Monday, June 11, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: We Are Killing Motorsports

Jonathan Rea became the most successful rider in World Superbike history when he picked up his 60th victory at Brno in the first race of the weekend on Saturday. Unfortunately, race two did not go Rea's way but another Brit did the nation proud. Scott Dixon picked up his second victory in eight days in IndyCar and now he heads to Le Mans as the IndyCar championship leader. Romain Grosjean obliterated a groundhog. The checkered flag came prematurely in Montreal. NASCAR played cat-and-mouse with the rain in Michigan. Circuit racing returned to Switzerland and it was Formula E. The World Rally Championship had a Mediterranean weekend. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

We Are Killing Motorsports
There has been a lot of racing in the last few weeks and it is no different from other years. May brings high profile events, most racing series are now in full swing after long offseasons and it continues into June as summer approaches. With the increase of races comes the increase of noise and I am not talking about from what is on racetracks.

Voices drown out engines, squealing tires and the sounds of a pit stop. People love letting you know what they think about the race that just happened. More importantly, people like to let you know what was wrong with the race that just happened and this time of year sees many major events come into play.

This year's Indianapolis 500 had 30 lead changes; the seventh-most in event history and that wasn't good enough. Kyle Busch dominated the Coca-Cola 600 and of course people were livid. The Monaco Grand Prix was no different from any other Monaco Grand Prix but this was the year people decided enough was enough despite the exceptional drive from Daniel Ricciardo, who nursed a car to the victory after an MGU-K failure.

Talk about a tough room. And it has continued you the last few weeks as motorsports has put itself on this impossible quest for constantly improving the on-track product. It is the only sport that does it. Those around motorsports expect to have a great finish. Eddie Gossage said prior to Saturday night's IndyCar race, "I would expect IndyCar to have perfected the aero package for Texas to ensure a race that offers another classic photo finish."

Forget vaguely saying it would be a great race but doubling down and saying the race would end in another photo finish with fans unsure of the winner in the seconds after the checkered flag. Imagine having to live up to those standards of not providing a great race but a photo finish, something that should be an infrequent occurrence.

We have to have a conversation of what is realistic to expect in a race because the idea that an IndyCar oval race should have passes every lap or a pass at the end of every straightaway every lap isn't practical. NASCAR is experimenting with new aero packages with increased drag and downforce and using restrictor plates at 1.5-mile tracks and even Michigan and Pocono in hopes of providing more close races but not every race should be close. Not every race should have a blanket thrown over the top fifteen cars. There is one thing to want to have a package that allows a race to be competitive but it is entirely different to create a package where every race is going to feature 50 lead changes.

There is a lost understanding that a race without constant passing can be exciting. There is a lost understanding that strategy is a good thing and teams need to employ it at times in hopes of winning. Sometimes teams need to something entirely different to have a shot of winning and we saw that at Belle Isle with Ryan Hunter-Reay. A two-stop strategy wasn't going to win him the race but he went to a three-stop strategy and fortunately he avoided getting stuck behind slower cars and a caution never came and his strategy worked. The same thing was being worked at Texas the other night. Some teams saw they could potentially make it a three-stop race, others were going for a four-stopper and thought speed would beat efficiency. A few caution periods cancelled that out but while Texas wasn't twenty cars side-by-side for 600 kilometers, it was an interesting race and we saw drivers coming and going.

The same way the Indianapolis 500 wasn't a passing free-for-all, Texas saw a few drivers provide wondrous performances. Scott Dixon nailed it. Robert Wickens made runs to the front late in stints. Alexander Rossi worked his way to the front and he had to drive hard to overcome slow pit stops. Other drivers struggled. The Penske cars held their own but then faded. What we thought was going to be another Chevrolet/Team Penske oval ass kicking turned into a Honda counterattack that in the end could not be matched. It wasn't immediate, overwhelming action but if you gave it time the race developed into an intriguing battle.

After the race, responses were mixed. Some were happy. Others were upset it wasn't the pack racing everyone got hooked on when bleached blond hair and tribal armband tattoos were permissible style choices. This isn't an IndyCar-only problem. It is the problem for every motorsports series as series have to balance the increasing expectations from race fans that every race will be the greatest ever with the reality that 99 times out of 100 that will not be the case.

Race fans do not set reasonable expectations and to be fair, series and promoters aren't helping when acting like hype men instead of educators. Think about what Gossage said. You didn't hear NBA commissioner Adam Silver say before the NBA Finals that Golden State-Cleveland would provide seven games that would go to double overtime and each one would end with a buzzer beater. We ended up with a four-game sweep in favor of Golden State and a beat down in game four. The NBA wasn't bullshitting anyone. It gave the world basketball and sometimes basketball will be one team that fires on all cylinders every night and cannot be beaten. And guess what? People are going to show up next year even though the finals and the playoffs in general were a dud. If anything, the ratings might actually go up again.

What motorsports series need aren't the Eddie Gossages of the world. We don't need bullshitters because bullshitters have created this mess that the only acceptable form of races involve spectacular crashes, passing on top of passing and eight-wide finishes across the finish line. We need people to tell us what a race is going to be, how it will develop and what to look for. We need more people like Jon Beekhuis, Marshall Pruett, Mike Hull, Steve Matchett and J.R. Hildebrand to be the vocal leaders who look at the details of a race and not take a race at surface value. Those educators are better for the fan base and are better for new people testing the motorsports waters and seeing if it is for them.

The death of motorsports very well may come when fan expectations become impossible to meet and we may be getting much closer to having a funeral than we think. We are killing motorsports expecting each race to be better than the one prior and not expecting anything but that. We are similar to sex addicts and it is becoming increasingly harder to achieve the level of stimulation necessary for pleasure. We need more but we are hurting ourselves in the pursuit.

We are killing the sport with the inability to accept what is in front of us.

Other sports don't die when the games aren't better than what happened the week before or the year before. Why is motorsports that way? Why is there a lack of understanding of how races can be different?

There will be races with constant action and slingshot passes and when everyone is on edge but there will also be the slow burns where passing is more methodical and it will come down to the final stint and there will be fuel mileage races where a handful of drivers roll the dice on making a number while other will focus on speed and sacrifice time for an extra pit stop.

Why is it that motorsports fan are the only fans that can't accept races are going to be different and can't all be the same thing? This impossible standard is one of the things that are killing the sport. It isn't keeping people from viewing but what keeps people from entering is when they hear from everyone who is already inside why this race sucked 95% of the time. Who wants to be a part of this consistent judgment? It isn't a healthy environment.

We need to stop living and dying on whether a race was good or bad and making sure it hits certain numbers to qualify as good. It doesn't work that way. This isn't how it works. It isn't a test. There isn't an answer key. You can't hit a number and get graded as great. Each race exists individually and will stand on its own never to be repeated. There isn't one form of a great race and we need people to realize that great races come in many different forms.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Scott Dixon and Jonathan Rea but did you know...

Sebastian Vettel won the Canadian Grand Prix.

Clint Bowyer won a rain-shortened NASCAR Cup race at Michigan. Austin Dillon won a rain-shortened Grand National Series race. Johnny Sauter won the Truck race at Texas, his fourth victory of the season.

Lucas di Grassi won the Z├╝rich ePrix.

Alex Lowes won the second Superbike race of the Brno weekend.

Thierry Neuville won Rally Italia Sardgena, his second consecutive victory and it extends his championship lead in the World Rally Championship.

Coming Up This Weekend
The 86th 24 Hours of Le Mans.
MotoGP is in Barcelona.
Supercars are at Hidden Valley Raceway.
NASCAR's Grand National Series and Truck series are at Iowa and the Cup series is off.