16 December 2009

Trimming the Fat

So the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is cutting down the month of May, opening the track on Saturday, May 15.  While the opening for practice is a week later than we'd come to expect, it is the shortening of qualifications, back to two days (May 22 and 23) that is perhaps the most surprising.

Last year, IMS was finally able to see its 11 cars per day plan work out over four days, as the weather cooperated enough to see the format through.  In all honestly, it was fairly exciting too (except for the cold weather), as Alex Lloyd capitalized on the format to pick up the last of the first 11 spots for Sam Schmidt's team as the gun went off on that Saturday.

Still, the new format will work for both IMS and fans, in my opinion.
From the fans' perspective, attendance had been down during qualifications for a myriad of reasons:

  • The split caused fans to stay away.  
  • Speeds plateaued after years of new track records, or approaching track records.
  • Many of the 'names' of open-wheel racing were missing due to the split and retirement.  In all honesty, no fans were showing up to watch Buzz Calkins qualify.  Steve Kinser?  Maybe.
  • Frankly, as the information age grew, our attention spans shrank.  So sitting around at IMS from 10-5 watching a few cars attempt to qualify wasn't as appealing as it might have been in years prior.  (This is why in recent years, IMS has brought in acts like George Clinton, to try and attract more people to qualifications and get them to stay.)
  • Weather.
  • The Pacers were a strong team in the 1990's, meaning they were playing meaningful playoff games during much of May. Fans could go to these games or stay home and watch them, leaving them from the track.
From IMS' perspective, keeping the track open for an entire month was an unnecessary cost, given the amount of money that was going out to operate the track on a daily basis.  If fans weren't coming to the track in the same numbers as in the early 1990's, why create a sunk cost?

However, by shrinking qualifications to two days, I think it will help on several fronts:
  • With two days of qualifications, and limited practice, teams will be using those days to make sure they get in the field, but also to gain additional track time.  Henceforth, more cars will be on the track on those two days.  More cars means less downtime during the day, giving fans exactly what they want.
  • The same principle applies for the practice days.  With less available track time during the month, cars will be on-track more often, which is exactly what the businessman who takes a long lunch to grab Mug N' Bun and heads to IMS wants to see.

So if the weather cooperates (because if it doesn't, all hell breaks loose and qualifying is done on a Monday, I don't see IMS turning much of a profit), this could work.  Yes, losing some of the tradition of the "month of May" hurts, but frankly, all will be forgotten when those balloons fly over the Pagoda on May 30.

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