Indianapolis, 2023

A refresher on the Indianapolis 500’s unique two-day qualifying format


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The Indianapolis 500 is a rarity in professional motorsport.

In a landscape where the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an invitation-only event, NASCAR’s top teams are secured a starting spot through a racing entitlement contract (called “charters” in the series), and Formula 1’s current group of constructors stubbornly refuse to welcome any sort of expansion, the Indy 500 guarantees any prospective entry the chance to qualify – but guarantees nobody the right to start the race through any means other than merit.

This year, 34 teams and drivers will contest 33 starting positions. One driver’s ambitions of winning the biggest race of the IndyCar Series season will be dashed a week before the race starts.

An event with this much at stake for the full-season IndyCar competitors and the “500 specialists” requires a special qualifying format, unique to this event.


Full-field qualifying (11:00 local time / 16:00 BST)

On the first day of qualifying, all 34 drivers will have six hours and 50 minutes to try and qualify for next week’s race. At the end of this session, 30 drivers will qualify for the Indianapolis 500. The fastest 12 drivers will proceed to a two-stage pole shootout on Sunday, while the drivers in positions 13 through 30 are locked in.

The drivers will be ranked not by the fastest single lap time, but by the average speed of four consecutive laps in a single-car format.

They will proceed with these initial qualification attempts in the order which they drew on Friday evening, as follows:

123Ryan Hunter-ReayDreyer & ReinboldChevrolet
226Colton HertaAndrettiHonda
312Will PowerPenskeChevrolet
406Helio CastronevesMeyer ShankHonda
598Marco AndrettiAndrettiHonda
68Marcus EricssonGanassiHonda
745Christian LundgaardRLLHonda
87Alexander RossiMcLarenChevrolet
99Scott DixonGanassiHonda
1060Simon PagenaudMeyer ShankHonda
1155Benjamin PedersenFoytChevrolet
1251Sting Ray RobbCoyne/RWRHonda
136Felix RosenqvistMcLarenChevrolet
1466Tony KanaanMcLarenChevrolet
1533Ed CarpenterCarpenterChevrolet
1650RC EnersonAbelChevrolet
1730Jack HarveyRLLHonda
1820Conor DalyCarpenterChevrolet
1929Devlin DeFrancescoAndrettiHonda
2015Graham RahalRLLHonda
2121Rinus VeeKayCarpenterChevrolet
225Pato O’WardMcLarenChevrolet
2377Callum IlottJuncos HollingerChevrolet
2424Stefan WilsonDRR/CusickChevrolet
2511Takuma SatoGanassiHonda
2618David MalukasCoyne/HMDHonda
2714Santino FerrucciFoytChevrolet
2810Alex PalouGanassiHonda
2928Romain GrosjeanAndrettiHonda
3027Kyle KirkwoodAndrettiHonda
3144Katherine LeggeRLLHonda
323Scott McLaughlinPenskeChevrolet
3378Agustin CanapinoJuncos HollingerChevrolet
342Josef NewgardenPenskeChevrolet

This will proceed until every car has been given at least one chance to qualify.

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Afterwards, cars can make another qualification attempt. But to do so, they must get into one of two queues. Cars that queue up in Lane 1, otherwise known as the priority lane or “fast lane”, get priority access to the track ahead of cars that are in Lane 2 (aka the “slow lane”). But any car that enters the track from Lane 1 must withdraw its qualifying time and speed for the privilege of priority access.

Any car that is relegated outside the top 30 will have its qualification speed voided, but they can make as many attempts to bump their way back into the top 30 as possible within the remaining time.

The four drivers that didn’t make it into the top 30 will have to wait until the next day to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.


Beginning at 11:30 local time/16:30 BST, there will be two 60-minute practice sessions held consecutively. The first is for the 12 fastest qualifiers from Saturday, and the second is for the four drivers who must take part in Last Chance Qualifying.

Top 12 Qualifying (14:00 local time/19:00 BST)

The twelve fastest qualifiers from Saturday will make another four-lap run, in order from slowest to fastest. Unlike Saturday’s full-field qualifying, every driver will be guaranteed one – and only one – attempt to qualify.

