MILLER: What makes a good race?

Image by Scott LePage/LAT

MILLER: What makes a good race?

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: What makes a good race?

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On any given Sunday night during the long season you get a phone call, a text or an email critiquing the races from earlier in the day: “Boring, unwatchable, a parade, a crash-fest or decent” seem to be the most popular descriptions when we’re talking Formula 1, NASCAR, IMSA or IndyCar.

Prompted by our Friday lunch jury of Vuky, Lee Kunzman, Johnny Parsons, John Martin, Merle Bettenhausen, Gary Irvin, Bob Gates, Bones Bourcier, Tim Coffeen, Dan Cota, Dave Scoggan, Scott Gauger and Gary B’s twins (Todd and Cary) and a Mailbag entry from John of Torrence, California, I thought it was a great subject for wider debate:

What constitutes a good race? A close finish? Ten cars on the lead lap? A flag-to-flag run under green? One driver dominating the field? Great dicing in the pack but no passing up front? A comeback from a penalty or flat tire or bad pit stop all the way to victory lane?

Let me start out by saying that a lot has changed about how we rate a race in the past 25 years or so and how much more critical we are now than we were in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

A.J. Foyt prepares to deliver another beatdown at the Hoosier Hundred. Image by John Mahoney

For instance, when A.J. Foyt lapped the field in winning the 1961 Hoosier Hundred, the people I sat next to in the grandstands didn’t care because Tex was their hero and they loved the rout. Same when he won No. 4 at Indy in 1977 and only one other driver was on the lead lap — the fans were ecstatic because they witnessed history. I ran the pit board for Lloyd Ruby at Trenton in 1974 the day only four cars finished but nobody booed or left early — it was simply a tough day for cars and engines but it was still the Boys of Indy.

When Rick Mears won Indy by two laps in 1984, that disparity wasn’t even a talking point afterwards. After Mario Andretti lapped the field at Long Beach in 1987 we marveled at his street course prowess instead of bemoaning his lack of competition. Ditto for Al Unser Jr. following his beatdown at The Beach in 1988. Even Team Penske’s Mercedes Massacre at Indy in 1994 drew little criticism because Junior was the victor and The Captain had spanked USAC with its own rulebook.

What would be the reaction today to Rick Mears’ crushing 1984 Indy win? Image by IMS

There was something about the mystique of watching A.J., Parnelli, Ward, J.R., Mario, Gordy, Herk and the Unsers that superseded the racing. We didn’t care if somebody won by a lap. Just the sight of the Lotus, Eagle, turbine, Coyote, McLaren, Lola and Parnelli rolling out of Gasoline Alley or the roar of the Novi or 4-cam Ford was more than enough to keep us riveted.

Not sure when it all changed and races had to be slam-bang finishes in order to be highly rated but Anders Krohn, the former driver now turned analyst (and a damn good one) just chalks it up to today’s world of instant gratification.

It probably began in 1997 when the Indy Racing League staged so many of those pack races that ended with one or two or three cars blanketed under the checkered flag. It became the norm for several years and even NASCAR-crazy Texas turned out in big numbers to cheer on this 200 mph roller derby.

In the past few years, because the spec Dallara is so racy on street and road courses and Honda and Chevy are so evenly matched, the racing has never been better or closer or fiercer. And Indy didn’t get any more entertaining than Hunter-Reay and Castroneves in 2014, Montoya and Power in 2015 and Sato and Helio in 2017. It’s spoiled us to the point that last May’s race was viewed as a yawner despite Will Power only beating Ed Carpenter by a couple seconds and Alexander Rossi charging from 32nd to fourth with one bodacious pass after another.

By contrast, people refer to the 1992 Indy 500 as being “great” when, in fact, it was a terrible race with a fantastic finish.

F1 has glitz and glamor to spare; unpredictability not so much. Image by Steve Etherington/LAT

Obviously, we all have our favorites. Even though so many F1 races are decided in Turn 1, there is a global audience that appreciates the speed, skill and innovation a lot more than how many passes are made or whether Mercedes runs 1-2 every week. NASCAR keeps searching for something to make its racing better but still commands pretty damn good TV ratings. IMSA boasts big teams and names nowadays even though the BoP is tough for purists to swallow. USAC midgets and sprints remain grass-roots gold while AMA flat trackers are the best kept secret in all of motorsports.

If the hook to getting an audience is unpredictability, then IndyCar should be leading the pack since you never know who is going to win the pole or the race.

So far in 2019, IndyCar has had four different winners from four different teams in its four races — including then 18-year-old Colton Herta at COTA. Sure the Big 3 figure to eventually win more races and the championship but it’s far from the slam dunk it used to be a few years ago.

Now, in terms of racing, IndyCar has only featured one pass on track for the lead, when Felix Rosenqvist dispatched Power at St. Pete. COTA was one of the best road races of the modern era with fantastic side-by-side stuff all afternoon even though Power, Rossi and Herta were in a league of their own. Takuma Sato and Rossi “stunk up the joint” (the popular phrase from readers) at Barber and Long Beach with masterful performances and Josef Newgarden used good strategy to leapfrog his way to victory in the season opener. My scorecard would read: one great road race, one fairly forgettable road race and a couple of typical street shows.

Alexander Rossi has left the rest in his wake the last two years at Long Beach. Image by Michael Levitt/LAT

What Rossi did at The Beach was so reminiscent of Unser or Andretti in their heyday but it’s just judged differently today. Lewis Hamilton has been unbeatable with Mercedes but that F1 trend goes back to Senna with McLaren, Schumacher with Ferrari, Stewart with Tyrrell and Clark with Lotus. Kyle Busch wins everything and pisses people off in doing so and I’m envious that NASCAR has the perfect polarizing performer. Kody Swanson can’t be beaten in USAC Silver Crown while Chris Windom, Tyler Courtney, Justin Grant, Kevin Thomas Jr., Brady Bacon and C.J. Leary figure to spend the summer battling for USAC midget and sprint crowns.

There is a lot of great racing out there but it’s difficult to understand why millions of people will sit through more than an hour’s worth of red flags to complete 10 laps at Daytona and IndyCar can’t get 400,000 people to watch a kick-ass race at COTA. I get that NASCAR is still the Big Dog in American motorsports and Daytona has a captive audience in February but I’m curious to know what makes fans watch?

So let’s have some fun with next week’s Mailbag and you folks tell me what you consider good racing. What are the prerequisites? When do you change the channel? What if F1 and IndyCar are up against each other? Please don’t write a small book — three of four paragraphs are perfect, and we’ll publish as many as we can the week of the Indy GP.

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