Pole Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

As Indianapolis 500 qualification weekend approaches I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the first day of qualifications or “Pole Day” as many race fans described it back in the day. This is not a comparison to today’s qualification format, but simply a description of what happened back then from a race fans point of view.

The Indianapolis 500 has always been called the largest one day sporting event in the world, and at one time, “Pole Day” was the second largest crowd in the world. With that said, let’s set the scene of what “Pole Day” was like back then.

First of all, the handheld stop watch was king. There were no electronics to keep track of race car speeds back then, just the handheld stop watch. The only electronics was the electric eye located at the start/finish line that was connected to the official timing and scoring for the Speedway. The race teams depended on their stop watches to keep track of the practice speeds reached by their race cars. They not only timed their own cars, but tracked their competitors’ speeds as well. 

The only official speeds were the ones recorded during a race cars official qualification run. All of the handheld stop watches gave an indication of how fast the cars were running in practice, but the only times that counted was recorded during qualifications. Also, the speeds that were talked about by the Speedway announcers and race fans alike were spoken in miles per hour. The race teams talked about time in tenths of a second that was recorded by their own stop watches.

Outside of winning the Indianapolis 500 and its’ coveted Borg Warner Trophy, winning the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 is the next highest accomplishment for a race driver. That made “Pole Day” special not only for the race drivers, but for the race fans as well. If the anticipation of a new track record was imminent, that made the day even more special.

The “Pole Day” fan arrived at the Speedway with the anticipation of a record breaking day and that created an electric atmosphere throughout the packed grand stands, not unlike the Indianapolis 500 itself.  Everyone in attendance was waiting for those two famous phrases from the Speedway’s chief announcer Tom Carnegie.

Tom Carnegie had a special way of getting the crowd excited with his words and comments as the cars were on the track for their four lap qualification runs.

His two most famous phrases were “He’s on it.” and “It’s a new track record.” He had a special way of pronouncing those two phrase’s so they sounded like “Heeeeeeeeeeees on it.” and “It’s a neeeeeeeeew traaaaaaak record.”

When a new track record was set the only way to describe the grandstands was bedlam. There is really no way to truly describe what it was like back then. You had to be there to feel and hear the tremendous noise from those huge and packed grand stands.

What would happen would be ripple of excitement from those fans with hand held stop watches and knew of the pending new track record. Then the anticipation of hearing Tom Carnegie bellow those famous words over public address system. “It’s a neeeeeeeeew traaaaaaak record.”

BEDLAM !!!!!!!!

Sadly those times are only a memory in an old race fans mind. I promised not to compare that era with this coming week ends qualifications. It is still a great accomplishment for a race driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 no matter what era.

I urge any one reading this to attend this week ends qualifications and then stay tuned for “THE GREATEST SPECTACLE IN RACING.”


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