The Month of May Explained: Indianapolis 500 Qualifying Format

It’s almost time for the Greatest Spectacle in Motorsport! ATRL’s Eline Luna details what you need to know about this weekend’s Indy 500 qualifications.

Eline Luna

May 20, 2023

With the Indianapolis 500 fast approaching and drivers already impressing in practice rounds, qualification rounds for the greatest spectacle in motorsport begin this weekend. Unlike other IndyCar race weekends, qualifying for the Indy 500 is a multi-day event with several sessions spread over two days. 

Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

While qualifying officially starts on Saturday, Friday is already an important part of it. In the evening the qualifying order will be drawn, which determines the order the cars will go out on track the next day. This can be vital to a good qualifying spot as the ideal track temperature will be extremely beneficial to their results.

Saturday

The first day of qualifying starts with a short practice session. In this session the grid is divided in ‘Group A’ and ‘Group B’ and both groups get 30 minutes of practice time in the morning before qualifying starts.

Saturday will see the longest of qualifying sessions with nearly 7 hours of running. All cars will get at least one attempt according to the qualifying draw.

Lane 1 vs Lane 2

After their initial attempt, drivers are free to set another lap to better their time. Teams are able to choose between two lanes. The priority lane (Lane 1) is also referred to as the fast lane. This lane means the driver gets priority access to the track and gets to skip ahead of those in Lane 2. However, when a team decides to choose Lane 1, they must withdraw their previous time from the standings. Teams can be wary to select this lane as if the driver doesn’t better their previous attempt, they don’t have another time to fall back on.

The second lane is the ‘slow lane’ which means the driver has to wait until Lane 1 is empty to try and better their time. In this lane, they don’t have to withdraw their previous attempt, meaning that if the driver does not improve on this, they will still be classified with their fastest attempt.

Places 13-30

All qualifying attempts on Saturday set race positions 13 through 30. The Top 12 and those below 30th are decided on Sunday. The 12 fastest times will advance to Top 12 qualifying while those with the bottom times will fight for only three spots left in the race.

What is an attempt?

To set a qualifying attempt, drivers get two warm up laps followed by four laps at full speed. For every lap the average speed is counted and the aggregate of those four laps determines a driver’s qualifying speed.

Chris Jones/Penske Entertainment

 

In 2022, pole position was won by Scott Dixon with a 234.046 mph average. The fastest qualifying speed however, was set by Arie Luyendyk at 236.986 mph in 1996. However, due to a different rule set at that time, he only started 20th.

Sunday

On Sunday there are two extra practice sessions. First, a 1 hour session is run for the top 12 places to be determined and directly after that there’s a 1 hour session for the last chance qualifiers.

Top 12 Qualifying

The fastest 12 cars from Saturday will each get a single attempt to post a qualifying attempt. Cars go out from slowest to fastest, so P12 from Saturday goes first all the way through P1.

During this session, positions 7-12 are decided for the race. The top 6 advance to the next session later on the day where they will fight for pole position.

All drivers in the top 12 will get championship points based on their position. With P12 earning a single point while the driver that ends up qualifying on pole will be given 12 points.

Firestone Fast 6

The Firestone Fast 6 determines the first two rows of the grid. Each driver gets one four-lap attempt, just like the Top 12, the slowest driver in the previous session goes out first. The fastest car in this session starts from pole position.

Last Chance Qualifying/Bumping

An hour after the Top 12 qualifying session, the slowest cars from Saturday will take to the track. A one hour session decides which of those four drivers does not get to race at the Indianapolis 500 this year. Every car will be guaranteed a single attempt. After that any driver is free to make a new attempt until the clock runs out.

Indianapolis 500 2021, Simona de Silvestro celebrates qualifying for the Indy 500 during Last Chance Qualifying (Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment)

 

A driver that is classed in 34th place will likely try their best at another attempt, if they improve position, that means the driver previously classed as 33rd will not be guaranteed a spot in the Indy 500 anymore. This process is sometimes referred to as ‘bumping’ as a driver will be able to bump another driver out of the race.

Why are there only 33 spots?

The fact only 33 drivers are allowed to participate in the Indy 500 might come across as confusing, but there’s an actual reason for the grid max.

After the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, the sanctioning body, the American Automobile Association (AAA), determined the 40 car grid was too large for the track. It was decided each car should have at least 400 feet of track to itself, therefore meaning only 33 cars could participate. However, only in 1934 was this truly implemented as 1933’s race saw 42 cars compete. The rule was set in place with an exception of the USAC-CART split years. CART was given an extra day of qualifying where 2 additional cars would make the field, expanding the grid to 35.

The past few years even getting the grid to 33 cars was tricky, but this year, with 34 cars attempting to make the race, “Bump Day” returns for the first time since 2021 and one driver will be without a spot on the grid at the 107th running of the Indy 500.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eline follows a variety of motorsports from Formula E to IMSA to Nascar to WEC. They hope to study Mechanical Engineering to work in motorsports one day.

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