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.

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.