Qualifying for the Iowa Corn Indy 250 at Iowa Speedway later this month will have a strikingly new look, as IZOD IndyCar Series officials confirmed the innovative system that they would be using three heat races to set the starting grid for the main race itself.
Currently, oval race starting grids are normally set by straightforward time trials set by cars going out one-by-one in a pre-determined order and setting the fastest time they can over a two-lap run.
However, in terms of spectator excitement, such qualifying compared unfavourably with the system used for road and street course events. Like F1 qualifying, this format involves drivers seeking to progress through various rounds during limited-time free-for-all track runs, until the final round serves as a pole position shootout.
“The build-up we presently have for the Firestone Fast Six has that excitement and we wanted to do something similar for the oval events,” said IndyCar's president of competition Beaux Barfield. "We looked at heat races as something that could add excitement to our races and just improve the product."
“With the new car and the heat races, fans who attend the Iowa Corn Indy 250 weekend will get racing on both days," added Iowa Speedway president Stan Clement.
IndyCar announced in mid-February
that they would use the Iowa event for some experimentation to see whether it was possible to devise a new qualifying system that was as successful as the street/road course revamp, and this week IndyCar's president of competition Beaux Barfield confirmed how it would run - with a slight tweak on the original announced format.
To start with, there will be two practice sessions on Friday, June 22 - an hour-long one in the morning and another 30-minute session in the afternoon - with the final combined times at the end of the day helping to set the various heats in qualifying, which will take place on Friday evening under floodlights.
The first of the three 30-lap qualifying heats will consist of those cars from tenth position down in the even number positions in the combined practice timesheets. The order at the chequered flag will set positions tenth, 12th, 14th etc on the grid for the Iowa Corn Indy 250.
The second will consist of those cars in the odd-numbered positions from ninth place down with the order finalising those positions (ninth, 11th, 13th, etc.) on the starting grid.
The final heat will consist of the remaining top eight cars from the practice sessions, and the order at the end of the 30-laps will set the front four rows of the grid for the main race itself.
In the original announcement, the series had envisaged a slightly higher number of entrants at this stage of the season than the current 25 cars, and had heat 3 consisting of the top ten (rather than eight) battling over the front five rows, with appropriate knock-on adjustments to the line-ups in heats 1 and 2.
Barfield stressed that Iowa was just a one-off experiment at this point: "This is the first of a few concepts we're considering," he said. “It's going back to the heritage of short-track races."
This coming weekend's race at the Milwaukee Mile - along with the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California - will continue to use the traditional speed trial format for qualifying this season.
That allowed Iowa Speedway president Clements to be able to boast: "We've had a lot of firsts at Iowa Speedway with IndyCar, and the mini-races are another first," understandably hoping that the new format will boost attendance throughout the day on Friday given that the practice sessions also now form such an important part of setting the grid.