Robin Miller's Mailbag for May 8, presented by Honda Racing / HPD

Robin Miller's Mailbag for May 8, presented by Honda Racing / HPD

Insights & Analysis

Robin Miller's Mailbag for May 8, presented by Honda Racing / HPD

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There’s a definite appetite for seeing the underdogs take on the establishment. Image by LAT

Q: Great races come in all shapes and sizes. What I want is to be impressed, excited, and occasionally, surprised. I’ve been to Indy, Barber, Road America, and Gateway. I’ve loved them all, except for the rain at Barber. But every year now, the morning of Indy, I wake up like it’s Christmas. There’s a reason: there is nothing more impressive to me in motorsports than the speed and daring on display at the 500; the excitement is impossible to deny; and, most important of all, the prospect for a major surprise seems greater than at almost any other track. The length of the race and its high risks make it predictably unpredictable, even when the pole-sitter wins.

When I watch a race, I want to see some unexpected faces starting toward the front, the usual contenders putting forth their best effort but not necessarily winning or even finishing the race, the drivers of the future taking risks to grab glory right now rather than patiently wait, and maybe a great strategy call or two. Admittedly, I don’t want to see Scott Dixon win, though I’m always impressed by him. I want to see Rossi pass three cars in a row, Newgarden put the moves on a veteran like his pass of Power at Mid-Ohio, Herta and O’Ward run with the big boys, and tortured drivers find redemption where they’ve suffered misfortunes in the past. Basically, I love a race that tells a bold and riveting story, and doesn’t just fill the corporate coffers.

IndyCar consistently provides that – the Indy 500 more perhaps than any other race. It’s the history, the characters, the emotions. The more diverse stories and divergent possibilities we can get out on that track, the better the racing, because IndyCar shines brightest when it reminds us that yet another seemingly impossible thing is, yes, if only in this series, stunningly possible.

Taylor from St. Louis

Q: There are a few things that come to mind when I think of an exciting race. But to keep it short, I think one of the less-obvious ones is how easy it looks (or can look). When cars are making passes and closely challenging each other for each position, the casual observer can see the skill of the driver at work. It’s the knowledge that if either competitor makes a mistake, then it’s likely to end in a cloud of carbon fibre that creates the suspense. In a processional, strung-out race, it just looks like a Sunday drive, so who cares? This also feeds into why close finishes are so exciting. In addition to the above, victory is now on the line. Throw in an underdog or two and the desperation level ramps everything up to 11.

To your point about Daytona, it’s why Daytona and Talladega generally get the biggest viewership. Sure, some watch for the wrecks, but on the other hand, those are two tracks where the cars tend to be inches apart at high speeds, so to my point above – you run the risk of “one mistake and it’s over.” You referenced the glory days of yore when leaders had multi-lap leads or few cars even finished at all. In my opinion, the reason this is no longer exciting is that the durability is so high. Part of the whole raison d’être of the Indy 500 was that it was an endurance race. In those days, one (or more) of those cars still might lose an engine or break a piece with just a lap to go. When someone blows an engine or has a mechanical breakdown nowadays, it is a true shock. It just doesn’t happen. (Obviously it does, but not nearly to the degree it used to). So if someone gets a huge lead, it may as well be over, which is why those cases where it flips at the end are so memorable. I don’t recall anything at all about a certain Indy 500, but I’ll never forget JR Hildebrand had one corner to go…

Rick S., Lafayette, IN

Q: Been a long time since I wrote, but I figured I would take you up on your request in your recent article. I think “good racing” can simply be summed up in three words: authenticity, overtaking, and speed. Passing and speed is what makes racing exciting, but authenticity is what gives it meaning. If the cars aren’t wildly fast, nobody is impressed by the feat of the drivers; if there is no passing, nobody can stay awake during the round-around parade; and if it’s not authentic, the race has no meaning. Needless to say, hitting all three of these at the same time is a never-ending struggle for sanctioning bodies: F1 has more agility in its cars (speed) and more open competition (authenticity) than any other series, but most races have hardly any action past Turn 1 (no overtaking).

NASCAR generally achieves lots of passing (overtaking) and is the fastest stock car series around (speed), but only by manipulating the cars’, races/, and championship’s design (no authenticity). USAC/WoO might be the greatest shows on dirt (overtaking) and all about raw car control (authentic), but will always be seen as second-rate or amateurish to the casual observer because it’s “slower” (no speed). Like everything else with its product, IndyCar suffers an identity crisis in never hitting any of these quite right. IndyCar will always play second fiddle to F1 in the speed department, employs gimmicks like P2P, full-course cautions, and double points that hurt its authenticity, and is totally hit or miss when it comes to overtaking depending on the track and tech rules at the time (Texas is a prime example: too much downforce and it’s what you dub “death race 2000”, too little and the broadcast turns into a college lecture about tire degradation cause there is no on-track action).

It doesn’t help fans differ in how they prioritize the three things – personally, I favor overtaking and speed, and could almost not care less if the whole thing is made up as long as I am entertained, but then you see the utter resentment from purists lambasting BoP, stages, P2P, the Chase/playoffs, F1 cost caps, etc as WWE-esque insults to “real” race fans. Create an engaging show at the thinking man’s expense, or risk putting the audience to sleep so the best car always wins? At least we can all agree we like to go fast. So in brief: you can’t win.

Daniel, Cincinnati

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