Are Fuel-Mileage Races Really That Boring?
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.