Monday, January 29, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: The Speed Fallacy

Filipe Albuquerque erased the heartache of 2017 with an overall victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona with Christian Fittipaldi and João Barbosa in the #5 Cadillac. Chip Ganassi Racing got its 200th victory with the #67 Ford GT of Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon taking top honors in GT Le Mans. GRT Grasser Racing Team came to Daytona and won with the #11 Lamborghini of Mirko Bortolotti, Rolf Ineichen, Frank Perera and Rik Breukers. People had their panties in a wad over Fernando Alonso being in Daytona. Tires were an issue in Daytona. I learned that James Hinchcliffe has a dog. We are still three weeks away from the first NASCAR race of the season and Kyle Busch is already upset about something. Surprise! That didn't take long. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

The Speed Fallacy
Marshall Pruett has been killing it with his "Week in IndyCar" podcasts during the offseason. You would have thought for a series that hasn't raced since the final Sunday of summer 2017 that by the final weekend of January 2018 there would be nothing to talk about but boredom. There is the new aero kit but that is a torturous tease. We want races. Pruett has found the way to fill the time. He also has given Robin Miller a bit of a break as Miller battles cancer and I hope Miller and Pruett reunite when the season starts because, while this all-star interview series has been great, Miller and Pruett's playful banter has been missed.

Back to the all-star line-up, Pruett has put together a collection of marathon interviews and each one is as great as the next. It started with Bob Varsha and was followed by Townsend Bell, Derek Daly, J.R. Hildebrand, Mike Hull not once, not twice but three times, Mike Shank, Bryan Herta, Lyn St. James, Pippa Mann, Ben Bretzman, Zach Veach, Conor Daly, John Andretti and most recently Scott Dixon.

Of those 16 podcasts, eight have exceeded two hours in length and Mike Hull was 23 seconds away from having a hat trick of two-hour interviews. Sometimes it seems it will be impossible to get through all these but between dead moments working, early morning work outs and weekends without much motorsports, you chip away at them. While living up to each episodes' name and covering each week in IndyCar news, the podcasts provide enlightening stories and gives you backstories you otherwise would not know.

One thing that has stood out from all these episodes is something Townsend Bell said way back in October, back when we didn't know who was going to drive for A.J. Foyt Racing, the Fittipaldi name was not in the same breath as IndyCar and IndyCar thought it would be racing in Mexico.

It seemed certain IndyCar would make a trip south of the border and likely to Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez but, in typical IndyCar fashion, another international fell to pieces like newspaper left out in the rain.

Before IndyCar announced the end of its pursuit to a race in Mexico, Bell was not a fan of sharing a circuit with Formula One. His biggest issue was the disparity in lap time between the two cars and inevitably fans would use speed to compare the two series. IndyCar would be a second fiddle in terms of speed in Mexico City compared to Formula One. The 2017 aero regulations increased speeds dramatically in Formula One. Using Mexico City as the measuring stick, Sebastian Vettel's pole position in 2017 was 2.216 seconds faster than Lewis Hamilton's pole position the year prior and Vettel's fastest lap was 2.349 seconds faster than Daniel Ricciardo's fastest lap in 2016.

With IndyCar moving away from the manufacture aero kits, laps times are expected to be slower than the last three seasons as the cars will not have the same downforce levels. Formula One cars were already faster than IndyCars but with the two series going in oppositions in terms of downforce the gap would only grow in 2018.

Why would fans choose to follow a series with slower cars? The problem is that speed isn't the only reason why people watch.

If speed exclusively determined what people watch and attend than the NHRA should have 300,000 people at each race weekend and have an average of 45 million tuning in on television. If speed was the deciding factor than IndyCar would top NASCAR with the open-wheel series being 40 mph faster at Pocono, almost 45 mph faster at Indianapolis and almost 57 mph faster at Phoenix. In his podcast, Bell even points out the difference in speed between IndyCar and the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Truck Series at Iowa, where IndyCar was 49-55 mph faster than NASCAR's bottom two national touring series. And we haven't even looked at how much faster IndyCar is on road courses compared to stock cars.

There is more than speed to factor in. Formula One might run circles around IndyCar but it doesn't mean better racing and that is what you hope people would notice. The Mexican Grand Prix has been quite a sight with close to a quarter-million people attending the race each year. It is an atmosphere you want to be a part of but the racing on track has had its moments. Mexico had the Vettel vs. Max Verstappen battle in 2016 that ended in controversial fashion. Last year featured the Hamilton-Vettel collision that put both to the back and had each carve up back markers but Verstappen ran away with it at the front and was never challenged for the lead, leading all 71 laps. IndyCar has had a good few seasons on road courses and with a front straightway almost three-quarters of a mile in length and another pair of quality passing areas in turn four and turn 12 there would be a fair amount of passing in an IndyCar race at Mexico City.

You hope people would notice the difference in the number of passes and battles for the lead but if people don't notice the difference in terms of on-track action and speed isn't the sole reason people watch than it has to be something else and that is the profile that comes with a series. People want to see Formula One because it sounds sexy. It is the pinnacle. It is top shelf liquor. The same goes for NASCAR, as the series has a cultural advantage over IndyCar in the United States. It found a way to become what people think about when they see a race car, regardless if it is a stock car or not. The top drivers aren't unknowns on the national stage. You could tell someone how much faster an IndyCar is than NASCAR on a given track and it won't make a damn difference. NASCAR represents something to people. It provides an identity for the working-class rebel who wants to unwind watching race cars and having a few dozen beverages. The drivers are more than competitors but spokespeople to an unheard and forgotten community.

IndyCar isn't going to ascend to the throne on speed alone. Speed is a factor in why people watch what they watch but it isn't the end all be all. It has long been IndyCar's problem that it doesn't know what it is and nor does it give a reason for people to watch. People need a reason to care about these drivers and IndyCar has to connect with the public. It needs to be something that turns heads and casts a spell on people, forcing people to follow and see what happens. That isn't going to happen overnight even if it became the fastest series in the world.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about what happened in Daytona but did you know...

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Phoenix, his second consecutive victory of the season.

Richard Vanschoor is undefeated in first races of Toyota Racing Series weekend, as he took race one from Hampton Downs. Vanschoor also won race three with Clement Novalak taking the second race of the weekend.

Benjamin Rivière and Benoît Tréluyer split the Andros Trophy races from Lans-en-Vercors.

Coming Up This Weekend:
The Bathurst 12 Hour.
The Race of Champions will be held in Saudi Arabia.
Speaking of champions, the Asian Le Mans Series will crown champions at its season finale in Sepang.
The Toyota Racing Series will be at Taupo.
Supercross heads to Oakland.
Formula E returns to South America and a new venue in Santiago, Chile.