Expanded IndyCar grid forcing qualifying rethink

Chevy anticipates a full-season car count in the 11 to 12 range, Honda is bracing for 15 entries to power next year, and assuming those numbers hold and 26-plus cars are present at every round, the NTT IndyCar Series will have a fine problem to solve.

In 2021, IndyCar had 24 entries committed to every race, with the number swelling to 27-28 at a few rounds outside the Indy 500. If the growth trend continues as expected, some venues could have the better part of 30 cars to pack pit lane. And if you look beyond the potential for traffic jams in the pits, there could be congestion to deal with at the shorter road and street courses where qualifying starts off with the field split in half for the opening knockout round.

To that end, the series is contemplating whether changes to its qualifying procedure might be needed on select occasions where too many drivers are forced to fight over a limited amount of clear space.

“You’ve to look at things differently for next year because we’re not qualifying with 18 to 21 cars; we’re preparing to qualify with maybe 28 or more,” IndyCar president Jay Frye told RACER. “So since the tracks aren’t getting any bigger, we’ll go to some places where it’s going to be busier because there’s more cars out there.

“So does that mean we look at starting off qualifying in three groups instead of two? And then they transfer into the Firestone Fast 12 from there and it goes like we’re accustomed to doing for the rest of the session? We know that where there’s the potential for some issues, so how do we address those before we get there? That’s the kind of stuff we’re looking at right now.”

When the former CART IndyCar Series faced the same problem in the early 1990s, it implemented a pre-qualifying system — identical to Formula 1’s practice — where a special session was held on Friday morning that filtered out the slowest performers. With the potential for paddocks and pits that are overflowing with cars, Frye said no thought has been given to capping the entry list at smaller venues or holding pre-qualifying sessions to trim the field.

“Well, let’s start the beginning,” Frye said. “One of the goals in our long-term plan was to bring in new teams, new owners, and it seems to be working. We’ve worked hard to get to this point. One of the things we have a good understanding of all with all the venues we go to is whether you have a 35- or 40-foot pit box, the maximum number of cars you can fit in there, and that type thing.

“Going into the next season, we know which venues have issues if we have X amount of cars. So we’ll work with those venues to see what can be done so we take everyone. It’s taken a lot of effort by the teams and their sponsors to get the car count up, and the last thing you want to do is send cars home, so we’re not planning to go down that path.”

Frye does concede, however, that in some cases, with the Toronto street circuit as a perfect example, free space is already at a premium for the layout crammed between an expo center, hotel, and soccer stadium. Rather than deny entries, IndyCar might suggest a different event as a better fit on the calendar.

“So that puts the work onto IndyCar and its tracks to check in with the teams, get a read on where and when extra cars might be entered with those one-off entries or six-race deals, and then we can guide them, if necessary,” Frye continued.

“If Toronto’s looking really full, we might urge them to go somewhere different, or if there’s a Canadian driver who needs to be there, maybe we see if one of the other extra cars can take a different race than Toronto. So, again, it’s a great problem to have. And we’ll have a good feel pretty soon for who wants to go where next year so we can stay on top of it. It’s something that we just have to manage through.”