. (ET) on May 17 and 1-3 p.m. (ET) on May 18, in addition to the 200-lap race Sunday, May 25, marking the network’s 50th consecutive telecast. 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.

“ABC’s broadcast is a big deal,” Miles said. “They’ll do that well. It will be supplemented by ESPN3 coverage so that our most astute fans can watch more hours over the weekend. We don’t lose that. I think we’re giving ABC and the television viewer a more dramatic show to watch as well.”

Walker said INDYCAR officials are working on a schedule that will make track time available for teams focusing on setups that typically are affected by changes in the Midwest’s late spring weather.

“We realize that’s a very important part. We’re reviewing the final schedule,” Walker said. “In terms of allowing or helping any teams trying to get in the show, we’re going to do our best to make sure there’s available time for every competitor, and every competitor gets an equal attempt to get in the race.

“Obviously, the one variable is the weather. We have contingency plans should certain parts of the weekend shorten our day. We eventually end up with a successful 33 best cars.

“As for the number in the starting field, I think there’s enough interest out there from the teams. I don’t see that as being an issue at this point. There’s still plenty of good drivers and cars and plans afoot that I think we’re going to be OK there.”

NASCAR introduced “knockout qualifying” for its various track layouts prior to the start of the 2014 schedule, a format that has proven popular in Formula One for several seasons. And now this bow to almighty TV from the gatekeepers of what one media wag once described as “The Biggest Spectacle in Greatness.”

INDYCAR’s Fast Nine Shootout was introduced in 2010 as part of time trials. Ed Carpenter claimed the pole last May with a four-lap average speed of 228.762 mph, becoming the first team-owner/driver since 1975 to earn the coveted No. 1 starting position.

“You have to take big risks when you’re taking a run at the pole or trying to get into the Shootout,” said Carpenter, who recorded a fast lap of 229.347 mph in his Dallara/Chevrolet. “We’re always at the limit of what our cars have and never moreso than qualifying at Indianapolis. It’s definitely one of the hardest things we do all year long, if not the hardest.”

Graham Rahal, who drives for the IndyCar Series team fielded by 1986 Indy 500 champion and father Bobby Rahal, said the revised format will not change his approach to qualifying.

“For us, many times as drivers, we would all tell you we’ve been eager to go out and run more than once,” said Rahal, who qualified 26th at IMS last May in his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Dallara/Honda. “It’s always the team-owners and managers that never want us to risk it.

“I think the new format is definitely intriguing. We’re going to be at least out there two times. For us hoping, of course, we’re in the top nine and we get to go to the Shootout at the end of the day.

“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 the track. 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 until the very end to see who the pole-winner is going to be.

“I’m pretty excited for the changes that are ahead. 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.”

Eighteen drivers have won the historic race from pole position, most recently Helio Castroneves of Team Penske in 2009. Rick Mears, who earned the pole six times at IMS for Team Penske, won three of his four races from P1.

A four-time Indy 500 pole-sitter, Castroneves will attempt to join Mears, A.J. Foyt Jr. and Al Unser as the only four-time winners of the race. Tony Kanaan, who won the 97th Indianapolis 500 after starting 12th, will attempt to successfully defend his title as newest member of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Mears (1979, 1981) and Johnny Rutherford (1980) combined for the lone three-year stretches during which the pole-sitter won the race.

Beginning today through April 15, fans may purchase a qualifying ticket package for May 17-18 for $30; single-day tickets are available at $20.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 8 2014
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