COUNTERPOINT: Should fans be more tolerant of fuel-mileage races?

Counterpoint, IndyCar commentary — By on August 22, 2011 9:39 am
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on August 9th, 2011. To view More Front Wing’s exclusive INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, sign up for INDYCAR Nation today at indycarnation.indycar.com.

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STEPH’S POINT:

There’s something to appreciate in every type of race — yes, even a fuel mileage race!

Every fan has his or her own reasons for tuning in to an IZOD IndyCar Series race. Some people hope to see high-speed, wheel-to-wheel, hanging-by-a-thread racing for every moment from start to finish. When these fans tune into a race like we saw this past weekend, all they see is cars going roundy-round in procession. They quickly declare, “This is boring!” Then, they either take a nap, hop online to complain about it, or change the channel.

But there are others who tune in to analyze the nuances of auto racing — not the nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat action but the skill and strategy used by drivers and teams that make the sport more like watching a good chess match. Believe it or not, those people were quite happy with the race at Mid-Ohio on Sunday.

Yes, there was very little passing. But consider this: with very few exceptions, 27 drivers executed 85 consecutive laps with such precision that they couldn’t gain on one another enough to overtake. And on top of that, they needed to conserve fuel to make it the full distance on two stops, and they did that by using their feet and the shifter paddles (not just by setting a knob as in years past). That sounds like kind of skill required to be one of the best drivers in the world, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, back in pit lane, the teams were analyzing telemetry data to learn everything they could to give their drivers the best cars possible on every pit stop. And 162 of those team members twice climbed over the wall into a ridiculously tight pit lane and put their personal well-being in jeopardy to execute flawless pit stops over and over again. One particularly enterprising team took a look at a bad situation and turned it to their favor by calling for an alternate pit stop strategy, giving a rookie who’s rumored to be running out of funding the opportunity to lead 26 laps and turn a race on its head.

Somewhere along the way, these sorts of details became lost on some fans, and that’s very sad. These days, viewers of any sport seem to demand big, flashy, constant action, and nothing else will do. If these people could be educated to appreciate some of the finer details that make auto racing the great sport we all love, it could greatly increase their ability to fully appreciate it.

Of course, some people are simply not interested in these sorts of details, and that’s their right. Those folks can vote with their remote controls. Any race that doesn’t attract enough attention through ratings and attendance will eventually drop off the schedule in favor of more profitable venues. So, if the majority of the fan base decides to tune in for Toronto and tune out for Mid-Ohio, that’s naturally the type of event that the Series will lean toward. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it — if the majority of the fan base agrees with you, your preference will eventually follow.

But the beautiful thing about today’s IZOD IndyCar Series is that it offers nearly every type of auto racing around — oval and road, action and strategy — and everyone can easily find the racing they love somewhere on the calendar. More importantly, for every race that one fan watches and doesn’t love from start to finish, there’s someone else out there who does.  If we could all make an effort to educate ourselves on the things that make every type of racing great so that every portion of the schedule holds at least some appeal, it would go a long way toward helping IZOD IndyCar Series racing grow and thrive.

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PAUL’S POINT:

Americans like results — quickly.  We aren’t a people who like to sit around and watch events in a planning stage.  We want our food fast.  We want our money yesterday.  And we want to be there now.  We are by nature a fast-paced society, and when we sit around waiting, we quickly lose interest.  Call us unsophisticated or accuse us of being an ADD society, but the fact is we want action — not two hours from now or after 20 minutes of planning, but now!

The rest of the world enjoys Formula 1 and soccer, neither of which have ever really caught on here in the States — at least, not at the stratospheric level that they have elsewhere around the globe.  (Yes, I know there is a fan base for soccer in the US, but ask 100 random people who won last year’s MLS Cup. How many will know the answer?  I don’t.)  A game with a score of 1-0 just doesn’t grab our attention.  Instead, we enjoy sports like basketball, where 100 points is the standard for our professionals, and football, where we give the scoring team six points just to run the numbers up a bit higher.  Even baseball, America’s national pastime, is falling out of favor these days because many simply find it too slow and boring to devote a three-hour block to on a routine basis.  Sure, an occasional slow game here and there is permissible, and a good pitchers’ duel can be exciting if we really witness something special, but even watching a no-hitter every single time would cause a fan’s interest to burn out faster than Mark Pryor’s right arm.

This same scenario is what we’re seeing on several of the road and street circuits on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.  While I’m sure the scenic Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course provided campers with a gorgeous facility to watch race cars run around all weekend, the race was an absolute snoozer and left even this die-hard INDYCAR fan wondering if perhaps I might not be missing something much more exciting on Iron Chef America.  Similar stories have also been the norm at Barber Motorsports Park, Long Beach, and even the second half of the race at Edmonton.  It’s not that I have something against road and street courses in general — I just have something against what I consider to be boring races.  I know, I know, it’s all about setting up the pass and forcing the other guy to make a mistake.  If watching three passes per race based on that theory excites you, more power to you.

It’s not really a question of fuel-mileage racing, either.  As Steph perfectly said in her wrap-up from last weekend on MoreFrontWing.com, so long as race cars have finite-size fuel cells, there will always be the question of fuel mileage.  Regardless of the size of the track or the length of the race, a conveniently timed yellow can turn any race into a fuel-mileage affair.  That doesn’t mean the race has to be boring, though.  Case in point (and I cannot believe I am actually going to put this on the record) was this year’s Brickyard 400.  While many found it to be dull, I actually found the end quite interesting.  Yes, Paul Menard was making a fuel-mileage game of it by stretching his fuel to the end, but Jeff Gordon was running full throttle trying to catch him.  As he shaved a second off Menard’s lead each lap, the final 10 laps were reminiscent of the Johncock/Mears battle in the 1982 Indianapolis 500 — except that Gordon had to shave that time and pass about 10 cars to catch Menard.  In the end, Gordon came up just short and Menard scored his first NASCAR victory, but the final 10 laps showed that, even in NASCAR, “fuel-mileage racing” doesn’t need to be synonymous with “boring, follow-the-leader parade.”

I’ll admit that American race fans have not always been so fleeting in their attention span.  Even oval racing was different 25 years ago.  When a victor lapped the field, it was considered a dominating display of talent and machinery, not a boring, lack-of-action call for a new era of racing.  In 1993, it was unheard-of for the top 10 finishers to be on the lead lap at Indianapolis.  In 2011, it was an afterthought when the top 12 finishers all went the distance.  Regardless of why this change in philosophy has transpired, the fact remains that the attitude of today’s race fan is different than it was 20 years ago, and with more entertainment options today, racing must deliver what the fans want to see: action throughout the race with lots of clean passing.  Whether it is for the lead or 10th place, fans want to see drivers racing hard.

And ovals don’t get a free pass here, either.  If we’re being completely honest, the middle 100 laps on an oval are rarely as exciting as the first and last 50 laps as drivers are now often simply content to run laps.  It might be a lot faster, but watching what amounts to a test session during races can be just as boring on an oval as it is on a road course.  It’s probably more dangerous, though, and perhaps that’s what adds some level of excitement to it for some viewers. But the situation exists throughout the schedule regardless.

Should INDYCAR fans be more tolerant of fuel-mileage races?  If by tolerant you mean excited about single-file, follow-the-leader parading, then no, I don’t personally care to be any more tolerant.  If you mean trying to conserve fuel while still demonstrating that you are racing all-out and not simply content to follow the chain of cars in front of you, then yes, I think that’s a race I can invest some time in.

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