Are Fuel-Mileage Races Really That Boring?

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With no Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend, we fans are going to have to be content with rehashing last week’s race at Mid-Ohio for a few days. While I enjoyed Sunday’s race – many have made it clear that they did not. They maintain that fuel conservation should not be part of racing.

Let’s not forget that the object of a race is to see who is first to cross the finish line, in the least amount of time. Period. How they accomplish this is left to the respective drivers and teams to decide. Last year, Charlie Kimball won at Mid-Ohio by going full-blast between pit-stops, which meant he would pit three times. He made it work because there were no cautions and he was able to maximize his in-laps and out-laps.

In Sunday’s race, there was a perfectly timed yellow-flag for Scott Dixon. He and race-strategist Mike Hull played their cards perfectly. In the end, we viewers were not aware how closely they had figured their calculations. As it turned out, Dixon ran out of fuel just as he crossed the line. Had we known that, it would have made for compelling television. Had other teams known it, they may have followed the strategy that Josef Newgarden tried to follow by racing him hard and running him out of fuel.

As it was, the last few laps seemed to lack drama and therefore it was considered a boring race. My question is this – At what point does racing become boring?

I don’t know if I’ve learned to appreciate tactical racing as I’ve gotten older and understand the sport more; or it may be more generational related than age related. Perhaps this new generation of race fans wants to see more sheer speed and side-by-side racing than watching various strategies play out. I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong, but obviously different groups want to see different things.

When I was growing up in the sixties, baseball was still king. Pro football was on the rise in popularity, but there was no question what the national pastime was. I still remember sneaking a transistor radio to school when I was in the sixth grade to listen to the 1969 World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Mets. The World Series was still held exclusively in the daytime in those days. Most of my friends were cheering for the Mets, but since I was always an Earl Weaver fan – I was pulling for the Orioles.

Nothing was bigger back then. The Super Bowl had only been played three times by then, and was still considered anti-climatic to the NFL Championship – although the AFL Jets had finally beaten the well-established NFL Baltimore Colts just nine months earlier. Still, the Super Bowl was a wannabee upstart to what the World Series was.

By the time I graduated college and become a real adult, the pendulum had swung. The undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, the Doomsday Defense of the Dallas Cowboys and the Steel Curtain of the Pittsburgh Steelers had captured the imagination of the American sports fan and left baseball in its dust. Baseball was suddenly labeled a boring game. The NFL was what everyone craved. Personally, I swapped my allegiance too. I still followed baseball, but I loved football.

It was easier to keep up with football. In those days, there was not near the TV choices there are today. By the late seventies, you could catch the Braves and the Cubs on cable. Unless you happened to live in a market with a major league team, your only other exposure to baseball was the NBC Game of the Week or ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. Football was played and shown on weekends – college and pro. The NFL TV package gave you exposure to the team in your area, but still showed you teams across the country so that fans could watch famous teams and players across the league.

But there was more to it than TV exposure. You didn’t have to know the intricacies of the game to enjoy it. The basic rules were simple and easy to understand. Advance the ball by either running or passing. Stop the advancement by tackling the guy with the ball. Yes, you could learn sophisticated offensive schemes and when teams should go into a nickel package on defense – but a very casual fan could enjoy watching a game without knowing the strategies involved.

Baseball was different. We who grew up with the game knew when a bunt was appropriate, and how to adjust to a left-handed hitter. But the subtleties of baseball were lost on the casual fan. Susan loves going to a Titans game or Tennessee Vols game, win or lose – which is good because both have produced more losses than wins lately. But try dragging her to a baseball game, or even getting her to watch one on television for more than five minutes. She can’t get past the “B” word – Boring.

If teams aren’t blasting out home-runs every five minutes, she’s not interested. Why? It could be that she wants to see more action, or it may be that it’s the only part of the game she understands. She doesn’t care about the nuances of baseball, she just wants to see something that’s exciting and what she understands.

I think a lot of the same logic applies to those that don’t care for fuel mileage races. There is so much plotting and strategizing going on behind the scenes – but that’s just it. We don’t see it and with so many different race teams on different strategies, it’s almost mind-boggling. It’s easier just to make everyone go as fast as possible at all times and may the best driver win. Well, there’s a lot more to racing than simply going fast.

As I said earlier – the goal is to be the one to complete the race distance before anyone else does. The beauty of it is, some may try to do it in two stops, while others may choose a three-stop or even a four-stop strategy. The Verizon IndyCar Series allow teams to make the choice.

