10 May 2012
Indy 500 preview: what's in store in May
Pole Day on Saturday, May 19 is the first of the two formal qualifying days. After a two final one-hour practice period, the cars start to run their qualifying laps between 11am and 4pm (local times), in an order determined by blind draw the day before. Each car gets to make three qualification attempts consisting of four laps comprising 10 miles in total. Drivers will generally be qualifying both their main car and any T-car (spare).
At the end of the first qualifying segment (which incidentally sets pit stall order, which can often prove crucial on race day), the fastest nine cars have a further 90 minute session between 4.30pm and 6pm that afternoon as a "shootout" to lock-in the positions of the front three rows of the Indy 500 race, including pole position: last year's pole position speed was an impressive 227.472 mph (366 km/h), set by Sam Schmidt Motorsport's Alex Tagliani. However, the new-specification cars and engines in 2012 are expected to bring down that top speed by at least 5 mph this year.
The order of the cars between 10th and 24th is also now set - but if there are more cars than there are spots on the grid, they can still be "bumped" from the grid altogether by events on the following day.
Bump Day on Sunday, May 20 starts with a one-hour free practice between 9am and 10am, then cars are back on track between noon and 6pm for further four-lap qualifying runs with the cars that didn't make it into the top 24 on Saturday competing to get it into the remaining nine positions available on the grid. This year it's unlikely that there will be more than 33 cars, in which case everyone will make it onto the starting grid for the race.
However, if there are late entries pushing the number of potential starters over the 33-car limit, then Sunday will be the day when "bumping begins. Once all 33 spots are filled, the car with the slowest time of the top 33 (whether set on the Saturday or Sunday, so changing weather conditions between the days can play a key role) is declared to be "on the bubble". If a car outside the top 33 sets a faster time than the car on the bubble, then the slower car is bumped off the grid, the order "shuffles up" to fill the gap, and the faster car enters the grid in 33rd position. The slower car can rejoin the qualifying process and attempt to bump its way back onto the starting grid; other cars coming close to being on the bubble can opt to delete their existing time and also re-enter qualifying at any time.
Last year's Bump Day proved to be a nail-biter and ultimately controversial, not least thanks to the rain that meant that Danica Patrick came close to not being able to make a run to get into the race. Marco Andretti also came close to being bumped out but in the end fought his way back in - albeit at the expense of ousting his team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay, who ended up having to be installed in AJ Foyt's second car which had qualified the previous day in the hands of Bruno Junqueira. Two Brits - Mike Conway and James Jakes - failed to make it into the race.
At the end of the process, we have the 33-strong grid for the Indianapolis 500, and everyone can take a breather. There is a relative lull for the next two days with no track activity at all. On the Wednesday, Community Day sees the garage area open to the public and the drivers out in force to sign autographs. The following day, Thursday May 24, sees practice and qualifying for the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 race.
Carb Day - "Carburetion Day"- is Friday, May 27. The name comes from a time when cars used carburetors that needed tuning before the race started, but that hasn't been the case since 1963. However, this year Carb Day assumes a vital new significance as it's when all teams will have received a brand new engine for the Indy 500 and be in the process of fitting it, tuning it and ensuring the set-up is correct. They'll have one final IndyCar practice session between 11am and noon to make sure the engine change has been completed properly.
These days Carb Day also sees the running of the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 race from 12.30pm: the winner in 2011 was Josef Newgarden with two-time USAC National Drivers Champion Bryan Clauson finishing in fifth place: both men will be driving for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in this year's Indy 500. In 2010, the winner was Wade Cunningham, with Charlie Kimball, James Hinchcliffe and Sebastian Saavedra all in the field - all of whom will be in this year's Indy 500 race.
After the Freedom 100, there's the climax of the IndyCar pit stop competition that teams will have been competing in heats for over the previous few days, followed by a rock concert featuring Lynard Skynard, and then in the evening the Lucas Oil Indy 500 Soiree social event.
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