Q: I think that a good race has to be defined by some form of compelling thread or story to follow throughout the race. I know that’s super general, but let me explain. Let’s start with a few easy examples from Formula 1, since that seems to be the main series that people struggle with. First, look at Baku from the last few years. This year was a bit boring, because there was no unpredictability. Even without unpredictability, there was nothing particularly compelling to watch, since we were just looking at Mercedes take another 1-2. At the beginning of 2014, we all thought that was amazing, because we had a new dominant team. But after a while, it lost its magic. I think in Formula 1, “great races” are very rare, and we instead look back with nostalgia at “great seasons” or “great eras.”
I don’t remember the Schumacher-Ferrari dominance, but I do remember Vettel-Red Bull. At the time, the races sucked. No one loved them. But looking back, I think F1 fans are appreciative of having seen a period of time where one team got everything right. We feel privileged to have witnessed dominance. Getting back to a “great race” in F1, we really need something unusual to happen. I think great F1 races are built on the backs of boring F1 races, or on the backs of predictable races. My favorite race of last year was COTA. If you really look back at it, the action itself was never amazing. There weren’t tons of passes, there weren’t tons of safety cars. But the strategy meant that we never fully knew who was going to win.
F1 fans are starting to appreciate strategy races, even if the action isn’t the best. What we hate is a race where you know the victor by the end of the first lap. Baku wasn’t actually that boring to watch, because we always expected something wild to happen or a safety car. We were disappointed in the end because nothing came of it, but we were still engaged to near the end because of that expectation. A great F1 race either needs a good battle, a good level of unpredictability, or a feel-good story. Monza 2008 (Vettel’s first win) was a pretty damned boring race, but everyone loved watching a kid in a Toro Rosso stick it to Ferrari and McLaren.
In IndyCar, I think it’s the same. We just need something unpredictable, or something that makes us excited. Barber wasn’t great to watch because a yellow was never really expected (at least by me), But Sato winning made me happy because it was a feelgood story. COTA was great because of the action. I can’t comment on Long Beach because being a diehard Rossi fan skews my judgment. And St. Pete was a really fun and entertaining street course race. IndyCar races are unpredictable by design, so we see more races that we think are great. IndyCar fans are probably getting a bit spoiled by this, which is why people are starting to complain about “boring” races.
I think the reason short ovals are dying out in IndyCar is because its conducive to one person dominating (Hinch at Iowa, Newgarden at Iowa 2017, SeaBass at Milwaukee 2015). There isn’t much side-by-side racing, and there isn’t much chance to jump off strategy. They reward the one driver who gets the setup perfect. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I imagine that a few years ago, when there wasn’t as much close racing, people liked it more. But now, we have an idea of IndyCars running right next to each other and passing all the time, which just doesn’t work on a short track.
Boiling it all down, a great race is one that stimulates you in some way. Either it excites you, whether that be with close racing throughout or even just one great battle for the lead, makes you nervous with its unpredictability, or makes you feel happy with someone you love winning. People loved the Unsers and the Andrettis, which is probably why they loved watching them kick ass and lap the field. I promise, if Marco lapped the field at Long Beach, you wouldn’t have gotten a lot of complaints, because it would be the feel-good IndyCar story of the decade.
It occurs to me now that another kind of stimulation we racing fans love is being able to apply hyperbole to an otherwise boring race. Look at the examples you gave in your article. Mears won by two laps. Only four cars finished. Mario lapped the field. Probably weren’t fun races to watch, but it sure is cool to be able to say you saw that. Saying Rossi won by 30 seconds doesn’t have the same ring to it as saying Andretti won by a lap.
Max Camposano, Bethlehem, PA
Q: What makes a great race? The answer is simple: when your favorite driver wins. Doesn’t matter if they dominate the whole race or only lead the last lap. Even better when your favorite driver falls to the back on the first lap, then drives as if every lap was a qualifying lap, such as Paul Tracy at Road America, 2000.
John Risser, Muskegp, WI
Q: First, there needs to be excitement. Manufactured or otherwise, there needs to be excitement. We tune in or show up because we want to see the spectacle and we want there to be excitement. And while NASCAR has done some incredibly stupid things over the last decade, they created (artificial) excitement by adding stage racing. They added strategy, and they added a pair of instances when the race essentially resets. It prevents what I find too often in F1 and IndyCar, and that’s the runaway leader. It’s worse in F1, but it’s seen in IndyCar too. One car races out to a large lead, and for the next two hours, it’s a parade. At least with NASCAR, I’m getting what amounts to three races for the price of one. Three chances for my driver to compete. And at least two opportunities for my driver to get a chance to reset and make changes. Does that mean that the best car wins every race? Nope. But it creates excitement, artificial as it may be. Cars racing doorhandle to doorhandle, bumping and rubbin’, drivers getting pissed off… it may not be “racing”, but it’s exciting.
Second, it helps if there’s a connection. Driver or team, it helps if you’re rooting for someone (or something). I grew up a Petty fan, and while the 43 doesn’t have a prayer of winning each week, I still root for that car to win. There’s a nostalgia involved – a history, if you will. I see the 88 running around and remember when it was Junior (or DW). Or the Tide colors on a car. Or that red and blue 43 running around, and I am reminded of a time when the fascination and wonder surrounded the sport for me.
I remember the Foyt Coyote and the twin cars of Dallenbach and Johncock at Indy. But the cars don’t look like the spec cars of today. Gone are the big wings and big bodies that would have made the cars unique. Now, does today’s NASCAR Camaro look like a 70s Charger? No, but the similarities are more prevalent than the Coyote and today’s Dallara. And don’t get me started on F1. Even when Senna and Prost were going back and forth, the McLaren and Ferrari were different enough and bore a modicum of resemblance to the cars before them (although nothing compares to the cars of the 70s). Today, there are so many winglets and doo-dads hanging off the car, it looks more like a parade float than a race car.
I have about 100 more things that are vying for my entertainment eyeballs on any given Saturday or Sunday. You want me to tune in? You better be providing an experience that makes it worth my time. You see NASCAR and Indy trying to do that with the fan experiences at the track. A good step, but it ignores what’s going on on the track. Driver accessibility is great and might make me think about spending the $100 to drive to the track, but if team accessibility was all that was important, I’d be heading to the local NHRA event.