Somewhere around 2002 or 2003, CART decided to mandate a very narrow pit-stop window. Teams were told that they must pit between Laps 23-25, or somewhere around there. It took all the guess work out of the equation. Yes , it insured that no one would be trying to save fuel, because they were all forced to follow the same strategy. In essence, they created a series of twenty-five lap sprints. At the time, I felt that was contrived and I didn’t care for it. Twelve years later, I haven’t changed my mind.

Sometimes fuel strategies pay off, as it did for Scott Dixon this week at Mid-Ohio. Sometimes they backfire, as was the case for Tony Kanaan at Pocono. But the teams were given the flexibility to go for it; instead of being forced to adhere to a prescribed pit strategy, which was anything but.

If I sound like I’m being condescending to those that loathe fuel mileage races, that is not my intent. Look, I don’t love them. I like seeing drivers battle it out while pushing the edge as much as the next guy. But unless you equip cars with a seventy-five gallon fuel cell, or follow the artificial plan that CART had – that isn’t going to happen.

What I might be in favor of is increasing the distances of the races, so that there is no way anyone would even attempt a two-stop race. But something tells me that the strategists would not be put out of business. There are some very smart minds up and down the IndyCar paddock. I have an idea those creative minds will come up with some way to make the naysayers claim that they’ve ruined racing and it’s boring.

But then again, the naysayers may end up with the last laugh. Have you checked baseballs ratings and attendance figures lately? It isn’t pretty. Demographic studies show that the majority of Major League Baseball’s viewing audience is older than fifty-six. I’m not even that old, yet (but give me a couple of months). That doesn’t speak well for baseball’s future. The so-called thinking man’s sport with the subtle intricacies is on the verge of taking a deep plunge, once my cronies start dying off. There’s no one coming up behind them to replace them.

Just because I, and a few old goats like me, don’t mind the minute strategies of racing – doesn’t mean it should appeal to the younger crowd. Yes, it’s true. I hate change. Believe it or not, I’m also open-minded enough to know that IndyCar should change with the times. If it fails to, it may end up going the way of the powdered wig, the eight-track and baseball. I don’t think any of us want to see that happen.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Are Fuel-Mileage Races Really That Boring?”

  1. For me, I don’t see a problem with fuel mileage strategy playing into a race. This last weekend’s race was exciting enough and if the SFHR team didn’t screw up the last pit stop then we may have seen another aspect of this type of strategy play out.

    Hats off to Ganassi and Scott Dixon.

  2. Like I said in the “Random Thoughts” post: I hate lumping this in with other fuel mileage races because the only contender in heavy conservation mode was Dixon. Newgarden, Bourdais, and others had made their stops and were running full rich, yet couldn’t catch Dixon because he somehow set a good pace at the same time he was saving fuel.

    If the other contenders are running flat out, I really have problems calling things a fuel mileage win, even though it meets the technical definition. To me, the reason a fuel mileage race can be boring because **everyone** is holding back. But that wasn’t the case here.

    I also very much have a problem with dinging the race as a “fuel mileage” one when SFHR’s strategy was specifically to force Dixon out of conservation mode (but which was undone by pit issues and a penalty) and Bourdais coming out and saying Dixon was laying down fast laps anyway despite running lean. What about any of that suggests holding back by anyone other than Dixon in the field?

    Part of my aggravation at the internet reaction is that people appear to have heard the phrase “fuel mileage” and jumped to a conclusion. I don’t get the sense that any of them making this criticism actually watched the race.

  3. The problem is, at a track like Mid-Ohio, the fuel strategy is basically all there is.

    And they really are that boring. For the spectator. In racing, you are never going to have enough information as a fan to know what each team is attempting to do. If you did, it might be different. I remember a great race at Kentucky with Ed Carpenter and a couple others battling for the lead. It meant nothing because the leaders had to pit with a couple laps to go and Castroneves, who played no part in the racing up front all day, wins the race. Being in the stands, it was hard to figure out how that happened. But Kentucky had other races that did not end like that. In fact, its the only one I remember there in the years Indycar was active there that ended up a fuel mileage race.

    I had not heard that stat about baseball and 56 but I will tell you that it applies to all sports, likely including football. And other areas too. Attended a Blues fest here in Cincinnati last weekend. I was in the youngest 25 % of the attendees, and I am not much younger than you. Attendance at all kinds of events is trending older. Can’t tell you why but it is.

    I myself have lost interest in the modern game of baseball, but in the last ten years I have also lost interest in the NFL. I think the last laugh is going to be on the leagues that try to change to appease the younger fans. As Joe Garagiola used to say “What got you here will get you out of here” meaning what made you successful will lead to success if you stick with it. Indycar has not learned that lesson and continues to pay for their “change”. Other sports too. There was a reason you were big in the first place.

