Race Weekend Central

The Indy 500 Qualifying Format Works

Drama is Indianapolis 500 qualifying.

As Jack Harvey circled the two-and-a-half mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his final attempt to bump his way into the Indy 500, the crowd in attendance – and probably the thousands at home – held their breath. Some watched in nervous agony, some cheered him on.

But, at that moment, everyone was a fan of the moment.

Whether you rooted for Harvey or not, were a Chevy or Honda fan, or had no interest at all, the last-ditch effort to push the car to the limit, that moment captured you.

The scene on pit road, with Harvey’s teammate Graham Rahal sitting hopelessly in his car, waiting to hear the numbers, knowing that regardless of his fate or Harvey’s, one of his team cars – a team he will likely run someday – was going to miss the race.

Harvey’s first lap didn’t imply he was going to get it done. And the crowd knew it. Then the second lap came in; it was consistent, and close to Rahal’s. The fall-off was minimal. Was there a chance? Lap three, and he had bettered his teammate. In the stands, the crowd stood, the emotions of the moment reacting to the words from the PA announcers. Harvey was doing it and clearly pushing everything that he could out of the car.

Lap four. Checkered flag. Every eyeball was on the big screens at IMS, waiting for the fourth speed to show, with the average for the entire run. Then, before anyone could say a word, there it was. 229.166 average, seventh thousandths of a mile per hour, 44 thousandths of a second faster. He did it.

Cheers erupted.

This moment, coupled with the Fast Six Shootout for the pole following Harvey’s run, was fit into a two-hour window perfect for television. The history of qualifying at Indianapolis has required several changes to this format as car counts lowered and viewing habits shifted. After IndyCar introduced the Last Chance Qualifier shootout in 2019 – with the dramatic bump of Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso – the emphasis on Sunday to decide who makes the race and who wins the pole has taken hold.

It seems the messaging is working on spectators as well. On Saturday, reported by NBC’s Nate Ryan, 20,000 fans attended the all-day qualifying – with its dual bumping storylines of making it into the Top 12 or at the very least 30th or above to avoid the Last Chance Qualifier.

Then on Sunday, IMS reported to multiple media members that the total attendance was 85,000 for the weekend, which (doing the math…carry the one…calculator on the phone is handy…) 65,000 at IMS for Harvey’s run and the pole. In comparison to other facilities IndyCar visits, Iowa Speedway – which will run a double-header later in the year – seats approximately 30,000. So, the format clearly works.

See also
Last-Minute Run From Jack Harvey Bumps RLL Teammate Graham Rahal From Indy 500 Field

The nostalgic race fans will want to see a full-month, with a return to two weekends of qualifying so that it feels like the Month of May. But looking at how this weekend unfolded, with just one car being bumped out and the record pole run by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou, what’s the point in spreading that out? It works now.

IndyCar will hope for a big network TV number, but at least the format they use maximizes their opportunity. And in the stands at IMS, the emotions of watching Harvey bump his way into the field was followed closely by the elation of hearing 235 mile per hour speeds announced, juxtaposing the previous runs to get in the race with the fastest cars in the field.

Yesterday, it was clear that the drama of Indianapolis is alive and well with the Indy 500 qualifying format.

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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