4 riders, 3 exchanges, 2 retries, 1 day... Welcome to Qualifications! For most teams, quals is both anticipated and dreaded. Unlike the race, where you have 100 laps to correct mistakes, quals offers no such luxury. Add to this the uncertainty of the weather and you have an event that rivals the race itself. Your 4 laps will always make the difference, but the riling question is: "Will it be for better or for worse"?
For those of you who are new to Little 500, qualifications determines the starting order of the race, the order in which teams get to pick their pit position and their race day jersey color. Each team is required to complete four laps and three exchanges and when completed the teams are lined up in order of their qualification time from fastest to slowest; 1st to 33rd. The team qualifying 1st is considered the pole team and will wear green on race day. While most teams have four riders, some teams have three or even two. And although this process may look like no problem here, on more than one occasion, the defending Little 500 champion has failed to qualify for the following year's race.
For the teams who stayed in Bloomington for Spring Break, in order to have access to the track, exchanges took substantial priority over most other training. Calls of "Exchange in turn 1...exchange in turn 2...exchange coming in" were heard all week, with noticeable apprehension on Monday giving way to increased confidence by Friday. On Saturday, each team takes part in the "qualifications ritual" visiting several "stations" including photos, student ID check, final rules briefings and the like before they hear the announcer say "Take the track!" The quals run is actually 5 laps, the first being a warm up lap for the team's first rider. That first rider will start off at a slower pace, coming up to speed in the back stretch, accelerating into turn 3 and out of turn 4 for the flying-lap start. As each rider races around the track the only thought in their mind is "faster...faster...faster! But as they approach turn 4, their mind switches from speed to accuracy as they prepare both physically and mentally for their exchange. The exchange zone they are approaching is 32 feet long, 16 feet on either side of the start/finish, or timing line. Because the lines are painted across the entire width on the track, the exchange zone appears to be much shorter than it actually is, adding to the apprehension of the incoming rider.
The rules state that the rider receiving the bike cannot touch any part of the bike before the leading edge of the front wheel crosses the plane of the first white line and the rider coming off the bike may not touch any part of the bike after the trailing edge of the back wheel crosses the plane of the third white line (the second white line is for timing purposes only). If any of the above happens or an exchange is dropped between the first and third lines, a foul is called and the yellow flag is raised. It is also a foul to ride in the gutter anywhere on the track. If you do foul your team will be dropped three spots in the qualifications order and will get to try again, usually about 5 to 10 minutes later. If a foul is called on your second attempt, you will be moved to the end of the day to attempt your third and final qualifications run. Do not let a foul fluster you for your next attempt. They do happen so just take the time in between to regroup and focus again.
Qualifications is the official "kick-off" of the Little 500 competition and it is an event that challenges your, fitness, skill, accuracy and your mental toughness. It is the first step in every team's Little 500 journey and it is the most critical, setting the tone and the expectations for what will follow. If there one pre-race event that is well worth your time to attend, qualifications is definitely it. Good Luck!