Ed Carpenter, IMS big winners

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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.

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