At the end of the session, positions 7-12 will be locked in, and the remaining six drivers will proceed to a pole shootout later in the evening.

Last Chance Qualifying (15:05 local time/20:05 BST)

Four drivers will contest the remaining three grid positions in a one-hour timed session. Every car is guaranteed a minimum of one attempt and may make multiple attempts until time expires.

Cars will be allowed an additional “cool-down lap” following each qualifying attempt in order to expedite engine cooling for another run, but only until there are ten minutes left in the session.

Each car’s most recent qualifying speed will remain eligible for the starting lineup until the time is withdrawn (i.e. via entering the priority lane for another attempt) or until the end of the session.

The most recent Last Chance Qualifying session was held in 2021, when two-time and reigning IndyCar Series champion Will Power escaped humiliation and qualified for the race alongside Sage Karam and Simona de Silvestro, while Charlie Kimball and RC Enerson failed to qualify.

In 2019, six cars and drivers contested the remaining three grid slots. A dramatic final run by Juncos Racing driver Kyle Kaiser bumped two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren from the field. Kaiser joined Karam and James Hinchcliffe on the final row, while Pato O’Ward and Max Chilton failed to qualify along with Alonso.

Fast Six Qualifying (16:20 local time/21:20 BST)

The six fastest drivers from Top 12 qualifying will make a final qualifying run, in order from slowest to fastest from the preceding session.

The fastest driver will earn pole position and 12 IndyCar Series championship points, while the rest of the top 12 qualifiers will also earn championship points.

While the format of Indy 500 qualifying is somewhat complex to explain in words, compared to a single session or knockout qualifying format, most will find it intuitive to watch as it plays out in real time – and it does lend itself to genuine intrigue and tension over the days to come.

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Author information

RJ O'Connell
Motorsport has been a lifelong interest for RJ, both virtual and ‘in the carbon’, since childhood. RJ picked up motorsports writing as a hobby...

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15 comments on “A refresher on the Indianapolis 500’s unique two-day qualifying format”

  1. Regular Indycar qualifying is already a mess, only much more so for the 500.

    Gimmicky fast lane, slow lane, losing times and running out the clock all in support of a celebration of the 2nd worst competitor of all. And then a basically meaningless shoot-out for what is probably one of the least important pole positions in all of motorsport.

    Maybe Indycar should put on a sprint race this weekend if they wanted to gather some interest. 😜

    1. Yet another world class take from the legendary galaxy brain of Proesterchen.

      While some of the recent changes have convoluted it, the elements you’re pointing out are literally the most traditional ones, they’re not in any way any kind of modern ‘gimmick’. The fast and slow lane is a tradition of many decades.

      It’s general problem and challenge is it tries to combine tradition (the Saturday session), which is just entire days of running over two entire weekends, to keep the whole historical vibe 500 qualifying and not make it a modern style session, which is important, but while also recognising ‘hey 8 hours a day for 4 or even 2 days isn’t really a workable commercial product’ so they’re trying to insert systems much more like their current qualifying system, where you get short one hour/one run sessions.

      The result is a bit of a convoluted hybrid where Saturday is kind of how it should be (yes including the fast and slow lanes and all those traditional old things) to set the middle but because they want convenient tv nuggets of 1 hour or less they separate the front and back into their own little packets.

      The optimal format would be largely how it was over the last decade (especially if they could be more guaranteed of 35-36 cars a year and genuine bumping) which is just let everyone qualify over two days in traditional Indy 500, one guaranteed but unlimited attempts (fast or slow lane) from 11 to 4:50 both days. You don’t need to manufacture last row drama, those guys will all be trying to bump each other in that dramatic last hour anyway. Then just run a Fast Nine Shootout like they used to, one run each, straight after that at 5 or 5:30.

      1. To clarify, the specific fast-slow lane setup is newer but not a commercial, Liberty-F1 style gimmick, it arguably actually is the opposite because it kind of confuses things a tad more and is more there just to vaguely modernise the format from the old way of ‘go again you withdraw your time bad luck’.

