What Defines An Enjoyable Race?

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Earlier this week there was some semi-friendly discussion in the comments section of this site on whether or not Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto was exciting, entertaining, enjoyable or any other adjective you want to use. Some said it was a boring race, while others took the stance that there was some very exciting racing going on behind the front of the field. Then there were those that said anytime there are fast and shiny race cars on track, they were fine with that. Put me in that camp, but I’m not sure that necessarily apply to the non-shiny matte black finish of Charlie Kimball’s car – but I digress.

It’s a question that is worth looking into – what defines an enjoyable race? Of course, whatever is deemed enjoyable is in the eyes and mind of the beholder.

I can say that I’ve been to races that seemed exciting to attend. But when I got home and watched the recording, they came across as dull and boring. Then again, I’ve been to a few races that I thought were not all that great only to watch the televised replay and find out a bunch of things I didn’t know had happened that made for a very exciting broadcast.

One could conclude from that those experiences that a race’s excitement level is dependent on the quality of the broadcast – and we know that’s not the case. Most of the comments on Monday’s post came from people that watched the race from their collective couches and didn’t make the trip to Toronto to attend in person. We all watched the same broadcasts but came away with different perspectives.

One exchange between readers revealed that they looked for different things while watching races. One was only interested in following the leaders and was disappointed that there were no on-track passes for the lead. Another reader took a contrasting approach and conceded the lead to Scott Dixon for the time being, and focused more on the close racing going on in the middle of the pack. Fortunately, the NBC production crew tends to spread their camera shots around to various positions and not just focus on whichever car is up front.

Different people look for different things in sports. I can really appreciate a good 9-6 football game, because I appreciate watching a good defensive struggle. Many friends of mine, however, would fall asleep in the middle of such a game. They prefer to watch two prolific offenses go at it and see who can win a 51-48 ball game. Though they may be exciting to watch, I find those games to be very unsatisfying – even if my team is on the winning end. I almost feel like I’d have to apologize for my team winning such a game.

Many have said I have low standards when it comes to sports. If an IndyCar race is on, I’m watching it regardless of what else is going on in my life. I’ll schedule around the IndyCar race. No matter how boring others may find it, I’ll enjoy watching it – even if I happen to dose off for a couple of minutes. At my age, that happens more than it used to. But snoozing through a little bit doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying it. It just means I’m content.

It’s the same with football or other forms of racing. Susan gets it when I sit and watch an IndyCar race from start to finish. She also completely understands when I plan my day around watching the Titans or Vols in football. What she doesn’t understand is why I’ll watch the NASCAR race at Dover, tune into a Chiefs-Raiders game or watch Stanford and UCLA at 10:30 on a Saturday night. And don’t even try to make her understand why I would ever watch baseball.

What perplexes me is why someone will continue to watch IndyCar races and continue to complain about how boring they are. This is not a knock against the commenter who was complaining the other day about Toronto, rather it’s a commentary about the many fans who love to complain about anything pertaining to do with today’s version of IndyCar.

Life is too short to continue to watch or follow a sport that bores you, makes you miserable or infuriates you. I have no interest in watching the NBA, but I don’t get on NBA websites and constantly berate people for saying they like it. I just choose not to spend my time watching it and moving on with my life.

I enjoy doing what I find enjoyable. That sounds so simplistic and repetitive that it almost makes no sense. But if you think about it – there are a lot of people we all know that don’t do that. Instead, they find fault with those that enjoy things. It must be sad being them.

I guess my low standards apply to IndyCar racing as much as football. If it’s on, I’ll watch it and I’ll enjoy it. Even the most boring race (Texas in 2009 comes to mind) is enjoyable. Why? Because there are race cars involved and there’s always the possibility that something unexpected might happen to not only change the complexion of that particular race, but the entire season.

Others obviously see it differently, because they are looking for one thing in particular. That one thing may be passes for the lead. Others are happy just to see passing anywhere on the track. The latter is probably the best approach. After all, if there’s passing going on – that means someone is racing someone else. And isn’t that sort of what the sport is all about?

So what defines an enjoyable race? It’s a race that you personally enjoy watching. If you never enjoy watching it, why do you continue to watch?

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “What Defines An Enjoyable Race?”

