Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Take on Qualifying

There's no doubt Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles' announcement that Indy 500 qualifying would be changing this year was met with a lot of different opinions. And, as usual, the opinions were split right around the old school/new school line, as it usually is.

Here's how the new procedure basically goes: everyone qualifies both days. For all intent and purposes, Saturday sets the Fast Nine and Sunday's qualifying order. Sunday is the real deal, with the Fast Nine and the awarding of the pole position capping the weekend.

Of course, the old school thinks that it's a gimmick that pisses all over the tradition that is Indy 500 qualifying, while others think that given the lack of interest in qualifying over the last several years, that change was in order.

Count me in as someone who is looking forward to seeing how this new procedure shakes out. I'm looking forward to seeing 66 (or more) qualifying attempts over the course of two days, with a dramatic conclusion in the final hours that should be pretty exciting.

I've been going to Time Trials off and on since 1979, which means I've seen a lot of historic things happen on Pole Day. I've seen the track record broken close to 15 times and saw drivers break 210, 220 and 230 mph for the first time. Watching some videos on YouTube lately, I realized that I saw some really cool stuff. I have a lot of great memories of going to the track back in the day, but I've also realized that how things have been done was starting to go a little bit stale.

The proof is in the attendance. While it's been going up little by little the last several years, it's never going to be the way it "once was". Even in two or three years when, as anticipated, Arie Luyendyk's almost 20-year-old track record of 236 mph is broken, people aren't going to all of the sudden start streaming through the gates. Sure, more people will come, but this idea that 100,000 people are someday going to show up again is just foolish.

What makes me laugh is it seems that many of the people who are complaining don't even go to the track. So if you don't go to the track, why do you care? And if the traditional way of qualifying is "not broke so it doesn't need to be fixed" why aren't you going? If it's so awesome, and steeped in so much tradition that goes back through generations, than why don't people go?

Is it still a holdover from the IRL saga? If it is, get over it. Here's what's funny...Matt, my oldest, was born in 1996, the first year of the uprising (I'm not using the "s" word). He just turned 18 a couple of weeks ago. In the eyes of society, he's grown to be an adult. That's how long people have been grinding this ax, and they should've gotten over it about the time Matt turned 11. It's been an entire generation since that happened, if you can't look past what happened and move on, I just give you my best and will carry on with my own personal fandom.

Times have changed. When I was a kid going to the Speedway, it was no big deal to go somewhere and sit around for several hours, the entertainment was just being there and being part of the atmosphere. It's the same way the generation before mine had no problem going to the Speedway and watching a race that took five hours to complete. Could you imagine sitting through a five-hour race? Oy.

But in retrospect, most years it was a mixture of excitement and boredom. The first hour or so of qualifying was great, then many times teams would sit the rest of the afternoon (especially if the weather got hot) and try again after 3 or 4 p.m.

Case in point...1987. Do you know how many cars qualified on Pole Day? 11. Eleven! In 1993, a total of 15 cars qualified on the first day, but not a single car took to the track between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

So really, there were some stretches where not a lot was going on. With our unlimited attention spans (i.e. we were great at killing time) that wasn't such of a big deal. But it certainly is now, if people are dropping money on something they want a lot in return. That's just how the market works.

Just like that annoying girl in that AT&T commercial (thank goodness that spot doesn't run any longer) we want more, we want more. Heck, people complain if they are at the track and they can't get a good mobile phone signal. When I went to the Daytona 500 last year during the government shutdown, people were complaining because there was no military flyover. Wait, isn't there stuff going on out on the track? Then why are you feeling the need to look at your phone or need planes?

Right here, right now, if you had the myriad of activities at our disposal now and knew there were only going to be 11 qualifiers on Pole Day, would you go? Would you sit at the track in steaming hot conditions for four hours in the hope that a car would try and qualify? Some of us would, but most wouldn't, and I don't blame them.

Our needs are different than they were forever ago. If people are going to take the time and pay the money to come to a racetrack, they have spoken, they want cars at the track and they want something at stake.

That's pretty apparent when you look at the way qualifying has changed in many different racing series over the last few years. First F1 went to knockout qualifying, IndyCar followed, then added the heat races at Iowa and finally this year NASCAR has adopted its own knockout qualifying format, and already had the Duel races at Daytona (Editor's note: Which are a lot of fun to watch).

All of them have proven to be somewhat successful (although Cup needs some serious tweaking, both with the on-track procedures and the delay between the television broadcast and real time), and I would hope that IndyCar would expand the Fast Six qualifying to the ovals too.

Here's one thing that those in the old guard need to remember: changes are made with the casual fan in mind, not us. Racing -- hell, any sport -- needs to continue to engage new fans and to grow their fanbase. We also know that the only way an entity stays in business is if it makes money and finds more ways to up their revenue stream. You can't stand pat, there's just no way, because it costs more and more to do business.

In the case of IMS, it reached a point where it didn't make enough money in 30 days to cover the other 335, so they had to find a way to make the days the track is open make more money than it costs to run on days it is closed.

What also has changed is that sponsors and networks have more and more of an influence on these decisions. There is no doubt that ABC signed off on this decision, and for good reason. Like people in the stands, TV viewers want to see cars on the track. Verizon is on the cusp of dropping between $50 and $100 million on IndyCar over the next several years, an investment like that expects input as well.

When you look at the investment by Verizon and the all-in commitment by ABC, it makes this decision more understandable. Maybe not something we all agree with, but should understand. Lots of people still live with the fear of IndyCar folding, well, these decisions are made in hopes that it doesn't. There is a new guard in place and I am putting a lot of faith in them, but I feel that their intentions are to do what is best for IndyCar and not to advance their own personal agendas, which had gone on for far too long.

Besides, just because things are traditions doesn't mean you can't start new ones. A few years ago when I was going through a divorce I mentioned to my mom that among the things that I'd miss were the traditions I had with my family, one of which included attending the 500 with my (now former) wife every year.

My mom, who is 76 and has seen her fair share of change in her life responded...if you are sad about traditions ending, just go out and make new ones. So I did. One of which is that Matt comes to the race with me and someday Kevin, son No. 2, will come as well. Maybe even this year. I've relished the chance to spend time with Matt and I think the Speedway is something that has brought us closer. While he doesn't have the love for IMS like I do, he still enjoys our yearly trip down there, and is already talking about going in May.

I'm at the end of this long rant, but my point is pretty simple. Quit taking all of this stuff so personally. Change is good and change is sometimes healthy. If you want the IndyCar series to get bigger and better, you have to accept that change are going to be made and that you may not always like them. The best thing to do is to roll with the punches and enjoy race day, because pound for pound IndyCar puts on the best race day in the world.

It's time...let's all start a few new traditions. Come on, you know you want to.

No comments:

Post a Comment