Ed Carpenter, IMS big winners


INDIANAPOLIS -- They changed the format for how pole position is determined for the Indianapolis 500.

But the result ended up being the same as last year, as hometown favorite Ed Carpenter grabbed the top starting spot for next Sunday's 500-mile race (May 25, 11 a.m. ET, ABC).

Carpenter, the only owner-driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series, had the field covered for every challenge Indy's radically revised qualifying procedure threw at him. He produced the fastest qualifying run three times over the course of two days, backing up his reputation as one of Indy car racing's finest oval drivers by setting the final mark at 231.067 mph -- the fastest Indy pole speed in 13 years.

But perhaps the biggest winner of all after assessing the past 10 days of activity at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the speedway itself.

When you take into account qualifying weekend crowds that were at least on par with recent years and factor in the attendance bump IMS got from staging the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis to start the month of May proceedings, at least 50,000 more people passed through the gates of the speedway in the lead-up to the Indy 500 than a year ago.

The numbers didn't rival 1966, when Indy 500 qualifying drew 150,000 people and was almost as big a spectacle as the 500 itself. But it also wasn't 1996, when maybe 5,000 attended Pole Day in the early days of the CART-IRL split.

And that doesn't even begin to consider that those extra people paid considerably more money for daily tickets and concessions than they did in the past at IMS.

"I don't know the numbers for today, but it was a really good crowd for what was traditionally the final day of qualifying," Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles said. "When you look at both days, we'll have had a nice weekend.

"Just the Saturday of the Grand Prix weekend, the attendance was at least 10 times more than last year's opening weekend," he added. "We're really pleased how that played out, especially the reception to the infield spectator mounds. I talked to people who said they were die-hard Indy 500 traditionalists, and they enjoyed it and want to come back.

"Every decision we've made is about trying to elevate the excitement and build a better Indianapolis 500."

Support for the Grand Prix weekend exceeded the speedway's expectations, and the fans certainly got value out of the $30 ticket price on Saturday, when a record 71 four-lap qualifying runs were attempted.

On Sunday, the same outlay on a ducat allowed a spectator to watch all 33 drivers qualify again, most running about 1 mph faster than they did a day earlier.

The Fast Nine drama was somewhat contrived, right down to the fact that Will Power's run for Team Penske was delayed by a television ad break. But there was genuine tension in the giant house, and the crowd of roughly 20,000 roared its approval when Butler University graduate Carpenter edged Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe for the pole with the final qualifying run of the day.

"It's nice to get the first one under our belts, and see how the new format worked out," IMS president Boles said. "We had significant drama in the Fast Nine, and Saturday was exciting when you saw Helio [Castroneves] and some of the other guys run three or four times.

"The challenge going forward is trying to communicate the excitement around bumping into the Fast Nine to the folks in the stands, especially the risk you take in withdrawing your time so you can get in the priority line to requalify. If you had a scoring monitor or were watching on TV, it made more sense."

The biggest complaint about the new format was its sheer complexity, which was confusing even for the competitors. For example, Power admitted that he wasn't aware that 33 championship points were on the line Saturday.

"I didn't even know that the points counted yesterday until one of the broadcasters explained it to me," he said. "Then I really would have gotten back in line to put a bigger time back up. Free points for qualifying, that's great!

"I think the format was pretty successful," he continued. "We had a pretty good crowd both days. It's stressful for the driver -- you had to rock up two days in a row to pump out four quick laps here. But, yeah, I think it was a good idea."

Aside from hometown hero Carpenter's pole, there were plenty of other good storylines on offer in Sunday's pole qualifying. Hinchcliffe was a star, coming back from the concussion he suffered in a freak incident in the Grand Prix to qualify in the middle of the front row.

Juan Pablo Montoya almost brought back an old Indianapolis tradition by nearly running a faster qualifying speed than the pole speed. Knowing he would start no higher than 10th, Montoya dug deep and found 231.007 mph in his Team Penske Chevrolet.

"To tell you the truth, I think it was awesome," Montoya said. "It sucked that I wasn't in the top nine, but as a fan and as a person working here, I think it was really exciting."

Another great story was Kurt Busch. The NASCAR star produced the fifth-fastest speed Sunday (230.782 mph) and will line up 12th for his first IndyCar start and his quest to complete the Indy/Charlotte double.

It would be nice to have more than 33 entries competing for the traditional 33 starting positions to put some excitement back into the bumping at the back of the field. Speedway officials are hoping the IndyCar Series gets a boost once the marketing clout of Verizon's two-month-old title sponsorship of the series begins to deliver fruit.

Until then, Carpenter suggested that the excitement of Indy's qualifying weekend could be amped up even more by condensing it to a single day.

"It's really going to come down to what the TV ratings were and what the attendance was," he remarked. "I would maybe like to see it all go down in one day. I think we could draw a bigger crowd, smash this all into one day and blow it out, have a lot of fun, and not ask people from out of town to be here on a Sunday.

"But it's up to the fans."