  4. You make a good argument, George, but while fuel-saving may be a necessary evil, they don’t have to make it easier by giving them a knob to set the fuel levels. For all the talk of Dixon’s skills, that totally redundant knob sure helps them stay consistent in their fuel-sipping.

    Your point about how suspenseful it would have been if we’d known how low he was is a very good point. But we didn’t know. Wasn’t it Swift who wanted to put lights on their chassis indicating how much fuel was left in the tank or something? We’d have known then than Dixon was running on empty and that may have helped the entertainment.

    Take the fuel knob back to Advance Auto Parts and exchange it for some Swift lights.

  5. My take is that the desire to see constant side-by-side racing and lead changes among younger fans is a direct product of NASCAR’s model, which obviously worked on ovals to attract a larger fan base. (Short track fans forgive me, but the younger generation certainly has seen NASCAR on TV more than they have experienced short/dirt track action at an actual track!) Imagine how boring a Cup race would be if it was nothing but strung out single file for 400 miles.

    I often wonder, though, if Indycar should experiment (emphasis on “experiment”) with a three-phase race that would reward going for the lead and staying there if possible. With the reliability and drivability of the current chassis and engine, 500 mile races are no longer the same test of endurance that they once were. Merely staying within 10 seconds of the leader almost gives you a better shot to win than him should fuel become an issue in the final stint.

  6. Did Dixon really run out? I thought he said on TV that Hull told him to shut it down because he would run out somewhere on the final lap and it would be a long walk back.

  7. I don’t think Dixon was slowing to save fuel. Sesbass said he couldn’t catch him and he was turning 1:07 laps at the end. Dixon said he would have run out on the backs reach and did n to want to walk all the way back to the pits, so he stopped.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I accept the existence of “fuel-mileage” and “strategy” focused races as a fact of life in racing. Any race that covers a distance that requires the replenishing of resources (fuel, tires, etc.) is going to involve some level of strategy.

    I also understand the frustration with such races. There is often merit to the thought that employing a strategy tames the action by discouraging attempts to gain track position via on-track passing. So too is there merit to the frustration that follows a race won, on strategy, by a driver who was not especially “racy” for the bulk of the contest over drivers who clearly exhibited more on-track speed.

    I find no merit, however, in the claims (not made here) that strategy races, and the tools that enable them are a relatively new occurrence. Some form of mechanized fuel-consumption control has been in Indycar for 40+ years, or even, technically, as long as the cars have had multiple top gears. Tire strategy was legendarily integral in Ray Harroun’s victory in the first 500. Strategies on refueling even played a part in the 1895 Chicago Times-Herald race, though much of that was dictated by the vast differences between the cars competing.

    Barring radical alterations to Indycar’s race formats (like the aforementioned mandatory windows and phases), I would suggest that the series work to ensure that a caution-free run of a given scheduled race distance requires a certain number of pit stops regardless of strategy. To Indycar’s credit, they have worked to do this at some races in recent years.

  9. Are fuel mileage races really that boring??? Yes. They are. Mandating pit stops is not the answer, but Indycar’s had a bit too much fuel saving this year.

  10. Ron Ford Says:

    The best laid schemes of mice and men and race officials sometime go awry. It does not take much for something unexpected to throw a wrench into a race plan designed to minimize fuel strategy. It it what it is. Sometimes boring, sometimes not. Just one of those racin’ deals.

    I think that what drives many of these discussions or complaints about fuel mileage strategies is that much of our society today has a real, real, real short attention span. (I probably lost some readers after the second “real”.)

  11. RIP OUT THE F(bombing) FUEL KNOB. Why is it there? Why? I got no problem with people trying to save fuel, but make them earn it with the right foot alone, no knob assist.

  12. 当客户有巴菲特和吃慢吃得更多,我们说不干了 !告诉他们离开,并且给没有甜点享

  13. I’m not sure how anyone could call this a fuel saving race. Dixon was clearly the fastest car out there, no one could catch him. Seems to me it was just another fine drive by one of history’s best.

    The man started dead last, wound up winning the race on a course known for difficult passing, and did it on less fuel than anyone else. Amazing is the word I would use. (And it doesn’t hurt that he’s got a gorgeous wife!)

  14. Jim Gray Says:

    Racing is racing and I enjoy it all. I let the brains figure out how to make it work while I support it by being there, trying to bring others into the fold, watching it on television, and purchasing products.

  15. F1 has a refueling ban and yet they still conserve fuel. Racing and saving fuel will be forever linked until there is stop using it.

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