        But it’s rooted in the tradition of withdrawing one’s time. The basic idea of the fast lane is the core, vital Indy tradition of ‘if you post a qualifying speed but aren’t happy or feel safely in the field and want to go back out again, the price is the withdrawal of your time. Take that risk at your peril’. They realised that withdrawing all times for all attempts was a bit much and also a bit hard to follow who was where (after a whole debacle in 2010) so they allow cars to just run whenever they want. Plus just purely commercially, it tended in the modern era to limit running as most cars that felt safely in the field (which is everyone some years, and nearly everyone most years when there’s on’y 34-35 cars and the slow few are obvious) are never going to take the risk of withdrawing a time that’s definitely got them safely in. Allowing a slow lane means there’s always continuous running which is cool for fans.

        But obviously because its an oval (so can only run one at a time) and because its an old Indy/F1 style ‘here is X minutes/hours to qualify’ not merely single-lap qualy, and a huge grid, it means with free reign to run again the line is just going to always be too long to get back through and give everyone heaps of attempts in the time. Which is why the whole concept of withdrawing was there in the first place to stop cars back in the day all competing to try and get back in line awkwardly. More importantly, it lends itself to shenanigans because teams go back out when they don’t need to, to stop slower teams behind in line going back out to beat them. Which again…is YET ANOTHER reason why the whole idea was always that you had to withdraw your times, to disincentivise those shenanigans. Teams would get in line just in case but if you’re gonna have to take the huge risk of withdrawing your time you tend to pull out of line so you get through the queue much quicker and everyone who really needs another go to get back in gets it.

        The slow/fast lane is a great compromise. You can’t, as cool as old school F1 60 minute qualifying was, just have a clock and open season, because there’s 34+ cars that can only run one at a time, it would take weeks to give everyone the multiple goes they want. So you can’t just have a slow lane because everyone would stack and block it and some teams would get screwed. The fast lane gives a chance for priority to those who need it, but at a cost and a risk, one that is embedded deep in the core history of Indy.

        The only thing that would be both gimmick free and complexity free, given its an oval, is just the way they do the other ovals, one run each, in a particular order, which is…kinda boring and tends to be boring at the other ovals, would still take ages with this many cars on this long a track and not be a great TV product anyway, and kills all tradition. I can understand for the uninitiated why this all seems a bit weird, and the strictest simple and fair way would be that 1 lap system, but then basically, on the spectrum of ‘efficient watchable tv window for commercial needs’ vs ‘Indy tradition’ you lose out on every front. That format guts both and is bad.

        The format we have maximises both, but yeah its complicated and could probably be done better.

        But my overall point in the context of your comment is that the complexity of the format isn’t about gimmicks or doing anything weird or fancy or new ‘just for Indy’. The just for Indy parts that seem a bit weird if you’re not familiar are the old parts, just awkwardly shoehorned with made for TV parts that are largely consistent with how the rest of the Indycar races/other series’ do it.

        If Indycar really had a more Liberty hardcore mindset of ‘compromise all traditions and what fans what JUST to appeal to DTS generation/low attention spans/commercial needs’ this format would be completely different, obviously, because you’re never going to design such an unreasonable convoluted format as we have as a ‘gimmick’.

        The idea that your first thought when seeing something so complicated that only hardcore race fans could follow it is ‘damn commercial gimmicks’ is…interesting. It’s literally the opposite. But we do both agree it’s not perfect.

      2. I suppose you’re from the school of any gimmick turning into a tradition, eventually?

        Do you really think that this format is what anyone would reasonably draw up when tasked to find the 33 quickest out of a field of 34 potential entries and put them into a starting order that has little if any influence on the outcome of the race?

        1. Certainly not but they’re not ‘commercial gimmicks’. Also you’ve got form.

        2. Would you prefer the traditional first to be received via the post method?? Because it was that and then this system. It has literally been NO OTHER SYSTEM

    2. @proesterchen : “2nd worst competitor of all”

      You need to explain that.

      As for the rest of you comment, it comes across as F1 elitism. The rules of qualifying have changed somewhat over the years but historically it has been spread over 4 days, Saturday & Sunday of 2 weekends. And since 1970, every driver has had a shot at pole on the so-called “Pole Day”, even if not everyone gets a go due to weather.

