Indy 500 Qualifications… Change is Good!

This past weekend has been all about qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, so what a better way to wrap up an exciting weekend then with a quick history lesson on the 500 time trials. I can first say that I was pleasantly surprised with the new format. Even with just 33 cars qualifying for the 500 there was still great energy and drama created that provided great entertainment for INDYCAR fans, and am hoping it brought some fans in on the ESPN 3 and ABC broadcasts. Read more about this years qualifications and some history of the Indy 500’s qualifications after the break.

As we already know, Ed Carpenter has won is second consecutive pole position this year making him the 18th driver to ever earn the pole position more than one time. Ed also joins another exclusive group of drivers, the consecutive pole winners club. There have been ten drivers that have qualified first in Indianapolis, with Helio Castroneves being the most recent in 2009-2010. Ed also has a chance to do something that no driver has ever accomplished in the 98 qualifying sessions to date, which is to qualify on the pole three consecutive times. Another interesting note from this years qualifying session: Juan Pablo Montoya will be credited with the 2nd fastest four lap average, but unfortunately since he did not make the “Fast Nine,” he will be starting tenth. This does not mark the first time this has happened. The history of a faster qualifer not sitting on the pole dates all the way back to 1912 (there was no full lap qualifying in 1911). Gil Anderson sat on the pole even though David Bruce-Brown was the fastest qualifier. This was because the grid was arranged by the order that the car entries were received. This situation has occurred many more times over the years, most recently Helio Castroneves sat on the pole in 2007, but was out paced by Kenny Brack officially.

Like most people I am not a huge fan of change, and I had great concern about changing the qualifying format yet again this year. Little did I know that the qualifying format for the 500 has changed numerous times throughout the years! My reactions to the many different formats ranged from “what were they thinking?!” to “well, that really makes sense!” So I have included a small history lesson/overview of how the qualifying procedures have changed over the past century…

From 1911 to 1914, the qualifying format was quite rudimentary. The grid order was simply determined by whose entry was received first by mail… now if you can imagine several people (primarily foreign whose mail took forever to send over) were not to thrilled about this method prompting a revision.

From 1915-1919, the grid was set by a drivers one-lap speed. The one lap qualifying sessions turned into the familiar 4 lap averages that we are used to now, but from 1932 to 1938 the sessions were 10 lap averages. This chaotic method of change in qualifying procedures came to an end when process became more standardized in 1952. This is when the four day (two weekend) format came to be. It was recognized that the first day would be for Pole Day and the last day Bump Day. This was more or less common procedure until 1998. At this point it seems like things have changed every couple of years since.

From 1998 to 2000 a two-week “month of May” concept was introduced. This two-week schedule got rid of the middle two qualifying days and made for just one qualifying weekend, with Pole Day on Saturday and Bump Day on Sunday. This was done for the decreasing crowd attendance on the middle qualifying days and to reduce costs to teams. From 2001-2004 the format was changed again, this time to a three day qualifying format. This put the extra weekend back into the mix with the first two days of qualifying two weeks before the race and the third day on the Sunday before.

Much like old times, the qualifying format reverted back to four days from 2005-2009. Even though the number of days stayed the same, the method that drivers earned their starting positions changed. During this time span, the 11/11/11 method was adopted. In this method, the first day of qualifying consisted of positions 1-11 being filled, with anyone slower than P11 being bumped. The second day of qualifying was for spots 12-22, with anyone slower than P22 being bumped. The third day filled positions 23-33, with the first official bumping occurring. Finally the fourth day was bump day, where bumping began immediately. Drivers could bump the slowed car out of the field, but would be placed on the last spot, regardless of how their time compared to the rest of the field. Like all the qualifying procedures before it, this one was scrapped too. 2010-2014 the procedure has changed greatly, with the number of qualifying days being reduced to just two and the Fast Nine being added. A detailed description of this years qualifying procedures can be found HERE.

As you have read, the qualifying procedures have varied greatly over the past century, with I’m sure many more changes to come. Like I said earlier, this new qualifying method really surprised me this year. I had originally thought that Saturday would be a complete bust. I figured that drivers would simply go out to put a time down and be done with it, but instead the Fast Nine cutoff became its own little Bump Day since there wasn’t more than 33 cars to do some real bumping. I for one, look forward to seeing this qualifying method continue on to next year, I feel like it is great for TV, great for the fans, and good opportunity for drivers/teams to earn points. It seems to me that the motivation is there from all sides and that can only lead to improvement of the Indianapolis 500 qualification days and the sport as a whole.

– Parker Hall (5/19/14)