IndyCar and oval qualifying: missing the bigger picture

At the tail end of 2017 IndyCar competition director Jay Frye confirmed to RACER that oval qualifying order will no longer be determine by a random draw.

“We could have gone a lot of ways on how to set the order; fastest laps turned by the drivers in the practice before qualifying, but the idea of going off entrant points was the only one that had unanimous support from our teams when we proposed it. So that’s what we’ll do moving forward.”

In the past leading teams have felt compromised by an early qualifying draw. But when it comes to IndyCar’s oval ‘product’, tinkering with qualifying to appease teams and drivers misses the bigger picture.

James Hinchcliffe IndyCar Indianapolis Motor Speedway IndyCar 2018
With the exception of Indianapolis, entrant points will decide oval qualifying running order in 2018. (Image: IndyCar/Skibinski)

Falling out of love with oval racing

America appears to be falling out of love with oval racing. Half empty grandstands at IndyCar races besides the 500 and NASCAR’s falling attendances perfectly illustrate that.

In IndyCar’s case the single run qualifying format can be considered part of the problem. Being brutally honest, oval qualifying is incredibly dull.

Helio Castroneves Team Penske Phoenix IndyCar
An all too familiar sight: Helio Castroneves prepares for qualifying in front of empty grandstands. (Image: Team Penske).

Wake me up on raceday

Single car runs offer little excitement unless a driver gets it wrong (and even then there is only a certain section of fans that get something from oval shunts). Only absolute die hards are sufficiently interested in how, for example, track evolution will impact on qualifying speeds to turn up.

Otherwise qualifying is a long and unexciting drag which contributes to the challenges facing oval promoters.

Each aspires to attract crowds to match those of IndyCar’s street and road course events (and the ones they enjoyed back in the early 1990s. Despite putting on intense and hair-raising action in recent seasons, they continue to struggle.

IndyCar oval crash Hunter Reay Conor Daly
Big danger, small crowds: IndyCar has produced intense racing on ovals but not the attendances to match. (Image: IndyCar)

Give me a reason not to skip qualifying

Unlike road and street course events, there is no reason for fans to make a weekend of the event. By contrast races in Toronto, Long Beach and Road America are 3-day festivals of speed.

Race day is the focus but qualifying offers plenty of on track action and entertainment for your weekend buck.

IndyCar Toronto big crowds
Honda Indy Toronto: 3 days of big crowds. (Image: MotorSportNotes)

Support but for how long?

The series boasts a few loyal supporters within the management teams of ovals like Phoenix, Iowa and Gateway. Their enthusiasm for the series is invaluable but that can only go so far.

It is difficult to believe ovals are turning any profit from their respective IndyCar weekends. For the health of the series making these events financially viable is essential. Going back to the drawing board on the qualifying format would be a good place to start.

Time for new ideas

Multiple cars on track could offer a far more compelling show for qualifying. Drivers and teams would be tested on when to run and the scope for drafting could spice up the challenge of recording the fastest time in each session. The timing required to move through traffic on race day and make best use of the draft is what makes oval racing so fascinating.

Purists might baulk at tow-assisted times deciding grid position. But the technical challenge for driver and team is just as great as running fast laps in clean air.

Replicating the road/street qualifying groups on ovals could add another dimension to the challenge. Knock out or sprint race formats would certainly give fans cause to consider attending both qualifying and race day.

Single run qualifying is not an option

A switch to a new format will bring with it challenges for the series and new race director Kyle Novak. Preventing multi-car teams from deliberating running in tandem during qualifying for example.  However maintaining the status quo does not feel like an option.

The steady if unspectacular growth in TV viewing figures and race attendances (excluding ovals of course) proves the multi-disciplinary nature of IndyCar retains its appeal. This uniqueness is what has captured the attention of race fans for decades and continues to do so as we enter the 2018 season.

Revamping qualifying will not double attendances over night but it might provide circuits with a way to encourage fans to make a weekend of their IndyCar experience.

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