Qualifying Day Blues

The small turnout for Pole Day qualifying for the Indy 500 tells me it’s time to change the qualifying procedure for the Indy 500 - again.

It was a shame the crowd on Saturday, estimated in the 20,000 t0 25,000 range was so small. The weather was perfect, there were plenty of cars, many qualifying attempts and name drivers like Michael Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Eddie Cheever, Buddy Lazier, Greg Ray, Tony Stewart and Jimmy Vasser.

If you are thinking that this is all about the CART/IRL split, you probably aren’t reading this unless someone hands you a computer printout of this column. No, I’m going to blame the Information Age for the lack of interest in one of the crucial days leading up to what has again become the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

One Speedway official was mighty proud that the IRL Web site got around 19 million hits Saturday. There was wall-to-wall coverage on television, which was not blacked out in Indiana. All this information, at your fingertips, has made it unnecessary to come to the Brickyard.

For years, here in Indianapolis, the only live coverage was on radio. According to one long-term resident, “You’d be shopping and when a run was completed shopkeepers or clerks would shout out A.J. Foyt has just qualified."

While the Memorial Day weekend became overrun by corporate executives in expensive suites, Pole Day and other qualifying days were the locals’ best chance to see the racers up close. Since qualifying started at 9 a.m. and ran to 6 p.m., it was either an all-day outing or the type of day where you could come out in the morning, go home for lunch and come back in the cool part of the late afternoon in time to see the always exciting Happy Hour qualifying runs that began at 5 p.m.

The one problem with this system was, and is, that during the very hot mid-day - which is typical here - very few brave team owners want to send out a car that is not running at peak efficiency.

It’s a no-brainer. Most people here don’t want to pay $10 to watch the asphalt soften for two to three hours. For no charge at all, you could be rocking in a hammock, enjoying a beverage of your choice, fire up the television and your computer getting speeds and have a great time.

For the last few years there was only one qualifying weekend, making it imperative to get qualified, hot weather or not. Before that, in pre-Internet days, there were four days of qualifying spread over two weekends.

But circumstances have changed. For reasons unknown to me, the Speedway changed the rules this year, to add a third day of qualifying. I’m sure that Foyt is happy about this, due to the problems encountered by his hot shoe Eliseo Salazar, as is Rick Mears’ nephew, Casey. But the remainder of the non-qualified drivers can’t be considered stars at this moment.

The list of Bump Day qualifiers includes 16 cars and 12 drivers and undoubtedly some others to be named. I don’t think that a family of four will want to plunk down $40 for four to seven hours of waiting around for a dozen drivers and maybe 20 attempts when they can get all that information for free.

My solution is that the Brickyard either goes back to a two-day, one-weekend system or close down the track for qualifications during the hottest part of the day.

I’m thinking that you could sell more lunches. But, seriously, why not run some support event like the International Race of Champions, instead of in August during the Brickyard 400? Most of the NASCAR stars are in town for the Brickyard 400 anyway, so that series isn’t adding many ticket-buyers at that time.

Running the IROC in May makes sense because it brings the Winston Cup drivers to town when NASCAR isn’t racing – Pole Day seems to fall on Mother’s Day, which is an off weekend for NASCAR’s top series. You’ll get the contrast of stock car drivers vs. the open-wheel boys, which is really the battle for the hearts and minds of race fans anyway.

Since there are, usually, only 15 IROC cars it’s not as if there’s going to be a strain on the Brickyard’s facilities.

This way, in the heat of the day, fans will get to see some racing stars. The potential Indy 500 qualifiers aren’t using the track much anyway. IROC gets a lot more exposure because more national media are here, and most importantly – the fans win.

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Saturday, October 19, 2013
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