Whether it’s been one weekend, two weekends, different days, different formats or different point systems, there has been one part of Indianapolis 500 qualifying that has remained entirely intact:
One driver. Four laps. And pure courage.
And in the wake of Sunday’s – at best, controversial until the end – new Daytona 500 group qualifying format, Indy’s qualifying format looks way better than the other marquee 500-mile race in this country.
Single-car qualifying may not be the most exciting thing to watch in this fast-paced, quick-cut day and age.
But when single-car runs represent the tradition and the story of the event, when the drama is associated with one car making the most of its effort for the pole position or even just to make the race, it’s somewhat baffling to change that format to something different.
For Indy qualifying, there are few things more exciting or dramatic to watch than one driver, working in tandem with his or her crew, hanging it all out on the line over four laps, at more than 225 or 230 mph.
The palpable sense of anxiousness permeates the stands – even if the crowds aren’t what they once were – when it comes to wondering whether a car or driver will be able to pull out “the run.”
The single-car, “all eyes on you” format gives the driver the full stage, the team the full stage and the sponsor – the entity (or entities) paying for the opportunity – the full stage.
To quote Eminem, you have one shot, one opportunity to seek everything you ever wanted.
For qualifying, it’s about nailing that run. You step out of your car after four laps in Indy, knowing you either gave it everything you had or left tenths of seconds – and extra mph – on the table.
You rue every missed moment. You kick yourself and hope you can step it up for your next shot, given that there are multiple attempts per car.
The Indy 500 qualifying format of single driver and four laps was so popular at one point it was adopted for all IndyCar oval races… and it flopped.
Traditions remain traditions because they stand the test of time. Change is needed only when staleness and blandness sets in, or when something is deemed “not exciting enough” for the sake of entertainment.
NASCAR was bold enough to try a different qualifying format Sunday for the Daytona 500, and you do have to give them credit for thinking it could be more entertaining. To some, it was.
But between the slingshot effects, waiting until the last minutes to run, the speed differential, crashes and almost universally unpopular opinions coming in from its own drivers, it was obvious to see it was not a step in the right direction.
Daytona 500 qualifying used to be about horsepower… crews… and which engine shop did the best work in the winter. Sunday’s session was Russian Roulette, almost all about luck rather than outright pace.
If the Indianapolis 500 qualifying format was to go in a similar direction, I’m sure there’d be a similar uprising and outrage.
I’ll leave it to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to sum things up: