Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Indianapolis 500 Qualifying

Four laps – 10 miles.

That’s the length a driver must run at incredible speed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Some may do it once. Others, multiple times to either take the pole or make a last-ditch effort to bump in.

Indianapolis 500 qualifying had a measure of simplicity to it in the years with 33-plus entries. Ran over two weekends, teams had two total weeks of track time in practice to get their cars right. The first weekend day was called Pole Day, and every entry was put in a qualifying order. Once the list was exhausted – which was mostly on that day, but sometimes, due to weather, rolled over to the following day – then the polesitter was decided. This driver would get a check for winning the pole and be a major storyline for the next two weeks while other drivers tried qualifying. Of course, not every car attempted a run during this first weekend, as some teams preferred to continue fine tuning and preserve their limit of three runs per a machine.

Some drivers, like Scott Dixon, have become symbolic of the 500’s coveted pole position.

The other weekend days were then intended to fill the field so on the last day bumping of qualified cars commenced. Bump Day, which was the last qualifying day after the field was full at 33, carried just as much drama as the race itself. Until 6 pm., teams which still had attempts left on their cars tirelessly tried to ‘bump’ their way into the grid by setting a faster time than the car on the ‘bubble’ or slowest car. On TV, it was a common sight in the last hour to see the bubble driver in a picture-in-picture window on the screen. The emotions of each ticking second and lap from competitors on the track would play on each ‘bubble’ driver’s face.

It wasn’t just one-off or small-budget squads that would be in this position. Championship drivers like Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, and Fernando Alonso found themselves on the bubble on Bump Day or frantically trying to find speed to get in. These down-to-the-wire moments have often proven just as dramatic as the events of race day.

Much like other changes to the schedule, there has been updates to the qualifying format with the decrease in days from four to two made for the 2010 running.

The current format was started in 2019, when both Pole Day and Bump Day were put on the same day. Now, on the first day of qualifying, all the entries make attempts to get into the 33-car field. Those in position 13 through 30 are locked in. Every driver that was 31st or slower is considered out of the field and have to make a run the next day in Last Chance Qualifying, with multiple attempts if time allows in an hour session. This year, one driver will not make the race and therefore be bumped. Changes like this were implemented because since 2010 there have been 4 times that only 33 cars were entered, so an entire day committed to bumping was unnecessary.

See also
Conor Daly Eyeing 10th Indy 500 Start Ahead of Qualifying

The pole is decided via a shootout, much like IndyCar does on road and street courses, except one car at a time. This type of format has been used to decide the polesitter since 2010 and refocuses the run for the front into a dedicated time slot for attendance and TV. It is a mix of speed and driver skill. In 2021, the shootout was expanded from nine drivers to 12, so it now includes the field’s first four rows. In a one-hour session, each car makes one attempt and the six fastest advance. The remaining six then make one more attempt in reverse order of speed – slowest to fastest – to decide the polesitter for the Indianapolis 500.

But regardless of the format, it’s still four laps, 10 miles, to put it on the pole, or make it into the Indianapolis 500 next weekend.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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Two things always stuck with me about old Indy qualifying. First, the unequal track temps over the course of the afternoons at Indy meant that there was always a ridiculous rush over the last hour as there was no point in qualifying earlier when it was hotter. The whole rush at the end with cars lining up to qualify and pulling out of line, just to try to be one of the last few runs never set right with me. I know it created to a frenzy that probably draws viewers at 6 EDT but no one made qualifying runs for most of the afternoon. Better to restrict qualifying to when track temps were more stable, say from noon to 4 EDT.

The other thing I remember were the days when experienced drivers would walk around the paddock looking for a ride. Each entry generally had two chassis entered, only one of which would qualify, and these rideless drivers would look to qualify one of the extra cars. I would imagine that the economics of racing wouldn’t allow that, though I would hope that a veteran who qualifies an extra entry could find a sponsor.

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