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Venerable Indy 500 needs a boost

5/19/2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- Back in the day, second-day qualifying often meant something special at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Because of Indy's unique multiple-day qualifying format, the pole winner wasn't always the fastest man in the field.

As recently as 1996, when Arie Luyendyk set the outright IMS track record in a Reynard/Ford-Cosworth Champ Car at 237.260 mph (his official pole-qualifying time was 236.986, and he was not the fastest qualifier), second-day fans often got to see first-rate action.

Since the race began in 1911, the pole-winner was not the fastest qualifier for the race a whopping 17 times.

That scenario did not play out this year, and that's not to take anything away from the four drivers who hung it out at 220 mph around the 2.5-mile oval fighting for the honor of starting 23rd in the Indianapolis 500 on May 30. Bryan Herta and Alex Barron in particular showed their mettle by posting solid qualification efforts a day after suffering heavy crashes.

But despite perfect weather, the Sunday crowd numbered just a couple of thousand and it appeared more of those people were paying attention to a lineup of contemporary Christian bands on an infield stage than they were to the action (or lack thereof) on the track. With local media estimates putting the Pole Day crowd at 15,000, the short field for this year's Indianapolis 500 has produced an undeniable lack of energy and activity and only magnified the need to change the format of the venerable old Month of May at the Brickyard.

IMS officials have quietly tooled with the May schedule since the early years of the Indy Racing League, when many teams simply couldn't afford to send their cars onto the track. That's not a big concern for the IRL's new wave of established (read: ex-CART) teams, but the problem now is that there are no small Indy-only teams coming forward to fill the field.

The decline of the once renowned pre-race interest at Indy had subtly started even before Tony George founded the Indy Racing League and split American open-wheel racing in 1996. Inviting NASCAR to Indy in 1994 might have been the biggest factor of all, and in truth, the Brickyard 400 in some ways has proven to be a double-edged sword for IMS. That event, along with the United States Grand Prix, demonstrated that the Speedway didn't need a month to assemble a competitive field or stage a world-class event. More importantly, the Brickyard 400 also legitimized stock car racing to an open-wheel racing crowd and accelerated NASCAR's ascent into the mainstream, but that's a topic for another day.

For now, it's apparent the Indianapolis 500 needs some tender loving care and one way to do that involves compacting the schedule. Trimming the month of May would be protested by purists, but it could be a win-win situation for IMS, the IRL and the participants.

From the Speedway's perspective, it costs money to staff and open the big track, and it's safe to say that the only three days on the positive side of the ledger are Pole Day, Carburetion Day and of course Race Day. Likewise, some of the biggest expenses most teams incur at Indy come from having to be there for three weeks. They could also get their on-track work done before qualifying and the race with much less than 42 hours of practice time.

Finally, if the IRL is going to expand to 20 races (or more) in 2005, it's going to need the first part of May for additional races. In terms of good weather and favorable positioning against other sports, it's a key period.

So as a lifelong follower of Indy car racing who has been going to Indianapolis since 1977, allow me to humbly submit a schedule proposal for the 2005 Indianapolis 500 aimed toward restoring the entire event to its former glory:

  • Saturday, May 21: Opening Day, with ceremonies and IndyCar Series practice.

  • Sunday, May 22 through Tuesday, May 24: IndyCar Series practice.

  • Wednesday, May 25: No IndyCar Series activity. Infiniti Pro Series practice.

  • Thursday, May 26: Carburetion Day -- A two-hour IndyCar Series practice, followed by Pit Stop Competition and the Infiniti Pro Series Freedom 100.

  • Friday, May 27: Fast Friday -- A substantial cash prize of at least $250,000 will be offered for the day's fastest IndyCar Series practice lap. To reduce traffic, "Happy Hour" will be restricted to the 10 fastest drivers of the day.

    Saturday, May 28: Pole Day -- The usual pomp and circumstance. Four-lap runs with the following provisos: You get one shot at the pole. If you pass, you are a "second day qualifier." The field will be capped at 33, determined as 90 percent of the confirmed entries. This year, for example, 28 drivers would compete for 25 grid positions. Somebody needs to go home to preserve the drama of Bump Day (which under this scenario would be on the same day).

    Sunday, May 29: Race Day -- The 89th Indianapolis 500. First prize: $5 million.

    For many years, the Indianapolis 500 was unrivaled as the biggest prize in motorsport. But there were periods of complacency. Between 1970 and 1978, the total Indianapolis 500 purse rose only slightly from $1.0 million to $1.14 million, with the winner's share going from $272,000 to $290,000. This slow rate of progress was pointed out in a December 1978 column in the Indianapolis Star and coincidentally or not, the purse rose from $1.27 million in 1979 to $5 million by 1988.

    The $10 million barrier for the total purse was broken in 2002, but after the winning driver's share topped $1 million for the first time in 1989, it has maxed out at between $1.3 and $1.6 million since the mid-90s.

    Meanwhile the 2004 Daytona 500 posted a purse of nearly $16 million, with $1.5 million going to winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. Having already overtaken Indy in terms of television ratings and prize money, Daytona could be seen as American racing's prestige leader -- unless Tony George takes action.

    That means bumping the 2005 Indianapolis 500 purse to $20 million or even $25 million, with most of the additional cash influx going to the winner. But the money needs to be bumped all the way down to 33rd place (or whatever last place is) to keep up with the times. Nothing, other than the abolition of CART-style engine leases, would encourage the Indy-only specials of old more than the opportunity to make some cold hard cash.

    Bottom line: It's time for George to make the kind of investment in the Indianapolis 500 that he already has made in NASCAR, Formula 1 and the rest of the Indy Racing League.

    John Oreovicz covers open wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.