The Simplicity Of IndyCar
Although it rained throughout most of the event, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Rolex24 from Daytona this weekend. Not only was it good to see a good representation of current, former and perhaps future drivers from the Verizon IndyCar Series – it was just nice to see racing again. Congrats to Wayne Taylor Racing, and Jeff Gordon in particular, for their win. Another tip of the hat to Chip Ganassi Racing and Sébastien Bourdais for their winning effort in their Ford GT.
One thing I have always liked about racing is that the concept is simple – once the race starts, the first car to reach the finish line in the prescribed distance (or time), wins.
Yes, there is strategy involved and a lot of subtle nuances that sometimes take years to understand – but a first-timer to the sport can understand the basics enough to know what is going on and have a thoroughly enjoyable time, whether they are on-site or watching on television.
That rule applied to no matter what type of racing a first-timer may be watching – IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula One, sports car racing or even drag-racing – once the race started, whoever crossed the finish line first won the race and left with a trophy.
That may or may not have changed for NASCAR’s three divisions (Monster Energy Series, Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series) last week. Unless you’ve been living under a rock or never listen to NASCAR news, you now know that NASCAR unveiled their plans for segmented races, beginning this season with next month’s Daytona 500.
I’ll be honest; I’ve studied the details and I’m not sure there is a way to put it all in a nutshell that can be easily (and correctly) explained in a paragraph or two, but I’ll give it a try.
From my understanding, which could be way off – in its most basic form, all races will be divided into three segments. The first two segments will make up a little more than half the race, the final segment will be a little less than half. For example, the Brickyard 400 is 160 laps. He first segment will end on Lap 45, the second on Lap 90 and the remainder of the race will make up the third and final segment.
The winner of each of the first two segments will be awarded a “playoff” point that will be banked for when the series heads into what used to be known as The Chase (now The Playoffs). Winning the final segment awards five playoff points, in addition to the forty “regular” points awarded for winning the race. As I understand it, the amount of regular points gets a driver into the playoffs. The amount of bonus points seeds the driver throughout the first three races of the playoffs.
There are other rule changes for 2017, but the segmented race format is the biggie.
Maybe I’m missing something or have completely misinterpreted what I’ve read, but one thing I do know – it’s very confusing. In fact, it’s too confusing. I don’t consider myself an idiot (then again, most idiots don’t), and I’ve watched a lot of racing over many decades – but this may be the most convoluted way to run a race that I’ve ever seen.
To me, the biggest mistake that NASCAR Chairman Brian France is making is to try and compare auto racing to stick and ball sports. He decries that every other sport has innings, quarters or halftime breaks and racing should too. That’s a flawed way of thinking simply due to the nature of the sport. The only breaks are naturally occurring ones due to either weather or accidents. Besides, no playoff points are awarded to football teams that win a half or a quarter. It’s who has the most points at the end of the game that determines the winner, regardless of how they got there.
Of course, this way of thinking is from the same folks who brought us competition cautions – pre-planned yellow flags at a certain point in the race to monitor tire wear or whatever special circumstance presented itself over a race weekend.
Remember what I said earlier about crossing the finish line first in the prescribed distance? NASCAR is also the group that gave us the green-white-checkered (GWC) finish to ensure that fans were treated to a green-flag finish – meaning that a 500-mile race may actually go 510, which greatly affects fuel strategy.
Over the years, NASCAR has been famous for manufacturing drama through gimmicks. The Chase, the GWC-finish, the Lucky Dog all came about in the last sixteen years since Dale Earnhardt was fatally injured in the 2001 Daytona 500. As other stars have retired from the sport, they have been replaced by corporate automatons that seem to be interchangeable. In the same time, they have had the Car of Tomorrow and other common templates that have failed to capture the imagination of current fans, much less potential new fans. In the midst of all this, NASCAR television ratings have plummeted.
Rather than give fans drivers that don’t look and sound pre-programmed, and cars that provide exciting racing – they continue to come up with gimmicks that they somehow think fans want. France insists that this latest system was brought about by drivers that overwhelmingly wanted this change.
I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it. It’s hard to imagine Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett or Cale Yarborough lobbying for these changes. Dale Jr. sounded like he was just towing the company line when he defended it against fan backlash. The only driver I’ve heard to really speak favorable was Denny Hamlin, whom I have never thought was representative of the typical NASCAR driver.
This may work out to be the boost that NASCAR needs to reverse its negative trend in attendance and TV ratings. I doubt it, but I’ve been wrong many times before. I think that anything this confusing to explain or understand cannot be good for the sport.
But one thing I know – I’m glad IndyCar has not taken the bait for gimmicks like NASCAR has. That doesn’t mean that IndyCar has remained gimmick-free. In the last dozen years or so, they have continued to make changes to the Indianapolis 500 qualifying system that had worked for decades. Now it is to the point that I think is anti-climactic, repetitive and almost as confusing to understand as the new NASCAR system.
But Indianapolis 500 qualifying aside, IndyCar has resisted the GWC, the Lucky Dog (to some extent), any type of Chase or segmented races. The double-points at the Indianapolis 500 and any other selected race(s) needs to go, but for the most part – IndyCar has remained pure and gimmick-free.
Instead, they’ve produced a great on-track product with exciting races and drivers that are allowed to have a sense of humor.
Naysayers will point out that NASCAR is still way ahead in the ratings and attendance game, but one thing you can’t ignore – IndyCar has had a significant increase in TV ratings over the last couple of seasons. NASCAR would love to be able to make that claim.
So say what you will. IndyCar is far from perfect. But from a purist standpoint, it offers a much more appealing albeit simpler product to understand. To me, that’s how you lure new fans. Isn’t that what all sports are trying to do?