  1. For me, a good race is one where the leader actually has to defend their position. Especially at the end, I love when the 2nd place car is closing, trying different lines and the such to make a pass. I also think that the announcing has a lot to do with it. Take NASCAR, back in the 1990’s, those races weren’t any better, but the announcers made it an event. You weren’t watching a race so much as a saga. Now in NASCAR, it’s just a commercial event where someone wins and the announcers don’t care much to build it up, their job is to build the story for the weekdays to talk about on the endless TV shows. They don’t build the event up anymore. Indycar is better at this. I think something that has taken racing to a new level, not as interesting, is the drivers fitness and things like that. Cars don’t fatigue and neither do the drivers in the same way that they used to. That’s why I love the doubleheader weekends! Society is so hard to deal with these days, they just want to watch something for 5 minutes, brag about their knowledge of it for a day or so and it is on to the next thing. It’s hard to keep people involved. I, for one, don’t need Fontana type passing, but it’s cool when it happens. I just need a race where there is some strategy involved. Great example for me was that sonnzer at Sonoma last year, Montoya trying to catch Briscoe was awesome!

  2. I think the best way to answer that is what has made Indy so popular. And why the last several Indy 500’s have been so popular.

    It is what happens on track. And that includes battles for the lead. We like to see changes in position. What I don’t like is passing only happening in the pits. If that is what happens, boring. Unfortunately that is true of most street courses.

    But the action can’t be contrived. That is really what has hurt NASCAR in the last few years. Each race will have a story of its own. Let it play out. Like at Indy this year, with all the great racing, someone wins with a fuel strategy. Sometimes it happens. But it was real, not contrived.

    It might be interesting seeing Tony Kanaan storm up from 18th to finish in 13th place but how meaningful is it? Interesting to watch, but its not the making of a great race. So I can see why people would disagree on how exciting that is. Some of that might be driven by those who really care about the points race. If you don’t, some of the excitement over that move is lost. I am not one that really cares about the points race, since its become so contrived in itself. But some good moves to pass would at least be fun to watch.

    One thing Indycar pretty much lost that was a big part of the excitement was the technological innovation. To many a past gearhead, that was excitement in itself.

    I would agree that, attending the race in person, your expectations are lower because just being there, with the sounds/smells/cars is excitement itself. You see this a lot with races such as Barber or Mid-Ohio. Seldom do you hear comments about the race, its often more about the experience at the track.

    In any case, just as in all sports, people are going to like different aspects of it. To me, a 3-2 score in a baseball game means it was probably as good as it gets. I can hardly stomach all the home runs today. A defensive battle in football is more exciting to me than a 42-34 score, yet I bet I’m in the minority today. Same with racing. I have always believed that the best racing in the world is open wheel cars on various sized oval tracks, both dirt and paved. Yet there are people who prefer other types of racing. The goal of Indycar was to have drivers who can excel at many different types of racing. While they have not done a very good job of putting this into practice, it still is a very good idea and would broaden the fickle fan base as much as anything.

  3. S0CSeven Says:

    I’d watch a tricycle race if the field was big enough.

    Seriously, a small field in any type of racing spells boring for me.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I’m easy to please, so I’m not sure I add much insight to this topic.

    I find most types of competition to be inherently compelling, and especially auto racing because it has so many facets. Beyond the participants themselves, there are crews, equipment, track and weather conditions, etc. All of these things are factors in determining the success or failure of a racer. Because I find this compelling, I find watching any race enjoyable at some level.

    That said, different races provide different levels of enjoyment to me, which is not at all surprising. As previously pointed out, “good” and “bad” games are a fact of life across all sports, why should we expect racing to be any different? I prefer not to single out individual races as bad because I do not go into them with the expectation that they un-enjoyable. I am, however, comfortable with using less enjoyable races as examples when advocating for Indycar to make adjustments that would affect the racing. Just so long as they are being used fairly.

    For me, the closer or more uncertain an outcome is near the end, the more enjoyable a race will be. The 500 and the Barber race this season have probably been the “best” Indycar races this year, in my opinion, because they provided such situations.

  5. The three things that matter most for an interesting race are unpredictability, close racing up front, and interesting drivers winning. Indycar’s kinda fallen down on those fronts this year. The summer stretch of last year was a good example of what Indycar can and should be. MotoGP has no parity, but I enjoy it because the racing is often really exciting for the lead, and the riders are interesting. Their top personalities are on the top teams and win most of the races. Also, MotoGP has enough craziness (RE: Rain) that it evens out. I do not really watch F1 anymore, but at least in F1 they have Vettel and Hamilton and Ricardo on their top teams.

    As to why I continue to watch Indycar, mostly because there still are good moments. For example this year the Indy 500 was great. Last season Fontana and Iowa were exciting. There are enough good moments that it is worth it, to me, to stick around through the bad ones. I also watch because I like Newgarden, Rahal, and Hinchliffe (along with the other American drivers) enough that I watch for them. Honestly in races when they have no shot to win, my attention and interest drops heavily.

