First It Was Boring. Now It’s Insane??

This subject has been around for several days now, but the more I think about it – the more I’m bewildered by it. Dale Christensen, a loyal Oilpressure reader, sent me an article from Bleacher Report written by James Broomhead. Dale thought it might be an interesting topic for an article. I will freely admit that I obviously live under a rock, for I have never heard of Bleacher Report or the aforementioned Mr. Broomhead.

The gist of his article dealt with the IndyCar race at Chicago last Saturday night. His premise was that the new aero tweaks that were given back to the IndyCar teams starting with the Kentucky race were gimmicks that promoted artificial racing. He then likened the close racing to restrictor-plate racing in NASCAR and said that IndyCar was “…entering a minefield that NASCAR knows too well” and would eventually have “the big one”.

The author lost credibility with me on two points. First – within the first few paragraphs, he acknowledges that he didn’t even watch the race Saturday night. He had only seen a few highlight packages. Secondly, he lost all credibility when he inferred that stock cars (or NASCAR’s as he called them – another sure sign of a racing novice) were safer than IndyCar based simply on the fact that they have fenders and a roof.

When Dale sent me the article I read it and sent him an e-mail thanking him for it and informed him that I might write about it later this week. I was framing in my mind what to write when Robin Miller wrote an article the next day essentially saying the same thing that Mr. Broomhead had said. I know that Robin Miller is unpopular with a lot of people, but more times than not – I agree with what he says. This time I strongly disagree.

Robin Miller didn’t say anything outlandish like Mr. Broomhead did in saying that IndyCars are inherently unsafe. He did however; question the sanity of running wheel-to-wheel races like we saw (and enjoyed) at Chicago Saturday night. He termed the racing “suicidal” and "insane". Now this is from the same person who chastised Brian Barnhart for legislating the excitement out of racing. Based on some other comments I’ve heard and read this week, I’m just a little confused. Wasn’t everyone, myself included, demanding that something be done to get rid of the boring parades like we had at Texas and Richmond this year? We all wanted races like we used to have at Texas in the early part of this decade.

Well…we got it and now people are squawking about safety. If you listened to Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee on Tuesday night, you heard Curt Cavin say that not one single car had a mark on it. There were no doughnuts from tire-rubbing. Everyone raced each other cleanly throughout the night. Three cars hit the wall Saturday night, but none were due to side-by-side racing.

Racing is inherently a dangerous business. Racing purists don’t like to admit it, but danger accounts for a lot of tickets sold to races over the years. Of course it’s dangerous. If it weren’t dangerous, then anybody could do it. As much as I love IndyCar racing, it was real hard to watch cars run single file all night at Richmond earlier this season. I actually dozed off for a moment, midway through the Texas race. At the time, I was afraid that my old age was catching up to me. As late as it was during the Chicago race, I was on my feet and holding my breath throughout most of the race. The danger was present but never showed itself.

I am surprised at Robin Miller’s take on the Chicago race. He is pretty much an old-school guy who speaks in reverence of names like Foyt, Ruby and Hurtubise. AJ Foyt is symbolic of old-fashioned toughness. He freely admits that there was never a time when he was in a racecar that he wasn’t scared at least once during a race. When Foyt ran his first Indianapolis 500 in 1958, thirteen of the thirty-three starters were killed in racing – one of them, Pat O’ Connor, lost his life on that very day. But I don’t think the fear ever became so great that Foyt lobbied for a safer type of racing.

As for Mr. Broomhead, I think he might do a little more research into IndyCar racing besides watching a few highlights before pounding the pulpit on what he perceives as the non-safety of IndyCars. At the risk of delving into the macabre; there have been only two deaths in open-wheel racing this decade – Tony Renna and Paul Dana. This includes BOTH open-wheel series and feeder series throughout the 2000’s. Compare that with four in NASCAR that all occurred within one year of each other between 2000-2001.

Contrary to popular belief, the major advances in safety were born from open-wheel racing and NOT in NASCAR. It was not until NASCAR finally adapted the safety policies of open-wheel racing that their mortality rate subsided. Is this to say that there will never be another IndyCar driver to be killed in racing? Of course not – but the risks have been reduced substantially over the years.

