Musings over the Indy 500
May 14, 2005
Yesterday was Pole Day at Indianapolis, or what passes for it in this year’s reconfigured qualifying format.
The Indy 500 has always had a unique qualifying system, but it has been consistent for many years. This year the whole format has been shaken up, with only the top 11 cars from yesterday’s session locked in. Previously, any driver/car combination that put in a time on the first day was locked into the position they qualified at until bumping began.
Today will set positions 12Ð22 on the grid for the May 29 running of the 500. Defending champion Buddy Rice will not have a shot at any of those 22 starting spots due to a concussion received in a testing crash earlier in the week. Rice will not be cleared to drive until next weekend, relegating him to 23rd starting spot at best.
Indy Racing League gadfly Robin Miller opined that the new qualifying format was designed to provide the illusion that Indy still had “bumping,” a phenomenon that has been sadly missing from final-day qualifying in recent years due to having barely enough car/driver combinations available to field a full 33 car field.
To insure that bumping happens, cars have been given up to three qualifying attempts per day (rather than three total), making 12 runs possible for a single car/driver combo (three per day). Too bad the IRL and Champ Car can’t get back together. If they did, we would likely see 45 cars attempting to qualify for the race, and real bumping making the final qualifying day the nail-biting drama of old.
Although Rice won’t have a chance at the pole, his two teammates on the Rahal-Letterman team both have a legitimate shot at it. Rookie Danica Patrick, at 23, the fastest woman ever to run at the Brickyard, was the fastest of all runners on Thursday, posting a lap of 227.633 miles per hour after turning a 226.944 for second-fast time on Wednesday. That’s more than five miles per hour faster than Rice’s pole speed of 222.064 from 2004.
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Of course, qualifying is based on a four-lap average, so we can expect something less than 227 for pole. As I said at the start, I’m writing this prior to the first-day qualifying, so watch somebody make a liar out of me!
Back to the qualifying format for this year’s race. As I mentioned, yesterday locked in the top 11 qualifiers, with bumping occurring after 11 cars qualified. Today, positions 12 through 22 are up for grabs, and after the 22nd spot has been filled, bumping will again be the topic of discussion among the broadcast team.
Next weekend, positions 23-33 will be filled, and once that happens bumping will again occur. On Sunday, May 22, we revert to the old qualifying format for official “Bump Day.” Any driver who runs faster than the slowest car in the field, regardless of what day that car qualified, will bump that car from the field. If you have any questions on this, please don’t bother me with them – send Tony George an e-mail, OK?
Another change to this year’s Indy is the track surface itself. The track has been re-paved and diamond-ground, providing a fresh, smooth racing surface. This fact alone may account for some of the phenomenal speeds that were seen in practice last week.
Another change is to move Carburetion Day to the Friday before the race instead of the traditional Thursday. This is intended to put more behinds into seats for Carb Day, since more people will probably make a weekend out of the race. Tradition would also explain why it’s called Carburetion Day, since Indy cars haven’t run carbureted engines for many years.
Finally, the start of the race has been moved back an hour. The green flag is scheduled to fly at noon rather than the traditional 11 a.m. start time. Unfortunately, this precludes participation by any of the NASCAR stars like Tony Stewart, John Andretti, and Robby Gordon, who in the past have done the “double” of Indy and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. If Tony George is trying to rebuild waning interest in his classic race, preventing NASCAR stars from running it isn’t the smartest marketing decision he could have made.