Cheever joins Autosport.com

Former Grand Prix racer and Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever tells us just how the complicated qualifying for the Indy 500 works

Cheever joins Autosport.com

Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 is a very odd, difficult, exciting, and important part of the whole game. It is a gut-wrenching, pressure-filled weekend, and it takes a lot of getting used to. There are actually two races at Indy: the first one is to get into the field, and the second one is the famous 500-mile event. Everybody spends the first week of practice just preparing to qualify, and that only leaves a day or two to get ready for the race.

Friday, May 19: Qualification Order Drawing
The whole qualifying process actually starts Friday evening with the drawing for qualification order. Each team pulls a number from a hat, and this number determines where that car will line up in an attempt to qualify.

Saturday, May 20: Pole Day
On Saturday morning, the conditions have usually changed since you ran on Friday, and your crew tears down the pit and starts from scratch. Because half of the pit lane is occupied by technical inspection and members of the media, teams have to temporarily relocate to a new pit area, and there is a lot of pressure to get all of the equipment set up.

Saturday morning practice starts at 8:00am, with the first half of the qualification order practicing from 8:00-8:30am and the second half running from 8:30-9:00am. All cars are then allowed on track from 9:00-10:00am. Teams are guaranteed thirty minutes of practice time. Inevitably, with a few caution periods, you're limited as to how much time you have, as well as how much fuel you can put in the car, because you have to tow back to the garage area to re-fuel. There are no fuel tanks in pit lane on pole day - there's only one by the tech plate - so it's very stressful. Teams have half an hour to dial in their set-ups for what they anticipate the conditions will be like at 11:00am when the first car goes out to qualify.

All of the qualifying action starts around the start/finish line where the tech plate is set up in pit lane. A team takes its car across the tech plate, and then the driver climbs into the cockpit before that car is staged to make a qualifying attempt. According to the regulations, every car is afforded an attempt at the pole, regardless of whether it rains all day Saturday or not.

Those are the logistics of it all. It' s also very crowded in pit lane, with about forty-five car and driver combinations - plus all of their T-cars - in line to run for the pole. A car must go through tech inspection before it goes out to qualify, and the end of the pit lane is used for post-qualifying photographs and media interviews.

The reality of qualifying is that as all of these cars are lined up, you start to deal with weather conditions. You start to look at the radar screen to see if there is any cloud cover coming. You start to look at the temperatures and all kinds of other things. And when your time comes, depending on where you pick, you might luck out. 11:00am is the coolest part of the day and it's the best time of the day to qualify. You might go out, have a good run, assume it's going to hold, and just stand on your time. You take the green flag, you take the checkered flag, you take your photographs, and then you go away.

But that's not usually the case, because as we all know, at 5 or 6 o'clock in the afternoon the track starts to get shaded, and the sun goes behind the grandstands on the front straightaway. Those are the ideal conditions that everyone is searching for. Track and air temperatures go down, and that is what everyone looks forward to in their attempt to put in four hot laps. Everyone always has the option of waiting until later in the day to qualify. A team does not have to make a qualifying attempt when its time comes. If your slot is at 2:00pm and it's the hottest part of the day, you might pass on your assigned time.

Once the line "breaks" - in other words, once everyone has had the opportunity and no one desires to go out and qualify - the track usually goes green for practice. If the car set-up or the conditions weren't right in the morning, teams have a chance to go out in the afternoon, hopefully improve the car, and then make an attempt later in the day. Depending on how many cars have already qualified, around 4:00pm a mad dash occurs - almost like a shark feeding-frenzy - with everyone looking out of the corner of his eye to see who is going to be the first to make a move towards qualifying. Nobody wants to be the first one. Everybody wants to wait as long as possible, but by the same token, nobody wants to be excluded.

If teams start getting back into the qualifying line at about 5:00pm, and there are still twenty cars that haven't qualified, then all of a sudden there's a mad panic to push your car into the line in order to have time to go out before the cannon goes off at 6:00pm. It's one of the most anxious moments of the day, because everyone wants to be positioned to make an attempt at about 5:50pm, when the conditions are ideal. You don't want to misjudge the situation and be in line to run at 6:10pm, because then you're out of luck. Your effort to gain the pole is all for nought, because once the cannon goes off on Saturday night, if everyone has been offered an attempt to qualify - not made an attempt, but given an opportunity to qualify - then the pole is set, as is the starting order for the first day.

Sunday, May 21: Bubble Day
Another confusing aspect of qualifying at Indianapolis is that at the end of the first day, the starting positions of all the cars that have already qualified are set. Regardless of how fast anyone runs on Sunday, he or she will line up behind the first day qualifiers. For example, if the pole speed on Saturday was 225mph, and a driver went out on Sunday and ran four laps at an average speed of 229mph, that person would still start behind all the drivers who qualified on Saturday. Let's say that there were twenty-five cars qualified at the end of the day on Saturday. On the dreaded Bubble or "Bump" Day - another Indianapolis 500 tradition - the field is filled from that point on. For instance, that 229mph Sunday qualifier - even though he or she may be the fastest car in the field - would start from the twenty-sixth spot.

To further complicate matters, positions that are gained on Saturday are only protected if those drivers remain fast enough to make the field. Therefore, if you qualified at 217mph on Saturday and there are thirty-three cars in the field by 1:00pm on Sunday with the slowest qualifier clocking a 220mph average, you are on the "bubble". If the next car qualifies at 221mph, that driver will "bump" you from the field, even though you qualified on Saturday. In an extreme scenario, if there were fifty cars qualifying on Sunday, and all of them went faster than the Saturday qualifiers, then even the polesitter could theoretically be bumped from the race.

On Bubble Day, the same situation occurs as on Saturday, when everyone starts to line up in the late afternoon in order to take advantage of the best conditions. The process of bumping continues until 6:00pm on Sunday, when the cannon once again goes off.

Being on the bubble is not a very nice place to be, but you're there because for some reason you haven't quite made the show. I had that happen to me in 1993 when I knocked Bobby Rahal out of the race with about five minutes to go. It was probably the most difficult four laps of qualifying I have ever done. You put everything you can into it and you just hope it sticks.

The Indianapolis 500 qualifying sequence is the hardest one that a driver will ever have to do because it is four laps. You can have three good laps and screw up the last one, and you're toast. The average is really important. The whole qualifying experience is pressure-packed. There are second chances, but once you get out of line, you're in trouble. There's definitely a big push towards just taking the lap. Do it, take it, and move on to get ready for the race. I always heave a big sigh of relief after I've qualified for the Indy 500 and I don't have to worry about it anymore. Although there is a little bit of poker playing regarding when you go out and when you don't, the hardest part of all is not leaving one drop of speed behind when you do go out. If you do, somebody else will take your spot. And if you're not in the race, it's impossible to win.

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