Indy 500 qualifying explained: How starting grids are determined compared to F1

Elizabeth Blackstock
Indy 500 qualifying: format explained

Indy 500 qualifying: A very different format compared to the world of F1

From the celebratory milk to the 33-car starting grid, tradition is baked into every aspect of the Indianapolis 500  including qualifying.

The qualifying strategy and procedure for the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ is totally unique from qualifying at every other IndyCar race, so if you’re tuning in for the first time, need a refresher, or just curious about how it differs from F1 – we’ll break down how the Indy 500 starting grid is determined.

Qualifying has changed several times since the Indy 500’s introduction in 1911, both to inject a little more interest into quali weekend and to cater to shrinking grids.

The goal has remained largely the same, though: Each car completes four fast laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The average of those four laps represents the driver’s qualifying speed. Drivers also often have the chance to scrap speeds and try again.

And remember that 33-car starting field? In 2024, 34 cars have entered the race. That means we’ll see the revival of “Bump Day,” where one car will fail to make the field.

Indy 500: the basic rules of qualifying

Before we break down the Indy 500’s current two-day format, let’s address some basic rules about the qualifying procedure that may become relevant as the ‘Month of May’ goes on.

First, cars qualify for the Indianapolis 500, not drivers. We saw this in action last year; when Stefan Wilson broke his back in an accident with Katherine Legge, his team was able to swap in driver Graham Rahal, who had failed to qualify for the race. Because the car itself is credited with setting its qualifying speed, that meant it remained in its original starting position — it just had a different driver behind the wheel.

In theory, this format means one driver could qualify every car on the grid!

Cars are also assigned their starting position based on random draw on Friday evening, before qualifying begins. This determines the order in which the cars will line up on Saturday morning.

As for that four-lap qualifying requirement: back in the early days of the Indy 500, race organizers wanted to make sure that every driver had a car that could be fast over multiple laps, not just one.

In the era where over 100 cars could enter the race, the four-lap average speed requirement meant inexperienced drivers and poor technology wouldn’t water down the starting grid.

For a while, drivers even had to complete 10 fast laps, with their qualifying speed determined by the average of all 10 laps. Now, that tradition is largely preserved thanks to the fact that four laps of high-speed running is incredibly compelling to watch.

Learn more about the iconic Indy 500

👉 Indy 500 schedule: How to watch the ‘greatest spectacle in racing’ throughout May

👉 Who won the 2023 Indy 500?

Indy 500 Qualifying Day 1: Saturday

On Saturday, the first day of qualifying, every single driver entered in the Indy 500 is guaranteed an opportunity to set a speed. Several hours will likely remain after each car has attempted one run; that’s when second attempts begin.

Even though every car qualifies, Day 1 only sets starting positions 13-30. The 12 fastest drivers will move on to a session on Sunday where they will battle for pole position.

The four slowest drivers will move on to a session on Sunday where they will battle for one of the three final grid slots.

When IMS opens up qualifying for second attempts, it will establish two “lanes” in the pit lane.

Lane 1 is the priority lane; if you choose to enter Lane 1, you will be guaranteed the opportunity to qualify before all of the cars in Lane 2, but it comes at a cost: You have to withdraw your original qualifying speed in order to enter Lane 1.

This creates a high-pressure scenario in which the driver and car are under immense pressure to set a faster time than before; otherwise, they’ll be stuck with that lower time.

Drivers who opt to use Lane 1 are generally some of the slowest qualifiers who want to make a second attempt at making the field immediately. You’ll also see some of the ultra-fast drivers opt for this lane in hopes of progressing to the Fast 12.

Then there’s Lane 2. Cars in Lane 2 will only be sent out to qualify after Lane 1 has emptied out.

Here, drivers and cars don’t need to sacrifice their original speed. So, if they go out for a qualifying run and set a slower speed than in their first attempt, they can keep the better of the two speeds.

Drivers who opt for Lane 2 are generally those who are comfortable with their initial qualifying speed but who feel they still have a little more to give.

Every car can attempt to qualify as many times as possible before qualifying ends at 6 pm ET local time.

Indy 500 Qualifying Day 3: Sunday

On Sunday, there will be three distinct sessions: Last Chance Qualifying, Fast 12 Qualifying, and Pole Qualifying.

The LCQ qualifying session is also known as “Bump Day,” because one of the four drivers in this session will be “bumped” from the field.

During an hour-long session, each of the four LCQ are guaranteed the opportunity to make one four-lap run. When every driver has qualified, officials allow cars to make additional attempts until the clock runs out.

The three fastest cars in this session will make up the final row of the starting grid, positions 31-33. The slowest car will not progress and will not race in the Indy 500.

The fastest drivers from Saturday will begin with “Fast 12” qualifying. The 12 fastest cars will line up in order from slowest to fastest, with the slowest of those 12 cars allowed to qualify first.

Each car is guaranteed one shot at a four-lap run during the hour-long session. The six fastest qualifiers in this session will proceed and attempt to qualify again. The six slowest qualifiers will set starting positions 7-12.

Finally, we’re on to Fast 6 qualifying, known as “Pole Day.”

The six fastest cars from the Fast 12 session will line up from slowest to fastest, and each will be granted one opportunity to complete four laps in an attempt to set a quick qualifying speed.

The fastest car in this session will sit on pole position, while the remainder of the first two rows will be filled out based on speed.

Pole position is coveted, but any front-row starting spot is excellent when it comes to race day.