Friday, January 27, 2017

1000 Words: Race of Champions

It was only a week ago some of motorsports best gathered in a baseball stadium and drove around a makeshift course to decide who is the best in the world. Well, I guess figuratively decide who is the best in the world. I am not sure if that could ever literally be decided.

I love the Race of Champions but I am cautious to express my excitement for the event. It is an exhibition after all. Most people don't get excited for other all-star competitions. People look at you as if you are a child if you express any emotion above apathy for the Pro Bowl, MLB All-Star Game, NHL All-Star Game and NBA All-Star Game. I think NASCAR's All-Star Race is now met with only disgust. Despite this, I still enjoy the event and look forward to it even if most go through life without even knowing it is taking place.

Race of Champions isn't a be-all-end-all referendum on the motorsports world. Most aren't watching it and will believe if drivers from a certain series struggle means that series is inferior to another. If Scott Speed had dominated the competition, it wouldn't have resurrected his career and leave his phone buzzing with phone calls from Formula One teams looking to give his career a second chance. No driver is going to make his career at this event but the level playing field of cars does allow some to shine above what is previously thought of them.

The history of the event is full of underdogs taking the title from the more prominent names. Heikki Kovalainen won the first ROC held in a stadium in 2004. He defeated local hero Sébastien Loeb in the final at Stade de France and on his way to the final the defending World Series by Nissan champion defeated McLaren driver David Coulthard, former Formula One and then-DTM driver Jean Alesi and defending World Drivers' Champion Michael Schumacher.

Mattias Ekström won back-to-back ROCs in 2006-07 where he defeated Loeb and Schumacher in the respective finals and he then defeated Schumacher again in 2009. In 2010, before becoming an Audi-factory driver Filipe Albuquerque was coming off second in the Italian GT Championship and won ROC after defeating Sebastian Vettel, fresh off his first World Drivers' Championship, in the group stage and the semifinals before knocking off Loeb in the final.

This year provided a surprise that wasn't necessarily a surprise. As someone who has followed NASCAR, IndyCar and American sports car racing for the last decade, it was no surprise Juan Pablo Montoya came out on top but if Montoya had vanished from your radar after he walked away from McLaren in the middle of 2006, it probably stunned you that the Colombian not only won the competition but beat Pascal Wehrlein and Felipe Massa in the process.

The United States hosted the competition for the first time and I was not surprised when Marlins Park looked more like a ghost town than other recent ROCs. It is not a great sight when about 2/3rds of the seat are empty but it is a tough sell and Miami isn't the greatest sports town in the United States let alone for motorsports. However, ROC promoter Fredrik Johnsson has said he wants to keep the event in the USA for three years and reportedly he met with other venues. Outside of Charlotte and Indianapolis, there aren't many markets that could host Race of Champions and draw a respectable crowd. Maybe Los Angeles but even that isn't a slam dunk. Plus, the afternoon time slot when this year's competition was held worked well for European viewers.

I would like to see ROC stay in the United States and I wouldn't mind if it stayed in Miami. Maybe ROC could work more with IndyCar and bring NASCAR in to increase promotion. After all, two months prior to ROC, NASCAR's season ended at Homestead-Miami Speedway and provided at least 65-75,000 spectators the event could have been promoted to. Should ROC decide to stay in the United States, it should announce the venue and date sooner rather than later.

One thing other series could learn from Race of Champions is how to provide non-stop action for spectators. While each heat may only feature two drivers and last just over 30 seconds, once one ends the next begins and it is like that for two and half hours. Outside of the occasional intermission for a stunt driver or rider to showcase their skills or to fix the barriers, the event always has your attention. You leave the room and you could miss an entire round. Go to use the restroom and all of a sudden you have no clue how Sebastian Vettel is in a must-win race to advance from the group stage or how Travis Pastrana made the semifinals.

An issue with the non-stop action as it currently stands is it doesn't allow any room at all for commercial breaks. Unless the total time of the event was extended to four hours, races would have to be missed or the broadcast would have to show the races after the fact but in the age of two-screen viewing, that is not friendly as people would likely find out the results on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or whatever social media device before seeing it on the television screen. Maybe it could become the first event to embrace the two-screen experience and encourage fans to log in online to see a race or two that will be taking place during the commercial break and then comeback to the coverage with the viewers still up to date as the races were available while the network was away.

Race of Champions has been racing in stadiums for just over a decade now and perhaps this one-off event could be the future of motorsports. Instead of heading to race tracks or closing city streets, setting up a course inside a stadium and have 16 to 24 drivers compete in a round robin followed by a knockout competition may be the direction we are heading. In 2009, ROC ran a provisional event in Porto, Portugal that was used as a qualifier for the actual event in China. I am surprise we haven't seen the event take off with a half-dozen events around the globe.

Maybe the day is coming where ROC finds a way to pay drivers and forms partnerships with four or five manufactures and a handful of TV partners and 20 drivers go around the world competing in a dozen events a year from Beijing to Berlin, Miami to Melbourne and Cape Town to Cardiff. It could be the next motorsports revolution and it has already existed for nearly 30 years.