Q: In my opinion, a good race must have at least one of the following:
Competitive racing, and great drivers battling each other for the win. Examples: Fittipaldi vs Unser Jr. in 1989; Mears vs Andretti in 1991; Hunter-Reay vs Castroneves in 2015.
Total domination. It is good to see a driver [or team] outclass the rest of the field. At times, you might not like the driver or team, you might not like the outcome, but you still respect them for being at the very top of their game. Examples: Penske in 1994; Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000; Scott Dixon in 2008; Dario Franchitti in 2010.
The unexpected, which makes for something dramatic and worth watching. Examples: AJ Foyt comes through the smoke in 1967; Danny Sullivan’s spin and win in 1985; Penske misses the Indy 500 and Jacques Villeneuve comes back from two laps down to win in 1995; Robby Gordon runs out of fuel in 1999; JR Hildebrand crashes on the last lap and Dan Wheldon wins in 2011; Stefan Wilson and Jack Harvey pit late and Power takes the lead in 2018.
A great finish. (When you are watching on the edge of your seat) Examples: 1982, 1992, 2006, 2011.
A wonderful storyline (The stories that tug at your heart strings years later) Bobby Rahal in 1986; Al Unser Jr.’s “You just don’t know what Indy means” quote from victory lane in 1992; Al Unser Sr. wins his fourth Indy 500 as an underdog in 1987
Did I have a great time with the people I was with? The last one is an X-factor. It has nothing to do with the on-track action, and is totally subjective. The race can be lousy, but if you are watching with the right people and have a blast, it can still be called a “good” race (even if only by that group). The prime example is the Snake Pit. The more of these points a race can claim, the better it is.
David from Dowagiac, MI
Q: Several of the things that make a motor race, football game, or other sports programming more watchable: Lead changes, drama, close finishes, come-from-behind victories, rivalries and low number of penalties (yellow flags). Not every race will have those features, and I guess you can’t please all of the people all of the time. One race I love to point to as a classic ‘good race’ was the 2002 Indy 500 (apologies to Paul Tracy). That race had Bruno leading from the pole, then dropping out. CART vs IRL. Different engines with different performance. Long stretches of green flag racing punctuated by some yellows and bad pit stops. Scheckter and Kanaan leading as rookies – and both crashing out. It had a close, controversial finish that will forever be debated. It should also be noted that it seems cars don’t fail at the rate they used to, but that does add to the entertainment value, and gives the impression that a motor race is still a test of man and machine. No one will ever forget Alonso’s engine blowing at Indy. And Will Power’s car dying in the pits at COTA was gut-wrenching for sure, but it finally opened up the race lead. Lastly, the races are always better live!
Q: In my view, two factors are paramount, and there’s something of a sliding scale between them: (1) high-quality, organic (i.e., not manufactured) competition, and (2) entry variety and ingenuity. Back in the days of more open rulebooks and “run what you brung” ethos, entry variety and ingenuity was a huge selling point in pretty much all series. As you noted in your piece, races themselves weren’t necessarily all that competitive, but the novelty and inventiveness of the different cars was a huge point of interest for the fans. Occasionally someone would run away and win by two laps, but there was always a sense that the winning driver, team and manufacturers accomplished something special by designing/engineering/building/procuring a superior chassis/engine despite competing against other highly intelligent, innovative, motivated people who were all pursuing the same goal.
Though attrition might have thinned fields and spoiled the endgame on occasion, it added an element of drama because it was a byproduct of teams pushing the envelope and taking risks in pursuit of an advantage. Would the Mercedes last 500 miles? Nobody knew, and that was the point! Escalating costs, and the need to contain them, pretty much eliminated the novelty/variety aspect, at least in NASCAR and IndyCar. NASCAR jumped the shark in that respect with that hideous “Car of Tomorrow,” and subsequent tweaks haven’t done much to establish any real distinction between makes and models. NASCAR has also apparently decided to criminalize what used to be known as “working on one’s race car” – hence the laser templates and ridiculous number of inspection-related penalties that do nothing except leave the fans with the impression that the governing body wants to turn the series into a de facto IROC.
As for IndyCar, Chevy and Honda are basically indistinguishable to the IndyCar viewer (aero kits were a uniquely crappy way of establishing brand identity). Both series have tried to compensate for the lack of innovation and entry variety with closer, more consistent competition on race day. The risk here is that if a series tries too hard or too transparently to juice up the show, the racing can start to look artificial, gimmicky, and out-of-touch with the history of the sport. NASCAR epitomizes this problem, and has ever since the beginning of the Chase era, but it’s gotten really bad lately with stage racing and the God-awful playoff system.
IndyCar is better by comparison because it has kept gimmicks to a relative minimum (a notable exception being the first couple of years of the new Dallara at Indy, when drafting was too predominant), and has allowed relatively equal cars and drivers to produce competitive racing that generally emerges organically. The general consensus seems to be that the racing in IndyCar is pretty good these days, and that’s an opinion that I share.
John, Denver, CO
Q: I’m a fan of IndyCar, IMSA, F1 and watch every practice, quali and race I can every year. I watch because you never know when that moment is going to happen in a race, even though three-quarters of it it may be a parade. It just keeps me on the edge of my seat, hoping a rival car crashes or brakes too late or catches fire, allowing your team/ driver to make a place or have the opportunity to win. Yes, sometimes those moments don’t happen and the race may have a boring ending, but while watching, anything is possible. I will still watch the next race, no matter how much of a parade the previous one was. That moment is like a drug, and I just love fast cars and the technology that is behind them, no matter the series. I don’t understand NASCAR, but will even watch those races when the season hasn’t started for the other three. Racing was instilled in my blood when my dad took me to Mid-Ohio and Indianapolis as a kid, and I couldn’t be happier. My son will be going to his first race next year at Mid-Ohio, and I couldn’t be more excited.
Jon from Cleveland