The stars and cars of the Verizon IndyCar series are readying to spend the month of May at the most storied race course in the world. This year’s edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will feature a number of changes that promise a month of May unlike any prior.
The biggest change will be the addition of a second race to the schedule. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis will run on Saturday May 10th, one day prior to the start of practice for the Indianapolis 500. The race will run on the infield road course in a version that is somewhat modified from the configuration that hosted Formula One from 2000 through 2007.
Being a new event, on a course that is unlike any of the other road and street courses on the schedule, picking a winner here is difficult. In should be noted that there are two drivers entered in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis with prior experience in the Formula One event. Those drivers are Takuma Sato and Juan Pablo Montoya. Whether or not that translates to an advantage in the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis remains to be seen.
The Speedway hosted a special test session on April 30 to help acclimate the teams and drivers to the configuration. In the test, Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe topped the time charts with Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay close behind.
The next, and perhaps most significant, change will be to the qualifying procedure and points structure. Qualifying will take place over two days. On Saturday, May 17th each car entered will run a four lap qualifying attempt to secure a spot in the field. The fastest 33 cars will then move on to Sunday to qualify for a starting position.
From the outside, it may seem silly to have to qualify twice when it is unlikely that there will be more than 33 cars in the field. However, add in the enhanced points system, and the picture becomes clearer. Saturday’s times will award points, with 33 points going to the fastest car, declining down to one point for the 33rd fastest. If there are more than 33 cars making an attempt, cars 34 and back will pack up and head home.
On Sunday, May 18th, the field will be divided into the ‘Fast Nine’ and positions 10-33. Then Saturday’s times will be erased, and 10-33 qualify for a starting position. This will be followed by the ‘Fast Nine Shootout’ for the pole. Drivers in the ‘Fast Nine’ will again receive qualifying points with 9 points going to the pole winner declining down to one point for the ninth place starter.
On top of that, IndyCar will award double race points for the three 500 mile races on the calendar. Let’s crunch some number and examine how this could really swing the season standings. If a driver were to have a total slam-dunk of a Month of May it would look like this. Win the pole, lead the most laps and win the road course event: 54 points. Set fastest time in Saturday’s time trials and take the pole on Sunday: 42 points. Start from pole, lead the most laps, and win the Indianapolis 500: 104 points.
That’s a total of 200 points up for grabs at Indianapolis. For comparison’s sake, the current standings after three races have Will Power leading with 126 points ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 107 points. Pagenaud and Dixon sit in third and fourth with 92 and 87 points respectively.
It’s not hard to see how this month of May has become more crucial to a championship run that those in the past. And, Indycar has a number of drivers who are equally skilled at road courses and oval tracks that could deliver that so-called slam dunk in May. When I sit and think if it actually possible for anyone to pull this off, a few names instantly pop into my head.
Scott Dixon is the first one. The defending series champion had a phenomenal run in 2013, and I strongly believe that his best years are still ahead of him. While his Ganassi teammates have struggled this season, Dixon has collected decent finishes and sits fourth in points coming into May.
The other name that comes up is Helio Castroneves. While he’s been a bit inconsistent as of late, and hasn’t hit the ‘win’ column as much as he is used to, you can never count out Helio Castroneves or Penske Racing when it comes to Indianapolis.
Castroneves still has that dangling carrot as the only driver with a shot at joining the ‘four-timers’ club in the wake of Dario Franchitti’s retirement.
With that being said, there are a number of other drivers out there that can pull this off and take a huge step towards the title. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan and Will Power are three others that I would place a bet on.
Of course, Indianapolis also leaves the possibility of a part-timer coming to the Brickyard and walking away with those points. More often than not, the Indy win goes to a series regular. However, as recently as 2011, Dan Wheldon took the win in the Centennial 500 in a one-off ride with Bryan Herta’s team.
This year’s crop of part-timers includes Ed Carpenter, who is running an oval-only schedule. Carpenter took the pole here last year and led the most laps. His team is fresh off of a win at Long Beach with Mike Conway behind the wheel, so don’t count Carpenter out.
Other notable part-timers in this years field include former 500 winners Buddy Lazier and Jacques Villeneuve. While they would both be considered a long-shot at best, Indy is a long race where being in the right place at the right time has as much to do with a win as anything.
We will also see Alex Tagliani, Martin Plowman, Oriol Servia, J.R. Hildebrand, and rookie Sage Karam in the field along with NASCAR regular Kurt Busch. Busch will attempt to be the fourth driver to pull off ‘Double Duty Sunday’ by racing at Indianapolis and then departing for Charlotte to race another 600 miles in the Sprint Cup event. Busch’s team owner in Cup racing, Tony Stewart, has given his blessing. Stewart remains as the only driver to ‘do the double’ and complete all 1100 miles.
While some purists feel uncomfortable with so much change at a place that is steeped in tradition, I’m looking forward to this years 500 with tremendous anticipation.
The Inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis will be broadcast live on ABC-TV at 3:30 PM on May 10th. NBC Sports Network will carry coverage of qualifying and carb day, and the race will air at 12 noon on Sunday May 25 on ABC-TV. Coverage is also available on Sirius XM Radio Channel 209 or live streaming through the IndyCar 14 app provided by Verizon Wireless.