Avoiding The SportsCenter Mentality

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The other day, I was perusing through Robin Miller’s Mailbag on Racer.com and came across what I considered to be a very astute observation. It was only one short sentence that sounded so simple, but it spoke volumes about some of the unrealistic expectations that some of today’s fans have when watching a race.

Miller was responding to a question about the race at Mid-Ohio a couple of weeks ago, and what a great race it was even though Alexander Rossi had the field covered at the end. His response was “It doesn’t have to be a photo finish to be a good race”. I wish I could be that spot-on, yet be so concise.

It’s always frustrating to watch what I thought was a good race, only to find out that so many people hated it because they thought it was boring.

I realize that some people don’t appreciate Robin Miller for a number of reasons. Personally, I think the man is a living legend. He sometimes comes out with what appears to be an outlandish prediction, but those predictions have a history of almost always coming true.

Back in the spring of 2009, Robin Miller reported that the sisters of Tony George were on the verge of ousting him from his CEO position with IndyCar. Most insiders dismissed the report by saying that Robin Miller must be desperate to concoct a story like that. About six weeks later, Miller’s prediction came true.

You may not like his style, but there is no denying Robin Miller’s passion for IndyCar – nor the devotion to his craft to dig for stories no one else can get. I learned to trust Robin Miller’s judgment several decades ago. Most of what he says, I take to the bank. That’s why I put so much stock into that one statement that it doesn’t have to be a photo finish to be a good race.

The SportsCenter mentality has spread to some racing fans. You know what I’m talking about – a sporting event must have several five-second jaw-dropping thrills that can be stitched together for a thirty-second highlight clip on Sunday night’s SportsCenter. Of course, you know what that really means when it comes to racing – crashes.

Just as I wouldn’t judge a football game by what some wannabee-comedian said about it – the same goes for racing. It seems that a race must feature a ton of crashes and/or have a side-by-side photo finish before the talking heads on sports highlight shows will acknowledge it. Unfortunately, a segment of racing fans use that as their barometer on whether or not a race should be considered “good”.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I consider this way of thinking is the 1992 Indianapolis 500. It contained the two components that SportsCenter loves – a lot of crashes and the closest finish in the history of the Indianapolis 500, between Scott Goodyear and Al Unser, Jr. But in all honesty, that was a terrible race. It was freezing that day. Not only was it very uncomfortable to sit through, but the cold temperatures had an effect on the tires. It was evident as to what the day would hold when pole-sitter Roberto Guerrero spun on the Parade Lap. No fewer than thirteen cars crashed on that bitter cold day, some in spectacular fashion. Philippe Gache survived a crash that was so severe, his first race in an Indy car turned out to be his last one. I don’t think he could get back to France quick enough.

Jeff Andretti suffered severe foot, ankle and leg injuries; while his father, Mario, had to have surgery on his broken feet. Michael Andretti suffered a different kind of misfortune. After absolutely dominating the crash-filled race, his car gave out on Lap 189 and he finished thirteenth.

The race was very boring. Michael Andretti’s dominance was so pronounced that when he exited, it was like we suddenly had a race on our hands. Scott Goodyear chased Little Al after the re-start, giving those of us in attendance something to watch, after sitting through multiple crashes, caution periods and Michael Andretti in the lead for most of the day.

The race is known for Michael’s dominance, the close finish and the cold temperatures. What many have forgotten is that it was one of the most boring Indianapolis 500s in the last quarter-century. The race had no flow and no rhythm to it. Just past the halfway point, there had been fifty-one laps of green-flag racing and fifty-one laps of caution. That’s a combination that does not lead to a compelling day. But I’ll sure bet it made SportsCenter.

As usual, Robin Miller was right. You don’t need a photo finish to make it a great race. One thing that made Mid-Ohio so compelling was the fact that there were no caution periods at all. The race may not have made the highlight reel, but for those of us that watched it – we saw a great race.

Just what made it so great if there were no crashes and Rossi coasted to the finish? Well, there were different strategies at play, for one. We weren’t sure if Rossi could pull off his two-stop strategy. When it became apparent he could, the conversation drifted to wondering why no one else tried it.

There was also passing – lots of passing. Contrary to popular belief, we race fans don’t watch racing for the crashes. We watch it for the passes. Sébastien Bourdais put on an absolute clinic when he carved his way through the field on speed and passing ability alone. There were no timely yellows for him to take advantage of. He went from starting dead last to finishing sixth, on skill alone. Simon Pagenaud and several others had impressive days as well, but none compared to the day that Bourdais had. Those of us that watched on television were given quite the treat. I can only imagine what it was like for those that witnessed it in person.

I realize that most people that come to this site are not the fans that base everything they believe by what they see on SportsCenter. The readership here may be smaller than some sites, but I firmly believe they have the highest racing IQ of any site out there. They know a good race when they see one and don’t have to wait for some suit on Sunday night to tell you the race was great because of all the crashes and the close finish it had. We know better.

