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Indy 500 qualifying changes continue IMS’ push to ramp up business side

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Nearly every change the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR have made this offseason has been with the goal of improving the entire Hulman Racing business, and Friday’s confirmation of a revised qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500, first hinted at in November, is no different.

Various commercial and PR hires, the addition of both the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May and a vintage race in June, plus the confirmation of two major new concerts (Jason Aldean and a three-headed DJ monster at the Snake Pit race day Sunday, led by Hardwell) are all elements needed to grow the bottom line.

And now, the qualifying overhaul has been announced and will likely ramp up the drama for both Saturday and Sunday anyway.

How, you ask? The pressure will now shift to making the field on Saturday, as opposed to the recent “well, we hope we make it on Saturday, but if not we can still get in first thing Sunday” dynamic that has existed under the previous format.

That will make every driver and team sweat it out for four laps, hit their marks and lock themselves in the first day.

On the chance there’s a 34th car – which, at the moment, would be hard to project – the bumping element will occur, and the drama would intensify.

It will give fans at the track one chance to see who will make the Fast 9 on Sunday. And provided there’s a 34th, the drama of bumping.

Previous to that, the only drama would be same day; wondering who would make it into the Fast 9 later in the day on Saturday, with Sunday then relatively devoid of drama for six hours.

On Sunday, the field’s starting positions will be set, and the Fast 9 then take their Shootout to determine the pole.

In past years, Sunday has been stale, with both Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles and driver Graham Rahal noting during an INDYCAR teleconference held Friday how these changes should build interest.

“What this is about for us is that we have a desire to give fans more opportunities to see IndyCar drivers on the track when there’s a lot at stake, not just with practice, but where they are out there with putting it on the line in a way that matters,” Miles said.

“There’s going to be a lot of tension, there’s no doubt about that,” Rahal added.  “That’s what the fans want to see.

“Last year when we got to the top nine, Ed (Carpenter) put up the top lap, the fans go crazy. They like those moments that are go big or go home sort of moments.  That’s exactly what everybody is going to see this time around.

“I think it’s been pretty stale in recent times so this will add a whole other element. For the teams, it’s going to be a nerve-wracking element. As Derrick (Walker) said, when weather comes to Indy, it changes things completely.”

With an added ticket incentive to buy the two-day package for $30 as opposed to either/or of Saturday or Sunday at $20 apiece, there is cost savings potential for fans who want to come out both days.

Additionally, with both days nationally televised in part on ABC, there is the opportunity for the series to gather additional ratings and potentially catch more of the elusive, ubiquitous “casual fan.”

At track, the entire month of May is aimed at getting a greater percentage of local traffic through the gates at IMS, between this announcement and the others that have come out over the last several months.

For as many hardcore fans as there are, there are some in Indianapolis who will tell you there’s not as much local interest in the race as there used to be.

But now, all these events and announcements provide options. And collectively, they all should increase the bottom line.

The more money that flows into the coffers at 16th and Georgetown can be utilized in part to grow and promote the sport, which is really, ultimately, what this is all about.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.