Monday, May 27, 2013

The Conundrum: What Is a Great Race and How to End It?

The two races that took place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend saw two different ends of the spectrum.

The Indy Lights race featured 11 cars running the 40 lap race. Carlos Muñoz led most of the race with Sage Karam on his gearbox each lap he led until the back straightaway of the final lap where both Karam and Gabby Chaves made a move for the lead heading into turn three and they ran three wide through turn three, the short chute and turn four and down the front straightaway. And then Ireland's Peter Dempsey made a move on the outside around the top three and came from fourth exiting turn four to nip Chaves at the line for the win with Karam in third and Muñoz going from first to fourth in one lap.

Flash forward to Sunday. The Indianapolis 500 saw a record amount of lead changes, 68, double the record just set last year, a record for different amount of leaders (14) and was the fastest Indianapolis 500 ever with an average speed of 187.433 MPH. There was passing all day. Ed Carpenter led the most laps, a record low 37. There were only five cautions for twenty-one laps and at one point, the race saw a green flag run of 134 laps. However, after taking the green flag with three laps to go and seeing Tony Kanaan and Carlos Muñoz pass Ryan Hunter-Reay for the lead and second place respectively, the caution came out for an accident involving Dario Franchitti. The race ended under caution.

And here we are.

Honestly, Friday was not a spectacular race. Muñoz, Karam, Chaves and Dempsey ran 1-2-3-4 for most of the race with the only passing coming in the final half lap of the race. Jimmy Simpson, Chase Austin and Juan Pablo Garcia raced for seventh, eighth and ninth but those three were all close to twenty seconds back of the leader. However, the final half lap changed everything. A four-wide finish, where a blanket covered the top four seem to negate the facts the race was mostly processional.

Sunday was a spectacular race. There was plenty of passing, especially for the lead. There were green flag pit stops and the pit crews shined. You had AJ Allmendinger off the strategy of the leaders after having to stop a hand full of laps early for a loose seat belt but he was still a factor and it added a wrinkle to the race. You had veterans looking to get their first Indianapolis 500, rookies looking to win on debut, three-time winners looking to become four-time winners and not to forget mentioning the impending rain held off. However, the finish has many forgetting the exciting racing over the first 197 laps. It is the finish they are upset about.

Does anyone root for a race to end under yellow flag conditions? No. It happens though. The Indianapolis 500 ran to it's scheduled distance and the final lap happened to be under a yellow flag. Was it an exciting finish? No. Does it change the excitement of the previous 197? No. Well, at least it shouldn't. A race is more than the final two laps (unless it's a two lap race). Sunday the race was 500 miles. Not 5.

If a football game is in the final seconds and it's a 6-point game and the team ahead kneels on three consecutive plays because the team trailing does not have a time out, does it change the excitement of the game? It shouldn't. Let's say the team down 6 points have the ball and they are driving down field in the closing seconds of the game with no timeouts. They throw a pass down field and it is caught and the receiver is stopped inbounds 5 yards from the end zone with five seconds to go but the team does not have any timeouts to stop the clock and the linemen and quarterback are fifty yards down field. The clock runs out before another play is run and the game ends. Should the trailing team get one final shot to score a touchdown and win the game even though time is up? No. The clock ran out. The game is over.

I have never heard a football fan arguing the situation above being unfair. A football fan would say the trailing team used poor clock management and it cost them. Why in racing does very few people look at it as a poor decision not to go for it when a driver has a chance to do so and are bitten by a yellow flag? Why is there an urge to just wait until the final lap? If anything, it is a life lesson for everyone not to put everything off to the final second and to seize the opportunity in front of you. Whether it be going for a pass for the win in the Indianapolis 500, homework in high school, mowing the lawn or doing your taxes, DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MOMENT! GET THEM DONE WHEN YOU CAN!

When it comes to the argument of green-white-checkered finishes, the philosophy of why they are used has to be explored. Why are they used? To give the fans a green flag finish. Who do they benefit? The fans. What are the consequences? A race going longer than it's scheduled distance and not recognizing the leader of the race when that distance is reached as the winner. Now, before you react, are any of those statements false? If the race is scheduled for 500 miles and the race is extended five miles by a green-white-checkered, is the leader at the 500 mile mark recognized as the winner? No.

Some believe green-white-checkered finishes are racing's version of overtime. But overtime is used when there is a tie. In racing, green-white-checkered finishes are used to try and create a desirable finish. Name me one other sport that extends a match on purpose in hopes of a exciting finish? Even with green-white-checkered finishes, a race can still end under caution (see this year's Auto Club 400 or last year's fall race at Talladega). Now let me ask you this: Say in basketball, when the 4th quarter ends, Team A leads Team B by 22 points. Should there by a rule saying the trailing team gets one attempt at a half court shot worth one point more than the deficit for the win? Think about that before you react. Think about if that rule actually existed. Radical isn't it? It gives the fans a reason to tune it at the end. The course of a 48-minute basketball game would all come down to the fate of one shot. The rebounds fought for, the shots blocked, the shots made over 48 minutes could be deemed meaningless if that half court shot is made by the trailing team.

That does not exist but how is that any different from green-white-checkered? The game is being extended in hopes of an exciting finish. Imagine if a team were to make that half court shot, and imagine it's for the championship. The place would go nuts. One man, one half court shot, for the title. Talk about pressure. But that is not what is done. When 48 minutes are up, whoever is leading is the winner. If it is tied (TIED being the keyword) after 48 minutes, overtime is used to break the tie. The green-white-checkered finish is not used to break ties. It is used to create a finish, hopefully a green flag finish. But, just like a race not using the green-white-checkered rule, a race could still end under yellow conditions. What does that solve? "Well at least they gave it a shot?" is what some of you are thinking. Doesn't each race get it's shot when it reaches it's scheduled distance? Why do you have to extend a race to "give it a shot" at a green flag finish? It had it's shot when the scheduled distance is reached and it either finishes under green or yellow flag conditions. Basketball games aren't extended to have a shot at a buzzer beater. Football games aren't extended to have a shot at a Hail Mary. Baseball games aren't extended to have a shot at a walk-off home run. When each game reaches their scheduled distance the team ahead wins and the game ends. If the game is still tied, overtime maybe used but only if there is a tie and that is the only way a game is extended.

Why can't racing fans understand that? Why do racing fans feel entitled to see a green flag finish? Why don't football fans feel entitled to see the final play of every game determine the winner and loser? As a racing fan, and that is all I am, racing fans need to take a step back and not be as enthralled in the final laps and enjoy every lap of the race. There is more to a race than the finish.

My final question to you: When the 500th mile rolls around in a 500 mile race, who is the winner? It should be a simple answer.