New Indy 500 qualifications rules sign of series’ situation

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There’s a big difference between watching a National Football League and Arena Football League game.

Forget about the size, speed and overall skill of the players. We get that.

The main difference for me is that watching an NFL game gives me the distinct feeling that I’m watching a game that had its rules crafted in a time before mass media, namely television.

The rules of the game were invented to make the game fair, competitive and perhaps fun to play. The same goes for a college or high school game.

The biggest problem I had with AFL games is it felt like the game was invented for purely entertainment purposes. And when things are made up that way, they seldom work in my mind. Given the current status of the AFL, I’d say I’m not alone.

I’m not picking on the AFL. Just about every new league has this feel to me. Be it the XFL or whatever. The rules feel contrived, and in some cases a bit nonsensical.

Now some innovations have substance. The American Basketball Association ushered in the three-point era, and I’d still like to see the red-white-and-blue ball used.

While NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup seemed a little contrived to me at first, I can’t argue that it doesn’t make the series’ final races more exciting. I think it’s less fair than the previous system, which is a problem for me, but fairness doesn’t always sell. Excitement, I suppose, does.

But here’s the rub. A sport needs to be exciting on its own merits to truly be a long-term profit-making business prospect. That’s why the NFL is so successful. Yes, league officials occasionally tweak the rules, but more out of fairness and competitive balance than just as a way to drum up fan fervor.

NFL games are exciting because you get to see some of the biggest men on the face of the planet running at break-neck speeds often on a collision course. That’s the nature of the game and it sells.

That brings us to the IndyCar Series. It’s no secret that the open-wheel series is doing everything it can to catch peoples’ attention. I would say they’re trying to draw fans’ attention, but series officials’ efforts are much broader.

I applaud those efforts, but they’re walking a fine line. IndyCar racing needs more fans to survive long-term. But I’m not sure that inventing new qualifications rules for the Indianapolis 500—or any other race—is the answer.

Not even the drivers know what to make of it, as is evident from Helio Castroneves’ comments at Sunday’s race in Alabama.

The crux of the change is this: The fastest nine cars in traditional pole day qualifying will advance to a 90-minute end-of-day session during which the drivers will take shots at the pole (and special cash and prizes).

It feels a little like Let’s Make a Deal.

Here’s the real deal. Either IndyCar Series officials learn to sell their sport (to fans and sponsors) or they don’t. They learn to promote their drivers or not. Danica Patrick either learns to navigate a road course or becomes as irrelevant in this reincarnated open-wheel series as Milka Duno.

And at the end of the day, the series needs to get itself back to what made it rock and roll in the 1960s through the 1980s—if they can ever put its finger on just exactly what that was.

The series should emphasize speed, handling, pit crew skills and all the things that have made this sport popular with past masses.

Will people come back in the numbers they did when A.J., Mario and Mears made them stand on their feet? I don’t think anyone knows.

But the core product remains racing around a track as fast as possible and the personalities that pilot these four-wheeled rocket ships. Emphasis on cutting-edge cars and other technology might also be a novel idea. That sort of thing really appeals to people interested in watching cars go fast.

Trying to sell people made-for-TV rules and trumped up drama—especially when you’re talking about something with the historical significance of the Indianapolis 500—makes it look like desperation time for the IndyCar Series.

But then again, maybe it is.

Or Maybe this new qualifications format means series officials have their fingers on the pulse of what sports fans want, and this will restore May to what it once was.

Which scenario do you think is more likely?

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