The danger will never be taken out of racing. It is the combination of skill and bravery on the track that draws us to drivers. It is what makes them stars. Having skill without nerves of steel will not get you very far in racing. Being bold with no talent will put you out of business even quicker. When cars were driving around in parades earlier this season, the danger was still there. There is always a great deal of danger in going over 200 mph. Still, we were bored.

I’m not sure that fans today know what they want. Some scoff at artificial racing in order to attract fans. Well, that’s the name of the game. The number of fans you have is what will make or break a sport. Whether it’s some aero tweaks, push-to-pass, a contrived qualifying format or shooting a man out of a cannon. It’s all about attracting fans. That goes for Saturday night racing at your local dirt track, the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 or the Formula One race at Spa (one of my favorites). If people aren’t going and/or watching…it won’t be happening. Like it or not, the public wants to be entertained and racing is the entertainment business. Not too may people were entertained by the safe parades.

George Phillips

Read Robin Miller’s article here.

Read James Broomhead’s article here.


14 Responses to “First It Was Boring. Now It’s Insane??”

  1. I don’t know about in the US, but when I buy tickets to Silverstone or Brands Hatch (or any circuit for that matter), the words “motor sport is a dangerous activity” is emblazoned on the ticket.

    While the sport should never back off in terms of safety, I also believe that the sport should not cushion the drivers too much either, for it’s in that lull where complacency thrives.
    Cavin was correct; none of the cars had scuff marks and I believe the pack at the end of the race existed due to the race becoming a 10 lap dash to the flag – there were more than enough gaps and racing when Mutoh crash on lap 94.

    On a sidenote, I thought it was excellent that it did make it to 94 without a caution – another testament to the skill of many the current set of drivers.

  2. The danger in racing is, whether we like to admit it or not, what sustains the trill of racing. We all know we don’t want to see someone get hurt, but I found out this season that a parade of cars is usually amusing for about 20 laps.

    Look at America’s current favorite sport…football! That is an insanely dangerous sport that either ends careers in injury or slowly breaks down the player’s bodies. But we watch for the big hits, the stiff arm, open field tackles, and sacks. The NFL does their job making sure things are as safe as they can be without taking away the excitement of the game. And, consequently, I happily wait all week for the Colts games. I think the IRL has finally found that happy middle ground as well.

  3. The job of the mainstream media pundit is to be a contrarian. Therefore, I pretty much ignore 90% of what guys like broomfield have to say, and read the blogosphere, and sites like this one that actually know what the heck they are talking about.

    The only scary part about Chicago was having people like Milka in the pack. Seriously, if they are going to race like this on ovals they need to start black flagging the ride buyers who are in over their head.

    PS – Congrats on finding a job. Let me know if you need some content. I’m always happy to do research on the golden days, and write up a post or two.

  4. I’d read RM’s article the other day and some of the negative reaction, and I think a lot of people are missing his point. Yes, it’s exciting, but he complains that it’s not just dangerous (racing should be), but that it’s currently *unreasonably* so, which is a different degree.

    For this he goes back to something he’s trumpeted for a long time: lower downforce and more engine power. He claims it gives the drivers more ability to adjust the speeds of their cars and it forces drivers to lift in the corners; that driving pretty much with your foot on the floor puts everyone nearly at the same speed and reduces your ability to maneuver, which is why you end up with pack racing and cars going sometimes 3 or (occasionally) 4 wide in a turn.

    I think he has reasonable concerns, in that
    1. he is concerned that we’ll end up with a NASCAR style demolition derby which wipes out half the field. We’re recently seen it at slow speeds on road courses, but what will it look like at 200mph? Do we really want a repeat of some of the multiple-fatality wrecks you used to get at Indy?

    2. It is ironic that Chicagoland had so few incidents (and a very long stretch of green) despite the conditons RM deplores. But that doesn’t mean the next race would be the same way.

    3. Racing is inherently dangerous, yet I don’t know anyone who advocates removing the SAFER barrier, the HANS device, tire tethers, using gasoline as fuel, removing the pit speed limit, and so on. What we’re after is racing: the ability to run fast, overtake if possible, and choose track position. The danger will always be there (ask Will and Nelson) no matter what you do.

    I’m not an engineer, but he does convince me that higher horsepower and lower downforce would be beneficial. I don’t know if it’ll really be safer, but I do think it would improve racing.

