The Fast Nine and Family Fun at Indy Motor Speedway

The 100th running of the Indy 500 is just one week away and we are getting in the spirit of the upcoming race. We spent the weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) watching the qualifying sessions for the race and cheering on our favorite drivers as they took to the track to find their place on the starting grid.

Indy 500 qualifying 101

For those readers who are new to Indy Car (like us), here is a very simplified sketch of what happens during qualifying. To qualify for the race means that each driver will take to the track (individually) to complete a 4-lap timed run. The average time of the run determines the driver’s placement on the starting grid (or lineup). The fastest cars are in the front of the grid and the slowest cars are in the back of the grid.

The other thing that is important to know is that while a driver’s technical skill in driving the car is an important factor in qualifying, the weather conditions (actual weather and track surface conditions), and the build of the car also play a significant role. This means that strategy plays just as strong and important of a role as driving the car.

Qualifying takes place over a 2-day period. Day 1 determines an overall lineup with the drivers broken out into 2 groups – positions 1-9 (or the Fast Nine) and positions 10-33 (everyone else).

The end of Day 1 can be exciting because drivers can decide whether to give up their time and try again for a place in the Fast Nine. Seasoned drivers or drivers who might have a time just shy of the Fast Nine will usually make the decision to give it another run. It’s very competitive and a lot of fun because you can see some dramatic changes to a few of the Fast Nine positions. We saw this drama play out on Saturday with final runs by Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, and Mikhail Aleshin (Aleshin actually left pit lane just a mere second before the end of the session).

Day 2 determines the final placement of the drivers within each group. The group of drivers slated for positions 10-33 competes first and then the Fast Nine competes last (again fastest time for 4 laps). At the end of the day, the pole position is awarded to the driver in the Fast Nine with the fastest time overall.

This year’s pole winner is James Hinchcliffe and more details on the final starting grid of the 100th Running of the Indy 500 can be found here.

Is it really family friendly?

Okay, enough with the qualification 101 already. The question you are thinking is whether or not this is even worth it or fun for the family? The answer is YES!

All in all, qualifying weekend is a pretty low-key and a low-attendance event. The stands are dotted with fans, families, and friends of all ages. In fact, I was totally struck by the number of babies in carriers and strollers with their families. There were kids from elementary school to high school cheering for their favorite drivers. And, I totally fell in love with the sweetest 80 year-old couple sitting near us with their cooler full of drinks and snacks. We learned that they are long time fans of the Indy 500 and had been going to the track for decades.

We sat at the start/finish line right in front of the iconic Pagoda where we got a nice panoramic view of all of the action on the track and in the pits. Our son loved it! We loved it!

Things to know and tips

Admission for adults is $20 and kids under 12 are free. Tickets can be purchased online or you can walk up to designated gates with cash. You have your choice of seats in the grandstands in front of the Pagoda (start/finish lines). There is also seating in turns 2 and 4 in the South West and North West Vista stands. And there is seating in the in-field or grassy area inside of the track as well.

Food and drinks can be purchased at IMS but keep in mind that IMS allows guests to bring a small cooler as well. This makes attending the events more affordable since you can pack your own food and drinks.

Dress casually and dress in layers – you never know how the weather conditions may change. Also, keep in mind that while there is some covered seating, a lot of it is not covered so you will want to pack sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. Day 1 of qualifying started out a little chilly and having sweatshirts and fleece on hand was very helpful while Day 2 felt more like summer.

It’s LOUD! There might only be one car on the track at a time but the roar of the engines and the announcements in the background can be a lot to handle for kids and adults (at least me). You can pick up earplugs at a pharmacy or you can purchase ear protection at the track itself for a nominal price. For us, earplugs are one (if not) the most important things to pack. None of us (especially our seven year-old) will last long at the track without those earplugs.

Get up and move! The IMS is a wonderful place to explore. Low-key and low-attendance days like qualifying weekend make it easy to explore the iconic racetrack. While you are there, check out the museum, the entertainment in Pagoda Plaza, and Gasoline Alley (you’ll need tickets).

So there you have it, our take on qualifying weekend at the Indy 500. I’ll be back in touch soon with more thoughts and stories later in the week about the Indy 500!

Dorothy Hoffman is the creator of the travel blog, Squirts and Seniors. She is a Gen X-er who writes about traveling at home and abroad with her young son and aging parents.