As the Indianapolis Motor Speedway rolls out its new qualification format for the 94th Indianapolis 500 it is more “evolutionary” than “revolutionary.”
Qualification rules have changed dramatically since that first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 when Lewis Strang was awarded the pole based on the date when he mailed in his entry for the race. Qualifying for that first race was a matter of the driver reaching 75 miles per hour from a flying start on a quarter-mile stretch of the main straightaway. Each driver was given three attempts to reach 75 mph and when 40 drivers succeeded, the order of the starting lineup was based on the date the entry was received.
The pole didn’t matter because Ray Harroun won the race after starting 28th.
In 1912, 75 mph still was the qualifying minimum, but a full-speed lap was required. Entry arrival still determined the pole for the 24 drivers who met the requirement. Gil Anderson received the honor, but Joe Dawson won after starting seventh.
In 1913 and 1914, the pole was awarded by a draw. It wasn’t until 1915 when the pole went to the fastest driver among those who met the minimum speed, so Howdy Wilcox was the first official pole winner based on speed. He finished seventh as second-place starter Ralph DePalma won the race.
Johnny Aitken earned the pole in 1916 as a first-day qualifier. The qualifying method was altered to make qualifiers on succeeding days start behind those who went first. The starting field was expanded to a maximum of 33 cars in 1915, but it wasn’t until 1919 that it was filled.
The four-lap qualifying concept, still used today, was introduced in 1920. Ralph DePalma became the first to grab the pole on a four-lap run, averaging 99.15 mph. However, only 23 cars made the 80-mph minimum.
In 1933, a new qualifying format was designed to send the cars around the 2.5-mile oval 10 times — 25 miles. The catch was that it had to be done with only three gallons of fuel. The 10-lap qualifying format stayed in effect until 1938. Qualifying returned to four laps in 1939 and remains today.
From 1998-2000, qualifying was trimmed to one weekend. In 2001, qualifying returned to two weekends. However, there was no qualifying on the Saturday of the second weekend. Sunday was Bump Day.
There also has been qualifying at 5 a.m. on race day, in the 1920s. The number of cars allowed in the field has deviated from the standard 33 twice since the end of World War II, as 35 cars started in 1979 and 1997.
In 2005, Speedway officials created a new format with bumping on each of the four qualifying days and 11 spots available on each of the first three days of qualifying.
The latest change in qualifications was announced in April when IMS officials reduced the schedule by one full week, cutting out two rounds of qualifications. With Pole Day scheduled for May 22 and Bump Day May 23, a new twist was added to this year’s qualifications.
The first 24 positions on the starting grid will be filled on Pole Day with the final nine positions filled on Bump Day. The times of the top nine drivers from the first segment of qualifying will be erased at 4 p.m., with all of those competitors guaranteed to start no worse than ninth in the Indy 500.
The Fast Nine will be required to make at least one four-lap qualifying attempt between 4:30 and 6 p.m., with one additional, optional attempt if time permits. Each driver’s best run during the 90-minute session will set their position within the top nine spots on the starting grid.
The winner of the Peak Performance Pole Award presented by AutoZone will earn $175,000, an increase of $75,000 from 2009. The second-fastest qualifier will earn $75,000, with the final front-row starter earning $50,000.
It’s the latest attempt by race officials to provide more action and drama in qualifications for the Indy 500.
“I know a lot of traditionalists including myself that have always enjoyed the lore and the history of Indianapolis; what it has meant to us, how you go through practice, qualifying and the race,” said Target Chip Ganassi Racing Managing Director Mike Hull. “Prior to this announcement there have been a lot of changes in the format at Indianapolis. I think this is one of the most positive steps they have made because Indianapolis has always meant the best of the best performing in front of a live audience.
“What we are going to get to see are the best drivers supported by the best crew members fighting it out in a place where true speed for four laps determines where you start the race.”
Rick Mears is the all-time pole winner in Indy 500 history with six poles when the four-time Indy 500 winner was an active driver at Team Penske. He was a master of the old, traditional format of qualifications and believes the new format is a matter of keeping up with the times.
“I think it will be good entertainment — a good show,” Mears said. “From a driver’s standpoint it gets everybody under the same conditions by running at the same time. I loved qualifying at Indy. That was one of my favorite things to do. But I hated the wait. I hated the pulling out of line and waiting for the wind to die down or the weather to get cooler. I wanted to go when it was time to go because you have been gearing up all month for that.
“From that standpoint it’s good, too. It takes that out of the equation of playing the game and guessing right. To me it puts it back into the driver’s hands because it’s the same time, same conditions. Having to do it more than once, that’s another story. But that’s part of the pressure. Qualifying at Indy is all about pressure. It’s the toughest thing we do.”