Pre-race spirit is back at track

Cooperative weather waspartially a factor.
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Indianapolis 500 organizers finally got their wish on the first weekend of qualifying: sunshine, drama, loud cheers.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Joie Chitwood couldn't have asked for a better rollout for his new qualifying format.
"Our goal was to come up with a process that created more activity each day," Chitwood said. "It did what it was supposed to. It was nice to see it in progress, but it was also good to see the result."
Drivers, fans and team officials also considered it a big success.
Voice of veteran
"It got some spirit back into what we used to see here in qualifying," said team owner Roger Penske, winner of a record 14 poles and 14 races in Indy. "These guys couldn't hear the cheers from the fans, but I'll tell you, they were standing up in their seats."
Three years ago, Chitwood and IRL president Brian Barnhart decided to break with one of Indy's longest traditions by changing the qualifying format.
Under the new system, cars can make three attempts each day and the 11 fastest cars on each of the first three days earn starting spots in the tentative 33-car grid. The fourth qualifying day is supposed to be left open for bumping.
Previously, cars were given three attempts for the entire month, then had to use another car to make additional attempts and there was no limit on the number of starters qualifying each day.
Barnhart said part of the reason for the change was to keep costs down by making equipment available to teams later in the month. But rainouts the past two years prevented organizers from trying it out.
More meaningful
The new process also made Day 2 more meaningful. Sunday's qualifying opened with a second straight flurry of attempts before the usual delay as the track heated up.
In the final hour, drivers again scurried into line in hopes they wouldn't have to spend another week worrying about qualifying. Among the drivers left out Sunday was two-time winner Al Unser Jr., who was bumped in the final 30 minutes Sunday.
Perhaps the best indicator of the weekend, though, was the crowd.
While it wasn't close to the estimated 200,000 fans that showed for Pole Day in the '70s and '80s, the crowds were significantly larger than in recent years and more comparable to Carb Day crowds for the final practice of the month.
Even slower speeds, which Barnhart attributed to strong winds, didn't detract from the weekend.
"There was a bustle around the track," Chitwood said. "People were getting here at 7 a.m. the first day [Saturday]. There's always room for improvement, of course. But I'm already excited about next year now that we've had it happen and people are talking about it."
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