Mears backs Indy qualifying changes

Rick Mears on Indianapolis 500 qualifying changes: "You'll never know unless you try something." Bob Harmeyer/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- Predictably, the traditionalists howled in protest when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced major changes to the qualifying procedure for the Indianapolis 500.

Before making a rash judgment about the new format -- which delays determining pole position to the second of two days of qualifying -- I decided to consult with the unrivaled master of going fast at Indianapolis.

As usual, Rick Mears proved to be the voice of reason.

Aside from his obvious skills as a driver -- a record six Indianapolis poles in addition to his record-tying four victories in the 500-mile race -- Mears has always been known as one of the smartest and most sensible guys on pit road. He's maintained a strong presence in Indy car racing, working since his 1992 retirement from driving as an engineering adviser to Team Penske.

And he's not an old-school hardliner who fights changes like the ones being imposed on Indy 500 qualifying.

"It seems like we as human beings fight change, no matter what it is," Mears observed. "People don't like change, but things have to change. In today's world, everything is changing. And how many changes over the years were made to an uproar, but then it was, 'Hey this isn't bad!'

"You'll never know unless you try something. In that respect I think it's good to give something like this a shot in case it works out."

The classic four-lap Indianapolis qualifying run dates to 1920, and that aspect of the new format remains unchanged. But the first day (Saturday, May 17) is now effectively Bump Day; all drivers will make at least one attempt, and the fastest 33 at the end of the day advance to the new Pole Day.

On Sunday, May 18, positions 10 through 33 will requalify to set those places in the field, followed by a Fast Nine shootout to determine pole position and the first three rows. The move is being made to generate interest and increase attendance for the qualifying weekend, which hasn't been a box office bonanza for IMS for at least 20 years.

IndyCar Series officials are also hopeful that a live ABC broadcast from noon to 3 p.m. ET, highlighted by the Fast Nine, will capture a larger television audience.

"These changes we believe ensure that fans will enjoy two days of exciting track action," INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles said. "There's been an opportunity to add more compelling content on Sunday and that's what we're trying to do here.

"We have a desire to give fans more opportunities to see IndyCar drivers on the track when there's a lot at stake -- not just with practice, but where they are out there putting it on the line in a way that matters."

In its heyday in the 1960s, Pole Day was a huge event at Indianapolis, drawing crowds of 150,000 to the famous track. By 1990, that number was halved, and recent years probably drew only 10,000 as Carb Day (featuring the final hour of Indy 500 practice, an Indy Lights race, the pit stop competition and a concert) took over as the speedway's most popular day outside race day.

Part of Pole Day's decline is attributed to a lack of escalating speeds, an Indianapolis trademark that stirs fond memories of the late track announcer Tom Carnegie's booming calls of "It's a new track record!" Arie Luyendyk's benchmark qualifying average of 236.986 mph dates to 1996, with the 230 mph mark rarely topped since then.

Mears observed that while running 230-mph-plus speeds at Indianapolis these days is still dangerous, it's not quite as dangerous as it was in his era, which spanned the mid-'70s to the early '90s.

The differences between Mears' first Indianapolis pole car -- a sleek but fragile-looking 1979 Penske PC6 that ran 193.736 mph -- and the modern-looking PC20 model from 1991 that he drove to his last pole at a 224.113 mph pace -- are startling.

"There's always a safety issue, I don't care what speed you're running," Mears said. "But the difference between back when we were running those kind of speeds is incredible. The materials in the cars and the way they're made, the seats, the softer walls -- everything in general is so much safer than it ever was back then.

"Obviously it's good publicity," he added. "Do we need those speeds to race? No. But do we need those speeds to generate interest. Probably yes."

As the schedule currently stands, teams will have little if any time after qualifying to work on race setups outside the hour-long practice on Carb Day. Another new Indianapolis tradition could be established if an additional practice day is added to the lead-up to the race.

Mears doesn't see that as a problem.

"It's different than it used to be," he said "Today the engineers have so much data that they can just about say 'Pick me a day, and when we see what the conditions are, we can just bolt on the car what we need.' So that's not as critical as it used to be. They come out of the trailer pretty close.

"Now fine-tuning that last 2 percent, that's where the work comes out."

And that's where Mears was the master. Although he says qualifying at Indianapolis was often more stressful than the race itself -- "You had to get it right, and that's what put the pressure on" -- he developed a special affinity for it.

"Sitting on the pole was a payback to the team for the good job they did and the hard work they put in," he remarked. "I felt like I had to do my part. Plus it was good for the sponsors and everything for the lead-up to the race.

"The main thing is it put you in safety, starting up front. If there's a problem, I'll miss it -- unless I started it."

The pomp and circumstance that comes with winning the Indianapolis 500 pole remains -- and, in fact, is expected to be enhanced with additional points and cash incentives to be announced. But the way of determining who wins that prize has been changed.

"You have to rely on tradition to a point, but that's always what's so difficult," said Mears. "On the one hand you want to keep tradition and you need to keep tradition so everything from the past still applies and is still relevant. But going forward, you have to keep up, too.

"It could be an absolute knockout. If you didn't ever try, you'd never know."