How Indy 500 qualifying works

Only 33 cars can take the green flag so one must be bumped out before the Indy 500 begins

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The Indy 500 is just around the corner but before we get to race day, there is the small matter of an entire weekend dedicated to qualifying.

Thirty-four cars are set to try their best to win the biggest race on the motorsport calendar but the offensive of one car will end in qualifying.

That’s because only 33 cars can start the Indy 500, but more than that can enter which brings in the philosophy of ‘bumping’. Whichever car is the slowest of the 34 at the end of the weekend will be sent home, regardless of whether they are a full-time entry or just here for the 500.

Previous years have seen Fernando Alonso and McLaren fail to qualify for the 500 as well as full-time racer James Hinchcliffe in 2018.

The qualifying sessions

After a final practice on Saturday morning, a random draw determines what order the cars will head onto the track for their initial qualifying run – with only one car allowed on track at any given time to avoid the use of a slipstream.

It is preferred to go early in the session before the air and track temperatures rise as the height of the afternoon approaches.

Once every car has had a go at a qualifying run, the track is opened up to everybody for the remainder of the day to run when they like.

When Sunday comes around, the top 12 will go into a standard IndyCar qualifying session, in essence, where they all get one go and the top six secure their spots on the front two rows. They will then battle it out for pole position to end the weekend’s action.

Between the ‘Fast 12’ and the ‘Fast Six’ will be a ‘Last Chance’ session which will see the cars from 31st to 34th at the end of Saturday fight to take their place on the grid for the race. The slowest of the quartet will not race.

Positions 13-30 are settled on Saturday and the drivers will not head back out on Sunday.

Scott Dixon in action during Indy 500 practice | IndyCar

Gambling in qualifying

One added ingredient to the mixture on Saturday is the chance to gamble. This won’t be seen until later in the day when things start to get desperate for those outside the top 30 but teams can opt to withdraw their previous time to enter the ‘fast lane’.

This will give them priority to go out next but whatever speed they get is what they post, even if their previous speed was faster.

Teams can still go out to try and improve again without withdrawing their time by staying in the ‘merge lane’ and waiting for their turn.

2022 saw Scott Dixon post an incredible four-lap average speed to take his fifth pole at the Indy 500 with 234mph averaged over the 10-mile run.

Joe Ellis
Joe Ellis
Joe Ellis is a motorsport journalist with experience working in BTCC. He is the resident IndyCar correspondent for Total-Motorsport.com and a top class F1 writer.
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