    • The American Mutt Says:

      I got that out of the Robin Miller article as well. I also took his desire to go to say Milwaukee over Chicago to stem, not from fear, but from a desire to see a “Drivers” oval. It seemed he is more interested in seeing the drivers, for lack of a better way of saying it, take a more active role on the ovals. Make it less about the car, and more about what the driver can do other than hold down the accelerator and hope he’s in a red car. I can get behind that.

  5. George,

    I agree with what poster Tom says. Robin Miller is, and has only been interested in one thing: Robin Miller. Some self promotion in any business is understandable, but my view of him is summed up in the fact that he contributed articles to the Champ Car World Series website WHILE he reported on the same series for Speed TV and Some impartiality, eh?

    Robin takes the contrarian view because it gets people talking (or writing) about him. You and Pressdog have posted stories on his piece, and I’m sure other sites have too. Goal reached.

    If the racing at Chicago and Kentucky is unreasonably dangerous, then what is his view of Sonoma, where Will Power and Nelson Phillipe were put out of commission for the rest of the season? Seems to me the “Big Ones” usually happen in IRL ROAD COURSE races on the first lap, where multiple cars funnel into a tight right or left hand turn while still bunched up in a pack.

    I agree with you that lately it seems some fans don’t know they want from racing. After thirteen long, ugly years of fighting the rift is over, and many fans seem to be like soldiers after a war ends, asking “What do we do now”? The big question is how do we balance safety, innovation, and competition to make the largest number of current fans happy, and attract new fans. That is the central question to be answered if open wheel racing is to survive in the 21st century.

  6. I’m with Robin on the “more horsepower/lower downforce” bandwagon, but I’m not with him on the opinion that Saturday’s race was suicidal. Like others have said (Leigh, on this thread, and many people other places), the last 10 laps are something of a red herring. It would have been like that with the old aero rules, with everybody running in a big pack, the only difference being that nobody would have been able to make any kind of successful passing maneuver. You do any kind of restart with a handful of laps in any kind of motorsport (NASCAR, IRL, sportscars, SCCA World Challenge, midgets, go-karts), and you’re going to get a big ol’ scrum of cars with people scrapping for position. The difference between the IRL and NASCAR seems to be that the IRL drivers (mostly, though I’m not yet convinced of this about Marco Andretti) seem to realize that they can get hurt if they do something stupid. Meanwhile, a lot of NASCAR drivers seem to stop listening to their spotters with five laps to go on the plate tracks, hence people dicing and blocking and cars getting up into the fence and what not.

    My point is this: the next generation of cars will hopefully put racing back into the drivers’ hands a bit more (though the IRL could address some of the current cars’ shortcomings, if they read my blog a from couple of months ago…). Until then, and if they’re not willing to make massive wholesale changes on the current cars (they’re not), we’re stuck with what we’ve got. If you’re stuck with a certain product, then the best you can do is try to put that in the best light possible. Right now, the best light possible is to have passing a-plenty on the big tracks, and more small teams being able to compete on the road courses. We’re getting there…

  7. If more hp, less downforce would make for safe, exciting races and reward driver’s skills, then I’m all for that.

    And sorry if I’m repeating myself, but it seems to me that all racing is contrived to some extent isn’t it? The technical requirements set by each governing body are “artificial,” so the question is do you set limits that lead to fast, exciting races or set requirements that lead to boring, slow races?

  8. I don’t get any of this. The two most popular forms of racing in the world consist of A) F1 – traditionally zero lead changes, lapping the field, no safety cars to pack up the field, boring, boring, boring (but awesome) and B) NASCAR – with racing often compared to the WWE – artificially close, contrived, overly-micro-managed specs and rules (on a team by team techinical basis), etc. One of the guys at MyNameIsIRL reminded us that the old IRL was like it was the last two ovals week-in and week-out yet the ratings were no better. Exciting or not, it IS another Brack, Briscoe, or Hamilton waiting to happen.