      The fast/slow lane has been around for a while. Since the number of entrants has dropped massively since even the 2000s and certainly the 90s, you don’t get 60+ drivers attempt to qualify, in part due to the limited number of engines available. So the current format makes sense in terms of keeping as many elements of tradition as possible, while also making it more viewer friendly.

      1. Yesterday, hours were spent on finding the 4 worst competitors. Later today, an hour of prime-time running will be devoted to finding the 2nd worst RLL car, presumably.

        Especially when things are as dire as yesterday, with 3 RLL drivers basically reduced to telling the TV reporters over and over again how there’s no speed to be found while continuing to try anyway, that’s as much fun as watching a spelling bee at the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good … and Wanna Learn to do Other Stuff Good Too.


  2. Jonathan Parkin
    20th May 2023, 16:21

    Why six hours and 50 minutes for a qualifying session. Converted to minutes that’s 410, which is still random. Why not seven hours?

    1. Yeah that’s quite recent. Would be a tv window thing. Finishing 10 before the hour gives them time to actually complete the run, because they only have to take the green by 1 second before the gun at 4:50, then the actual run takes like 3 minutes, and then they gotta come back in, and then you gotta go and interview the pole winner etc. They can do all that now and still largely wrap a broadcast on the hour at 5.

      All a bit silly and very American to compromise sporting product for TV like that but a pretty regular commercial reality across their sport and not a big problem for the format.

      1. It is NOT quite recent and dates from before TV coverage, one should learn the history of the cannon sounded and Indy qualifying and then speak. It’s all out there

  3. They should go back to the old qualifying setup as it was much better with a lot more tension than what we have had over the past decade or so.

    There used to be a lot more jeopardy when the car was locked in once you accepted the run meaning you had to withdraw that car & run with the backup if you wanted to have another go. It made them think about accepting the run or using one of the 2 wave off’s to make setup changes & try again later on. It all added that extra bit of tension, drama, excitement & strategy.

    Now they just all get multiple runs across the 2 days with additional shootouts and the lane that allows you to keep your existing time if you don’t go faster and that has just sapped all of that jeopardy, tension, excitement & drama out of qualifying. Especially now they have reversed bump & pole day meaning there’s no possibility for a last minute entrant to come & try make the field on the final day as you often used to get when the final qualifying day was when bumping took place.

    Even now you can go back and watch the qualifying days from 15+ years ago and see just how much better that format was because even now the drama, excitement & tension comes across & thats just lacking now.

    Indy qualifying used to be almost as big an event as the race itself in terms of the drama, excitement & tension but now it’s nothing that interesting or special at all and thats a shame.

    1. “meaning there’s no possibility for a last minute entrant to come & try make the field on the final day as you often used to get when the final qualifying day was when bumping took place.”

      Considering that Honda and Chevrolet only had 18 engine leases for the Indy 500 available, that’s not going to happen today. You need pre-approval in the DW12 era for an engine lease, don’t expect to be able to turn up on day 1 of qualifying and buy one.

      Basically your comment is “it was so much better back in the day and they should go back to that” without accepting the commercial realities of modern sport. It’s not the 60s where the equivalent of garagistas could cobble together a car and engine on the cheap and run it with a competent driver to make the race – a tactic that still could work in the 90s. It’s just not how it works anymore.

      The cars they run are, more often than not, specially prepared for ovals and in some cases the 500 itself. See Alonso’s performance in 2020 basically being rubbish because he crashed in the specially prepared car and the backup just didn’t have the time to be polished down to get max performance from the tub. So he was not a factor for the entire race, unlike 2017 where he was in with a chance until his engine failed late on. That’s why you can’t force drivers into a backup car if they withdraw a time – and that’s before you factor in costs.

  4. Oh, I needed that breakdown. Thanks for the article! I’m watching the quali live right now.

  5. i love the format for the indy500. Wish f1 would do a longer session or something when there were bigger races on the line. Excited to go to the race next weekend.

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