By JENNA FRYER AP Auto Racing Writer
The new qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500 will include three rounds over two days, with the pole-winner emerging from a “Fast Nine Shootout” on what used to be Bump Day.
IndyCar officials also said Friday there will be points incentives that have yet to be announced.
Qualifying for the Indy 500 this year will begin on May 17 when the fastest 33 cars are locked into the field. All entries will be guaranteed at least one four-lap attempt to qualify, and the fastest nine drivers will move into the shootout.
On Sunday, the previous days’ times will be erased and entries 10 through 33 will complete another four-lap qualifying attempt to determine their starting position. The fastest nine drivers from Saturday will then make one four-lap attempt to determine the prestigious pole winner and starting front row.
The Indy 500 has had four-lap qualifying runs since 1939. The Fast Nine pole shootout was introduced in 2010, but was on Saturday.
The change comes as IndyCar struggles to fill the 33-car field, making the once tension-filled Bump Day drama-free the last two years. Without additional entrants on hand trying to make the race, Sunday had become a glorified practice session.
By making qualifying stretch over two days, Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has become relevant again.
“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,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman Motorsports. “I think in the last many years, Saturday has been the day in qualifying, but there’s been an opportunity to add more compelling content on Sunday, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
IndyCar driver Graham Rahal called the new format “intriguing” and praised it for adding fan appeal.
“The most important thing to realize here is we have to give our fans a better product both on TV and at track,” Rahal said. “As we know Sunday in the past has been a moot point. Now I think there’s going to be quite a bit of buildup Saturday, see who the 33 will be, then go into Sunday and wait till the very end to see who the pole winner is going to be.
“I’m pretty excited for the changes that are ahead. Of course, I am a traditionalist, but I’m always one that’s open for change as well.”
The format will make life a little more difficult for NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, who will attempt to become the first driver in 10 years to run both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. Busch will now have to qualify in Indianapolis on Saturday, fly to Charlotte, N.C., for NASCAR’s All-Star race that evening, then return to Indianapolis to determine his starting spot in Sunday’s qualifying session.
Under the old format, had Busch locked himself into the field on Saturday, he would not have necessarily have needed to return to Indianapolis following the All-Star race unless he was in danger of being bumped out.
ABC will broadcast the final two hours of Saturday’s qualifications and three hours on Sunday. Additional hours of qualifying will be carried on ESPN3, the network said.
“Down through history, qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 has made for many dramatic and compelling television moments, and we’re confident that the leadership of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar will continue that tradition with this new format,” said Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president, motorsports, production.