    This is just like ovals vs. road courses, Americans vs. foreigners, Vs. vs. ESPN. Everything is the one thing that makes no one care about our sport. What the IRL is missing in all of this is a clear vision, leadership, and direction. Its all a balance, and we are severely out of balance. Give me the racing we have had lately and I am glued to the TV, but I have no respect for the technical rules and believe that the results are too much just luck. This isn’t the way racing should be. This is NASCAR – get people who don’t give a crap about the sport tuning in to watch for the big one – great our ratings might go up. I would gladly trade this close racing for a diverse mix of tracks with history, a car that is half-way technically interesting, a full field of drivers that belong at the top level, regardless of nationality, leadership, a bright future, etc…

  9. Bleacher Report isn’t a mainstream media source. It is in fact the exact opposite. It’s more wiki-style where anyone can submit an article on any sports topic. Ergo, the people who write there do not necessarily have to be knowledgeable and informed. I have an account there and thought of writing some stuff, but never got around to it.

    Having said that, I somewhat agree with both Christensen and Miller. I prefer ovals where drivers have to lift and am extremely disappointed that Indy and Iowa will be the only ones left. We’ve lost Walt Disney World, Pikes Peak, Gateway, Richmond, and most importantly Loudon, Phoenix, Nazareth, and Milwaukee. I prefer this type of oval because it has more to do with driver, while 1.5-mile ovals are pretty much aerodynamic exercises. I will grant that since the addition of the push-to-pass button the driver probably plays a greater role than before (at least knowing when to push, which Briscoe seems to be a natural at, and others not so much.)

    I don’t like the danger factor of the 1.5-2 mile ovals and I do see them as more dangerous than 1-1.5 mile ovals, but Chicagoland, Texas, and Michigan have proven they belong on the schedule. Kansas, Homestead, Kentucky, and Motegi I’m not nearly so enthusiastic about as I don’t believe they are the best ovals that could be on the schedule. Granted, several of the other ovals I listed are effectively dead. I understand the racing is closer, but sometimes I felt the IRL circa 2002 was too much of a good thing. I’d rather see a balance of ovals rather than all 1.5-2 mile ovals. It’s a form that should be recognized, but there are too many and too few of other kinds of ovals which I see as superior. Granted, it’s not IndyCar’s fault all those were lost (except Loudon, which they keep denying…)

    The push-to-pass I do see as a gimmick (and I did in Champ Car as well, and I also saw CART’s Hanford device as a gimmick). Still, I suppose it’s better than the alternative: single-file parades that are effectively decided by who has the most “cubic dollars” that would be 1-2-3-4 Penske-Ganassi finishes unless one of the cars crashes.

    • Regarding the Hanford Device in CART, if I remember correctly its introduction had an awful lot to do with slowing the cars down, rather than artificially enhancing the race – don’t forget the CART cars were beginning to hit 240mph when it was introduced, so from that point of view it was a good thing.

  10. We’ve already HAD a “Big One”. It was at Michigan in 2007 when six cars crashed at the front of the field. There was also a big, multi-car wreck at Indianapolis that same year. Last time an Indy Car hit a catch fence was, I believe, Briscoe’s incident in 2005, while NASCAR had a catch fence hit this year. Yet the supposedly knowledgeable types call NASCAR’s plate races “exciting”, while the IRL is “suicidal”.

    Thing is, these aero changes needed to happen. When the leaders get stuck behind lapped cars for 30 laps on a track that’s supposed to emphasize handling, you know there’s a problem. Less downforce/more horses seems like a good idea, but they’ll need to add a few hundred pounds to the cars or there will be more flying cars than there have been with the current formula.

  11. Trick Dickle Says:

    “One of the guys at MyNameIsIRL reminded us that the old IRL was like it was the last two ovals week-in and week-out yet the ratings were no better.”

    Have you seen the ratings lately? They are so microscopicly small, you might not have. Those days, saw 1.0’s for ratings. Now, we don’t get to 1.0 total, if you add 4 races ratings together. And back in those days (when the racing WAS better) and more teams actually had a prayer of winning, the races were actually still on a network people GET and WATCH. Now, its on some two-buck minor league network, bleeding money, with a product that NObody cares about.

  12. You can’t throw a blanket over all the 1.5 mile ovals the way Miller does because they all race differently.

    Sure, you have your 1.5 milers than tend to favor more pack racing like Texas generally does (not this year, obviously) and Chicago, but Kansas hasn’t had a pack-type race since 2005, Homestead is always strung out, Motegi is a full-mileage race and Kentucky certainly isn’t a pack-track, but a good track for having a good car, passing people without having to run side by side lap after lap and getting to the front.

    I also wished the drivers realized this too before speaking out about the closeness of the racing.

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