The NTT IndyCar series has been looking for ways to make the most of its limited track time during its pandemic-shortened season, and it has inspired a few fits of genius. Easily its best strategy yet has been the doubleheader qualifying strategy it introduced ahead of the Iowa 250s race weekend and will be using again at Gateway—and it’s something that any series running back-to-back races in a weekend should using.
The structure of the Gateway qualifying session is relatively straightforward: One driver goes out at a time with the opportunity to post two fast laps back-to-back. Their first fast lap qualifies them for the first race. The second fast lap qualifies them for the second race
When it was used at Iowa, it was a surprisingly engaging format, akin to the four-lap qualifying at the Indianapolis 500 albeit a whole lot simpler. The normal sidebar that tracks which place a driver is in during a race was cut in half to display the top 10 fastest drivers for both races. A graphic on the bottom of the screen tracked driver speed as it fluctuated throughout the lap. Once a lap was completed, the average speed of the lap was displayed as the driver went back for round two.
During a normal oval weekend, single-car qualifying is a tense event. There is no guarantee that the driver in provisional pole will remain there by the end of the event. Watching that happen twice in a row, though, was fascinating. Drivers quick on lap one didn’t necessarily have the consistency to echo that performance on lap two. Drivers who had a miserable first lap could come back for a strong second
Again, it was a little like the Indy 500, where fans watch each qualifying lap with interest about its larger implications.
It is, frankly, a smart way to minimize track time. Instead of sending cars out to qualify twice, this method allows drivers to go out once and post a lap time for both events. I’m sure Simon Pagenaud, who couldn’t qualify for either event at Iowa because of a fuel pump problem, would disagree—but it was certainly entertaining from a fan’s perspective.
If IndyCar wanted to add a little extra flavor, this format works for that as well. After qualifying, drivers could decide which lap they wanted to pertain to the first race. It would make things a little more complex, but it could implement a fascinating level of novel strategy that we haven’t seen before.
It’s a format that should absolutely be proposed for doubleheader races going forward. IndyCar might not have any more this season, but other racing series will have them in the future. This is the perfect opportunity to shake up our usual routines in favor of something a little spicier.