Q: Interesting question, and nice way to steer us away from a boring bitchfest!
Recently I was going through a stack of racing car books from my childhood from the 70s, and I realized that the first thing that drew me into racing were the cars. It was nearly impossible to find racing anywhere live on TV at that time. Forget about online, it didn’t exist. Also, forget about local racing, it basically didn’t exist in my hometown of New Orleans. I got nearly all my racing info a month later from magazines. So during my formative years, it was simple. Unique cars = good racing. Fast-forward to the 90s, and the cars were much more similar, yet still not spec. Strategy became the name of the game. When the cars were so wildly different it was almost impossible to separate strategy from the particular dynamics of a car. Now it was possible. Unique cars + strategy = good racing.
Fast-forward again, and all the cars are nearly identical, even in series where they aren’t supposed to be. With the cars being so similar, their differences no longer excite me. Strategies are almost always identical now, too, owing to the above. That leaves one thing to make things exciting. Unpredictability = good racing. Now if I had my wish, we could take all the things above, drop roughly the same amounts of each into a mixer, and get a finished formula. Unique cars + strategy + unpredictability = great racing.
Q: To me a good race features cars moving up and down through the field, and lots of passing. This passing happens at the front and the back. Like most, I watch most of my races on TV. We want to see passing up front, because that is where most of the passing is. When I am at the track, I want to see passing throughout the field. This is one reason why I love the qualifying procedure that Indy car uses on the twisties. It seems like there is always a good team or two messing up strategy and starting at the back. The good drivers charge there way back to a respectable finish.
Storylines that help make races better: The underdog winning or stealing a great finish. Driver overcoming adversity. What makes a great race? To me, a great race has me setting on my seat to the very end. Normally this is the result of a good battle up front. In your article, you reference the 500 with record number of passes. Why were those great races? You had no idea what was going to happen. I don’t have to have the final corner pass and drag race to the line for it to be great. I need to know when that white flag drops, that last lap matters. Most races, there are not many positions changing the last few laps.
J.R., Turn 3
Q: I was introduced to racing with Can-Am at Laguna Seca in the late 60s. By some people’s definitions of “great racing”, Can-Am would have failed because we knew the three or four people/teams capable of winning. So it was not a manipulated event designed to ensure a “close finish.” That said, Can-Am (1966-1974) is one of the best – or the best – series ever in North America, with the greatest drivers from all over the world, and machines that were simply the fastest on earth. That combination gave us sensory/visual thrills rarely duplicated.
Given that as a basis, great racing delivers outcomes that are not manipulated by ad hoc rules to nullify the greatness of a particular driver/team on a particular day. (Read: “debris flags”). Racing that is challenging to the drivers/teams enough so that you earn your place at the end of the event. That is, passing is not “easy” or set in such a way through the rule book as to take driver and team skill out of the equation. I was at COTA, and I agree that IndyCar put on a race for the ages. The track and rules package created an environment that rewarded proper risk-taking all over the track. By the way, we were tracking lap times, and believed that had there not been that yellow flag, Rossi was going to catch Power – or at least, the two of them were going to have a reckoning.
Q: To be honest. I have no idea what makes a great race. I just know one when I see one. But, to give and answer. I would say passing. Lots of passing.
Q: Loved your article on what makes a great race! For my part, I think the best races are ones with enough storylines to keep you engaged even when the racing is not close. This could be any kind of storylines – drivers, teams, technological/mechanical storylines, etc. To your point, a dominating win should be looked at as a great achievement/story, not cause for being called a snoozefest. The 1994 500 had many levels of intrigue – not just the power of the Mercedes, but the question of whether it would last the distance. Even with the field being lapped, there were questions that kept you on the edge of your seat. While mechanical diversity and even unreliability don’t produce consistent barn-burners of races, they do give you something to talk about or be engaged by when the racing on track isn’t fantastic. By contrast, when everything is the same and reliable (er, predictable) the race damn well better be good! If it isn’t, you’re not left with much to talk about.
Lyle James, Dayton, OH
Q: A good race is clean. Personally, I don’t like to see yellow and red flags during a race; they slow down the action. As a paying customer, I want to see cars mix it up under green, not cruise around the track under yellow or sit idly under red. Now, I know that NASCAR uses frequent yellow flags to keep their races competitive, and doing so has served their form of racing well in the past. However, a good, competitive series shouldn’t need artificial stoppages to remain entertaining, which brings me to my next point.
A good race is competitive. Simply put, a race is a competition, and as such, the competition needs to be good for the race to be good. I know in your article you cited examples of historical races that weren’t exactly barn-burners (to put it mildly) and yet they still got the crowd roaring. However, I would argue that racing in those days was more of a spectacle. Today, racing is seen as being more of a sport. Racing is now expected to be competitive, and if it isn’t, then it isn’t good racing. Now, you don’t exactly need a thrilling, last-lap battle for the win in order to have a good race (though it certainly helps, and can even make up for a boring race up to that point. See CART at Laguna Seca in 1996). However, there needs to be some close competition somewhere on the track. Look at the recent IndyCar race at COTA: People raved about the on-track racing action, but little changed at the front throughout the race (save for an untimely yellow). Still, the racing through the field was spectacular, with cars slicing and dicing from the first lap to the last. That said, the race at COTA also had my third point for a good race…
A good race has a popular winner. People want to see their favorite drivers win, like they want to see their favorite teams win in stick-and-ball sports. It’s human nature. People tend to remember racing more fondly when a driver they like wins, and less fondly when a driver they dislike wins, regardless of the overall quality of the competition. For example, in NASCAR, when Kyle Busch wins a race, you’ll hear a lot of complaining from fans about “how terrible the racing is”. However, make Chase Elliott the winner of that same race, and you won’t hear a peep from fans about the quality of the racing. Likewise, if Will Power had cruised to the win at COTA like it seemed he would, the race may have received mixed reviews from fans. However, throw in a surprise yellow flag that gives the win to Colton Herta, and now you’ve got a classic!
To summarize, if you’re a race series, there’s a lot you can do to help keep the racing clean and competitive, which gets you most of the way to ensuring a good racing product for the fans. As for the popularity of the winners? Well, that’s between the fans and the drivers (and the luck of the draw).