Monday, December 2, 2019

Musings From the Weekend: Why Root For a Driver?

We have made it to December! Eleven months down, one month to go and Christmas is ahead of us. Formula One had its first December race since 1963 South African Grand Prix and it was just the fourth December race in Formula One history. Lewis Hamilton joined Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill and Jim Clark as the only December winners in Formula One history. Ferrari screwed up Charles Leclerc's fuel and got away with only a fine. The Drag Reduction System was inoperative for the first portion of the race and there was still passing. A potential future IndyCar driver won in Formula Two. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Why Root For a Driver?
There have been a lot of disappointed fans in the last month in motorsports.

James Hinchcliffe was sent to the curb. Sébastien Bourdais lost his ride at Dale Coyne Racing and he will be moving to IMSA in 2020. Spencer Pigot was let go from Ed Carpenter Racing. Jimmie Johnson announced his retirement after the 2020 season. Paul Menard and David Ragan are out of rides. It is a tough time of the year.

The Hinchcliffe news particularly drew the most disdain. Many were upset IndyCar's "most popular" driver was out of a ride and with clear no landing spot. Some people said they were not going to tune in to IndyCar if Hinchcliffe was without a ride. If that is the case, why root for anyone at all?

I understand some people need someone to root for. It is part of fandom. For some people, if they do not have any emotional stakes in the proceedings they will not care. I get it. It is just like gambling for some. There is this feeling you need to pull for someone but do you really need to pick one driver to root for?

There is nothing saying you have to root for one driver. That is a personal choice. IndyCar would be just as happy if you tuned in or showed up at a racetrack with no rooting interest but was simply there for the race. After all, you should be a race fan first and you were probably a race fan first. You probably fell in love with the spectacle of speed at a young age and the sight of a race car made you giddy. With age comes this shift from simply loving the machinery and what it does to looking for a person to make an emotional connection.

Drivers are going to come and go. Tying all joy in a race on one driver is rather foolish and it is only going to lead to heartbreak.

No driver lasts forever. They are all going to retire. All their careers are going to end. You are eventually going to have to face that reality. It is a lot like death. At some point you cannot avoid it and you must confront but that is only if you choose one driver to represent your emotions.

If you do not pick one driver then you are good. You just keep showing up and you do not have to worry about so-and-so being there. There are people you are going to like to be there and those that you enjoy watching but the presence or lack thereof for certain drivers will not dictate whether you remain invested. The race is always going to happen.

Let's take James Hinchcliffe for a second, because when the news broke he would be out at the McLaren Schmidt Peterson Motorsports operation for 2020, I asked the question whether or not Hinchcliffe would be that big of a loss for the series? The real question I should ask is should Hinchcliffe be a big loss for the series?

I get that he has a personality that people are drawn to but there was always going to come a point where Hinchcliffe was going to leave IndyCar. This is a day we were someday going to have to confront.

Hinchcliffe is a driver that has never finished better than eighth in the championship. He has only finished in the top ten of the championship once since 2014. He has six career victories; half of those came over six years ago. I get that Hinchcliffe has a Twitter persona but if someone is interested in IndyCar and is looking for a driver to pull for, I would not direct that person to Hinchcliffe. Hinchcliffe might have a great personality but people get into sports and competitions to win. They aren't looking for a buddy. People want to root for winners. Hinchcliffe has not been that.

If James Hinchcliffe is your driver now, you were probably watching IndyCar before Hinchcliffe was there. Hinchcliffe wasn't Danica Patrick. He didn't bring in a lot of new people. He may have brought in some but let's not act like 68% of the fans live and die on how Hinchcliffe does. He isn't the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. of NASCAR. And if you are rooting for Hinchcliffe, his presence or lack thereof should not dictate whether or not you keep watching.

What I am trying to say is, Hinchcliffe is not worth dying over. No one was born into a James Hinchcliffe family. No one is really born rooting for any driver. It is all by choice. That driver is always going to leave. Then what? What do you enjoy? If you enjoy IndyCar, you should enjoy it regardless of who is on the grid. That is not to say there are drivers that make the series better. It is great if Hinchcliffe is there, the same way it would be great is Bourdais and Pigot are there but nothing lasts forever.

Drivers come and go and not everyone gets the exit they deserve. Paul Tracy, Bruno Junqueira, Alex Tagliani, Simona de Silvestro, Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti were all popular drivers that did not get to go out the way they would have liked. If you extend it farther back, I bet Tom Sneva, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock and even Al Unser did not go out the way they would have liked. Despite all these less than stellar exits, IndyCar continued on and IndyCar will continue on for years to come.

People get too invested in drivers and series do not do a good enough of a job promoting fans to be open to multiple favorites. NASCAR is experiencing this problem first hand and it has been experiencing it for almost two decades now. In the early portion of the 21st century, Dale Earnhardt lost his life and slowly the retirements of Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte followed. The drivers that were at the top of NASCAR during its rise in the 1990s were gone.

NASCAR had Jeff Gordon to fall back on and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was lift to the top. Tony Stewart was hitting his peak. Jimmie Johnson would soon be champion. Kevin Harvick emerged in the absence of Dale Earnhardt. NASCAR has had a few names to follow but a segment of the fan base was lost when the mustachioed generation left.

Now Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt, Jr. are all retired and Johnson will join them at the end of 2020. Harvick is going to stick around for a little bit but 40 is the new 50 in NASCAR and we are in the midst of Harvick's final days in NASCAR.

Kyle Busch will still be around for a few more years. Martin Truex, Jr., Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano will be around but they have not generated the same following as the drivers from 20 years. There is some hope the newer blood, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace and William Byron will bring some life to the series but the jury is still out on them and, importantly, they have to win something if they really want to make waves.

People are great but motorsports has been too dependent on a few faces. The love has to be generated from what happens on the track and the heroes should be the winners each week and champions at the end of the year. There should be some fluidity. There is nothing tying anyone to a particular driver. There should be multiple drivers that make a person happy if he or she wins.

You do not need one driver to be invested in a series or race. There are many things to root for without tying your fandom to one person. There is beauty in rooting for the storyline, rooting for how things turn out and that gives you flexibility to pull for different drivers on a regular basis. The story is always going to be changing. There will be times when it is not clear what the story will be and as a season moves on one or two or three storylines become clear and then you can choose what story fits you best. A season will end, you will either get the story you want or the story you do not want and then it will start all over again.

While the drivers are temporary, there is always going to be a story.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Lewis Hamilton but did you know...

Sérgio Sette Câmara and Luca Ghiotto split the Formula Two races from Abu Dhabi. It was Câmara's second victory of the season and Ghiotto's fourth.

Kyle Larson won the Turkey Night Grand Prix from Ventura Raceway. The race was delayed a day due to rain. It is Larson's third Turkey Night Grand Prix victory.

Coming Up This Weekend
Nothing... I got nothing on my calendar. Go get a Christmas tree and do some shopping. Enjoy the eggnog boys and girls.