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Indianapolis 500 qualifying format change conference call
Graham Rahal
Yesterday, INDYCAR officials announced a new format to be used for qualifying for the 98th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. INDYCAR announced a new qualifying format to set the 33-car starting lineup for the 98th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

Qualifying will be enhanced with three sessions of time trials over two eventful days, with the goal of increasing entertainment value, fan attendance and TV viewership for the 2014 qualifying weekend on May 17-18, 2014.

Mark Miles, Derrick Walker and Graham Rahal participated in an INDYCAR Conference Call to discuss the announcement.

Mark, Why make this change now?

MARK MILES: What this is about for us is that 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 with putting it on the line in a way that matters.

First, pursuant to that goal, we added the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. I would say the reaction from fans and ticket purchasers has been terrific.

Now today we're announcing changes for qualifying. These changes we believe ensure that fans will enjoy two days of exciting track action. I think in the last many years, Saturday has been the day in qualifying, but there's been an opportunity to add more compelling content on Sunday and that's what we're trying to do here.

Saturday will determine who will get into the Indianapolis 500 race, and Sunday will determine where the cars who got into the race will start on the grid for the race itself.

These two days will culminate, lead up to, the setting of the first three rows and the positions in the first three rows and who will start the race in the pole position.

We think that makes for more compelling experiences at the track, and for television viewers all over the country we believe the same.

ABC, I think folks know, is going to cover all three weekends. They will cover live at least a couple of hours of both Saturday and Sunday. Their live coverage on Sunday will culminate with the setting of the pole. We think that's putting our best action forward on qualifying weekend.

Lastly, this is sort of an out-there point. Derrick and we are working on the objective by the hundredth running of the race of setting the new track record. We do believe that's something we can do while increasing the safety of the drivers and it's something that can be done gradually between now and 2016.

As that happens, we believe that's a really important storyline about IndyCar racing, particularly at IMS. These changes to the format where the entire qualifying weekend experience culminates with the setting of the pole we think it's sort of like building a bigger stage for that drama as that story unfolds going forward.

Mark, what are the expectations? You obviously want the crowd and television broadcast to have strong numbers. Is there a priority for one or the other?

MARK MILES: No. I think it's on both targets. I think we give people who would travel to Indianapolis, certainly people in the Indianapolis area, an additional day to get out there. More compelling. At the same time ABC's broadcast is a big deal. They'll do that well. It will be supplemented by ESPN-3 coverage so that our most astute fans can watch more hours over the weekend. We don't lose that.

I think we're giving ABC and the television viewer a more dramatic show to watch as well. So I don't feel like this is preferring one or the other. It's a good result for both.

Derrick, we'll see all 33 drivers in the field make two runs to determine their starting position in the Indy 500. How does that change the challenge of qualifying for Indianapolis?

DERRICK WALKER: I don't think it ever changes the challenge for qualifying in Indianapolis. It's something that's always difficult at Indianapolis, something that the teams work hard on trying to achieve. I don't think that will ever go away. There's still a huge challenge in front of them. This different format is different, but I don't think it lessens the challenge at all.

Derrick, is there a provision in case Saturday doesn't produce 33 participants? Is there an extra practice session after qualifying on Sunday?

DERRICK WALKER: Yes, we are working with the schedule to make available track time for the teams to focus on their race setup. We realize that's a very important part. We're reviewing the final schedule. That will be released. You'll see there will be some time allocated for that.

In terms of allowing or helping any teams that are trying to get in the show, we're going to do our best to make sure there's always available time for every competitor, and every competitor gets an equal attempt to get in the race.

Obviously the one variable is the weather. We have contingency plans should certain parts of the weekend shorten our day. We eventually end up with a successful 33 best cars.

As for the number in the starting field, I think there's enough interest out there from the teams, I don't see that as being an issue at this point. There's still plenty of good drivers and cars and plans afoot that I think we're going to be OK there.

And, Graham, the four laps as Derrick mentioned around IMS in qualifying trim can be some of the most stressful laps a driver can have all year. Now you have to do it twice. Does that change your approach?

GRAHAM RAHAL: No, I don't think it does. For us, many times as drivers, we would all tell you we've been eager to go out and run more than once. It's always the team owners and managers that never want us to risk it.

I think the new format is definitely intriguing. We're going to be at least out there two times. For us hoping of course we're in the top nine and we get to go to the shootout at the end of the day.

As Mark said, the most important thing to realize here is we have to give our fans a better product both on TV and at track. As we know Sunday in the past has been a moot point. Now I think there's going to be quite a bit of buildup Saturday, see who the 33 will be, then go into Sunday and wait till the very end to see who the pole winner is going to be.

I'm pretty excited for the changes that are ahead. Of course, I am a traditionalist, but I'm always one that's open for change as well. I'm looking forward to this month of May.

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