But if you run across one of these pseudo-fans in a sports bar, at work or on another web site – calmly remind them that real racing fans don’t subscribe to the idea that “rubbin’ is racin’”. We appreciate seeing a driver taking a car right to the limit and not crashing. That’s racing.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “Avoiding The SportsCenter Mentality”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    The last two IndyCar races are some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory and neither featured a photo finish, but there was action and excitement and strategy and PASSING from green to checkers and that’s what I tune in for.

    Robin Miller is the best, he might be the only racing journalist that will still tell it like it is. He doesn’t care who he pisses off, he doesn’t care about keeping sponsors happy, he just speaks his mind and it’s so refreshing (and rare). Compared to someone like Kevin Lee, who I’m a big fan of and does a good job but you’ll never hear him say something critical or controversial or anything that might ruffle the feathers of sponsors. In my opinion we need more feather rufflers like Mr. Miller and fewer sponsor coddlers.

  2. S0CSeven Says:

    IMO, what made Ohio a great race was that the TV director actively sought out action in the pack. Passes and attempted passes were all covered whenever possible.

    Alternately, the director could be lazy or unknowlegable about racing and he/she could have just followed Rossi around for the whole race (like many other series) and I’d have just turned it off.

    Good job TV crew!

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    Amen to ALL of George’s comments here. I’m also a major fan of Robin Miller. I took my daughter to the 1992 Indy500 race and she has never asked to go to another one.

  4. Bruce Wane Says:

    SportsCenter ……………… What’s SportsCenter ? ?

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I have found that there is something to appreciate in pretty much every race (except for Toronto 2011…) if you are one who appreciates the nature of racing. That same mentality applies to all sports, I would say. A football fan may find a shootout between high-powered passing attacks to be the height of the sport but should still be able to appreciate a defensive battle, a run-focused offense, or the execution it takes to blow out a good football team.

    Even with the 1992 Indy 500… one could appreciate Michael Andretti’s dominance and the skill of the drivers who kept their cars on track through the hazardous conditions even before the exciting finish.

  6. James T Suel Says:

    First I agree 100% with you on Robin Miller! Mid ohio was a great race,any way you look at it. A lot of the new or tv only fans don’t understand racing, or what’s really going on. I think maybe they want a soap opera! Some have a nascar outlook. If you have to wreck a guy to beat him ,you have not done anything in my opinion. Tap him or move him a little sure. I really think they don’t understand a openwheel open cockpit racecar. I may be different but I don’t get bored by a race. If you know what your watching , there is always something going. Sure some races are better or more excitedin than others. When it was allowed at Indy I used to take people right up to the fence on the front straight and turn 1 have them as close as possible to the car going bye. They had a new appreciateion of the speed and racing!

    • BrandonWright77 Says:

      I get bored by IMSA races but that’s only because the commentating team seems to want to talk about everything EXCEPT what’s actually happening on track. I never know what’s going on in their races, it’s already hard enough to keep track of the 3 dozen classes on track but it doesn’t help when the commentary team spends far more time chit-chatting about racing in general than they do calling the on-track action.

  7. I have followed IndyCar for long enough that I have seen an awful lot of sorry racing, especially back in what many call “the good old days.” As fans, we should be thankful for what we have now.

    Road and or street racing is no longer necessarily a “parade,”and most oval races are far closer than we used to think possible.

    Is every race a “photo finish?” No, but most are far closer than the old days of Mears winning by a lap or so, or Rutherford or “Uncle” Bobby blowing off the entire field. Back in those times, you could count on your winner coming from 4 or maybe 5 drivers. Unlike NASCAR, where if you bet Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, or Martin Truex, Jr., you’ve probably got a winner, that’s not so anymore.

    Virtually half the field is capable of winning any given race. Yes, maybe Will Power had the field covered at Indy this year; however, Ed Carpenter was always within a straightaway of catching him. I can remember quite a few years when that wasn’t the case.

    I can’t wait for Pocono.

  8. I don’t like to finish a race under yellow. I’m not saying the green-white-checker or “overtime” or whatever Nascar calls it is the answer, but I wouldn’t mind having a “pause” button.

    • BrandonWright77 Says:

      I kinda like the idea of only counting green laps, it solves the “not finishing under yellow” issue and could shake up some strategies too. I’m sure there’s downsides I’m not realizing, but it sounds plausible in theory.

  9. I agree with you completely, George. Seb made many amazing moves at Mid-Ohio. And Simon finally had a really good day at the office. I even went back and watched the race again this week.

    I am glad you acknowledged the NBCSN director for focusing on many of the competitors and not just the top 3 contenders. I wish I could remember his name. ABC would have had us watching Rossi.

    SportsCenter has been a joke for ages. I only watch it race day for the 500 and I won’t again. I miss SpeedCenter and Wind Tunnel, but I am not sure NBC will create something similar, although I am sure Robin has been advocating for it.

    I am ready for Pocono!

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