It’s that time of year again: the Indy 500 is around the corner, and qualifying is about to begin. If this is your first year watching—or if you just need a little refresher—then it can be tough to follow. Just like with most things Indy 500-related, qualifying is a complex process dictated by tradition. But don’t you worry: we’re here to help you out
The most important thing to note is that qualifying is starting right now! Turn on NBC Sports Gold to catch the action from 11am-5pm or NBC proper from 3-5pm today (August 15). Tomorrow, tune into NBC from 1pm-3pm (August 16).
If you’re wondering why the Indy 500 has to be so complex, you’re not alone. It’s the biggest motorsport event of the year, and qualifying is based on tradition, where cars could spend an entire month tuning their engines and setups before trying to set the fastest lap.
The grid has been limited to 33 cars since the 1933 event, so if more than 33 cars want to enter, that means qualifying serves as the cutoff bar. The fastest 33 drivers got in. Everyone else packed up and went home. (This year, with exactly 33 cars, no one will be going home.)
Drivers are guaranteed one attempt, but there’s so much time available that it’s common to see drivers qualifying multiple times in search of a better speed. So, if Scott Dixon qualifies poorly on his first try, he can take another shot later.
Qualifying at Indy is done a little differently than normal, too. Instead of one fast lap, drivers run four fast laps. The average of those lap speeds is your qualifying speed. So, again, if you have a bad first lap, your whole qualifying attempt is going downhill.
Qualifying will also take two days—which I’ll break down below.
IndyCar has put up a really neat graphic on their website to help explain things a little better, but I’m going to try to break it down for you nice and easy.
Every car gets a shot at qualifying. The cars that decide to qualify again will hit the track next. Those second- (or third-) time qualifiers have their pick of two lanes: the fast lane or the normal lane.
If you hop in the normal lane, all is well and good. You wait for the drivers in front of you to qualify, then you go out and do it yourself. If you set a worse session, oh well! You’ll still have your previous, faster time to fall back on. If you don’t get a chance to go out again because there are too many other drivers in front of you, oh well! You still have your previous time. No sweat.
If you choose the fast lane, however, you’re taking a gamble. Fast lane qualifiers get to qualify for a second time before everyone in the normal lane. In order to do so, though, you have to forfeit your previous qualifying speed. You’re basically starting from a blank slate. If you qualify slower, you’re stuck with that speed. You don’t get to choose your first qualifying speed. That’s it.
This is admittedly a more intense session when there are more than 33 cars, because those slow folks try really damned hard to make it to the starting grid. Today, you won’t see drivers “bumped,” or sent home for qualifying too slowly to make the grid. You’ll more likely see a driver trying to secure a better starting position.
On Saturday, starting positions 10-33 will be set. That’s everyone in row four or worse. This is going to be the busiest and longest day of qualifying, with a majority of drivers trying to push into the top three rows in order to gain a faster starting position.
Qualifying order is determined by a random draw, which you can find here.
Every qualifying position from 10th position back will be set on Saturday. This will be your starting grid. Whoever ends the day in 33rd will stay there. Whoever ends the day in 10th will stay there.
The second day of qualifying is known as the “Fast Nine Shootout.” Here, the nine fastest drivers from Saturday duke it out a second day to try to score pole position.
Qualifying order is determined by Saturday’s lap times, with the slowest driver qualifying first. Drivers will again be guaranteed one qualifying attempt before then hitting the track to try bettering their positions.
Rows one through three will be set, and the pole position award will be given to the fastest driver.
We might see record-breaking qualifying speeds this year. As of this exact moment, Arie Luyendyk still holds the four-lap average record of 236.986 mph. In practice yesterday, we saw that time eclipsed by Marco Andretti. That’s because the engines this year will have a 45 hp boost compared to previous years.
This is also the first time in history that the Indy 500 has taken place outside of May. Hotter temperatures, less practice, and hungry drivers are going to make this a qualifying session to watch—there’s no way it doesn’t get intense.