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Why Pole Day at Indianapolis is still one of racing’s greatest days

May 17, 2013, 11:00 AM EDT

Indianapolis 500 - Practice Getty Images

So, you’re wondering if Indianapolis 500 Pole Day still registers? Let me explain the ways it does.

  • Pole at Indy gets you a week’s worth of media attention and spotlight usually reserved only for race winners. In some respects, pole at Indy gets more attention than some race wins over the course of the season.
  • The format has changed to where you need to register not one, but at least two perfect runs to score the pole position.
  • Every starting position pays points, which could make the difference at the end of the season.
  • It’s the toughest 4 laps and 2 minutes, 40 seconds an IndyCar driver will do all year.

Here’s what you can see, with qualifying on Saturday on the NBC Sports Network at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. ET, and Sunday at noon ET. Qualifying will also be live streamed both days on NBC Sports Live Extra for mobile devices.

The build-up to Pole Day at Indy has been reduced in recent years, but come today, it’s all out preparation. One day of dialing in qualifying setups, thanks to the extra boost provided by IndyCar to the two engine manufacturers, will see the field truly “on it” for the first time all week.

The format of qualifying has evolved from where each car only had three attempts total for the month, to having multiple attempts per day. That may make it seem like there’s less pressure in that if you screw up, you have more chances to redeem yourself. But what it can do is amplify the pressure because you can take multiple shots at the pole, if you and the team so desire.

Qualifying begins Saturday morning and after several hours, the top 24 on the grid will be set and the fastest nine advance to a 90-minute shootout. There, all nine cars will have at least one attempt for the pole, slotted from slowest to fastest. And once they’re all through, if anyone cares to have a crack at P1, they can go for it.

And to explain the magnitude, again, of an Indy pole, look no further than last year’s polesitter, Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe almost certainly earned more attention on a national level for taking the pole here than he did for winning the race at Sonoma at August, which strangely, marks the last race a Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing-entered car won in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Briscoe should be among those with a chance on Saturday. He has the motivation of wanting to beat Penske, his former team, as he’s back in the Ganassi stable this month.

But when you factor in the quintet of Andretti Autosport drivers, the veterans from Penske and Ganassi, the rising stars of the sport like Takuma Sato, JR Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden or veterans like Tony Kanaan, Alex Tagliani and Oriol Servia, you suddenly have anywhere from 15 to 20 drivers who could contend for the fast nine. And from there, you have to boil it down even further to find a possible polesitter.

There are no guarantees. But there is prestige for whoever secures the top spot.

Rick Mears is perhaps the Speedway’s greatest master. He’s one of three four-time race winners, and a legend alone in qualifying as the only driver in history with six poles. In an interview he did with the IMS website in 2011 for its list of “The Greatest 33” in Indy history, he explained the magnitude of pole at Indianapolis.

“Qualifying at Indy is the pressure cooker of anything I’ve ever done,” he said at the time. “The race is 500 miles to get it sorted. But qualifying is intense – that is, if you’re in the hunt. You have to run four laps – not just the best of two. You’ve got four laps and there’s no doing it over. If you blow one corner, you’ve blown all four laps. That’s the pressure cooker, but I loved it. It’s the most pressure but the most fun. In the race, you just see what you have and then dial it from there.”

Mears is a champion, a gentleman, and perhaps the greatest sage when it comes to those four laps on Pole Day. Nail it right this year, and you’ll be entered into history among the greats on Saturday at Indianapolis.

NBC Sports Network’s Indy 500 Qualifying Coverage (subject to change, all times ET):

Date Coverage Time Commentators
Sat., May 18 Qualifying 11 a.m. Leigh Diffey, Gil de Ferran, Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Robin Miller, Will Buxton
Sat., May 18 Qualifying 4:30 p.m. Leigh Diffey, Gil de Ferran, Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Robin Miller, Will Buxton
Sun., May 19 Qualifying Noon Leigh Diffey, Gil de Ferran, Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Robin Miller, Will Buxton

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