    As for what I hope changes in Indycar the most important is ending the aero kit experiment. It was a nice idea, but having the Honda’s be so uncompetitive is really killing the excitement in Indycar. I hope that ECR and Rahal Letterman grow and become teams which win a lot of races and break up Penske and Ganassi dominance. If that’s too much to ask for, I would at least like to see Penske and Ganassi hire drivers like Hinchcliffe and Newgarden rather than their current cast of winning but boring drivers.

  6. Like all of the races, games and matches, I watch or attend, I always go into it excited about what might be a terrific event. I have been at football games that turned ugly as well as every other genre of athletic endeavors. Sports are like that and racing is no different. With that noted, I am only disappointed when someone I am pulling for is taken out of the race or had a bad qualification.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    As I have mentioned here before, I enjoy most open wheel races and I have never lost my love for dirt tracks. The question posed to us asks what makes a race enjoyable for us as opposed to perhaps what makes a race great. I have listed a few things that make races enjoyable for me in no particular order of importance:

    TRADITION and HISTORY: For example, the continuity of traditons leading up to the start of the Indy500. Consider what attendence for that race might be if it was scheduled for a different date and starting time each year as what happened at Milwaukee.

    BEING AT THE TRACK: As some have mentioned above, you can’t beat the sensory experience of being at the track IMO. At Milwaukee I always got a grandstand seat and a pit pass. I almost never used the grandstand seat because I love being in the pits.

    FAVORITE DRIVER WINS OR DOES WELL: Newgarden is my current favorite driver. I loved it when he threw a Vukovich at the rest of the field at Iowa. Toronto……..not so much.

    A INJURY AND/OR DEATH FREE RACE: Enough said.

    LOTS OF PASSING, ESPECIALLY FOR THE WIN. The Hornish/Marco deal still remains one of my favorite finishes.

    FOOD: Indy = classic tenderloin, Road America = Brats, Iowa = porkchops on a stick.

    EMMA: Again, enough said.

    SMALL TEAMS THROW A WHUPPIN’ ON THE BIG GUYS:
    Having said that, God bless the major teams. Where would the series be without them? They provide a level of excellence to strive for.

    GOOD ANNOUNCING: Diffey wears on me like gravity, but still better than ABC.

    COMPETITION: The first race became a likely possibility when the second car was built. I just love every aspect of racing. I really have to have the discipline to keep my car on cruise control when those Illinois drivers pass me going 80 mph on our way up north.

    I also like the competition between engine providers. Aero kits……
    not so much.

    SEEING THE EXCITEMENT IN KIDS EXPOSED TO THEIR FIRST RACE TRACK EXPERIENCE. That never gets old.

    Well, now I am just typing to avoid work. Back to real life.

  8. sejarzo Says:

    Lots of things can make a race great, but they all involve some form of unpredictability…and on-track passing.

    I’ve never attended a race that was better when I viewed it on DVR when I got home versus the track.

    Re unpredictability…I think that applies in all sports. On July 4, 1977 I drove my brother and a friend up to Wrigley Field for a Cubs doubleheader. The last thing the friend said as we passed through the turnstile was “The last $%^&* thing I want to see today is a $%^#% pitcher’s duel…I wanna SLUGFEST!!!”

    The Cubs lost game 1 to the Padres 19-3…LOL…so I guess he got half his wish? But on the “unpredictable side” we got to see Larry Biitner, a Cubs utility man, sent in to pitch after it was clearly a blowout. Crazy funny…he gave up 6 earned runs in 1 1/3 innings, 3 HRs, 3 BBs, and 3 Ks (some of the Padres apparently could not adjust to such slow pitches.)

    So maybe “something memorable” is what we all want from any game or race, too?

  9. sejarzo Says:

    Dang it, it was the Expos, not the Padres. Went to a Padres game the prior year.

  10. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Again, this seems to get at the subject of Indycar’s raison d’être – reason for being.

    I grew up in the era when Indycar meant the vastly more open formula (appx 1974-1995) showed us all kinds of cars and there were nearly as many vehicular “characters” as drivers week in and out, however this usually lead to dominance by a select few teams/drivers, and more predictability/less drama for the lead.

    I’ve now lived in an era (as long as the previous one, 1996-2016) when the vehicles have become so homogeneous that they are little more than a “driving appliance”, where engineer tweaks, extreme fuel saving, and razor thin pit stop times make the difference. Less predictability/more drama, yet also curiously unsatisfying for most.

    Such is the life of fan of a racing series when money absolutely is an object. THE object.

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