Friday, July 30, 2021

Best of the Month: July 2021

Seven months down and five months remain in 2021. After the last 16 months, life continues to feel a little more normal. There have been nine MotoGP races, ten IndyCar races, 11 Formula One races, 20 NASCAR races, half the FIA World Endurance Championship season and we are currently in an Olympic break for many series. 

We are still battling restrictions around the world, the Supercars schedule keeps being adjusted, Bathurst will be in November, and some events still look different than before, but it feels better than a year ago. There is even one championship that has started and finished already this summer and it deserves a little attention after considering the season it just had.

SRX Season Review
The inaugural Superstar Racing Experience season concluded this month, and the six-week series was a smashing success. It provided memorable races and drew sustained interest over the entire season. Each race was something new and worth tuning in for. 

With the season complete, it is time to look back on the season, from the drivers and the races, to what worked and where improvements could be made. 

What Worked?
1. The timing
    A six-week series at the start of summer was a highly successful idea. It was a perfect time, and it could kind of shine on its own. It is the middle of the NASCAR season, far from when the championship gets interesting. IndyCar is also in the middle of the season. The SRX season began after the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. SRX could be the event of the summer each year. 

2. The length
    Six races were plenty. It was long enough that it would not be quickly forgotten, but it was short enough that it was not a major commitment. You almost couldn't miss a race. Once you get three races in, there were only three left. 

3. The venues 
    Length aside, you couldn't afford to miss a race because of where SRX raced. Stafford Springs was fun place to start the season. The dirt races of Knoxville and Eldora followed. Then there was the national return to Indianapolis Raceway Park before the quarter-mile Slinger Speedway and it ended at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Half these tracks haven't had a national profile. The other half are known but haven't had a significant national television stage in a long-time or ever. They were all tracks people wanted to see. There was no weak venue in terms of crowd or on-track action. 

4. The television window
    Every Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET you could count on SRX being on CBS, and it took an otherwise unwanted television window drew a sizable audience. SRX bucked a trend that races had to be on at a certain hour of the day for success. It filled a gap and became one of the most successful series in the United States in terms of television ratings. 

5. It wasn't too serious
    As much as SRX was billed as an entertainment series, SRX was a serious racing series. It was more than an exhibition. It had a random draw set the initial heat race and then had invert for the second race, but that doesn't mean it is scripted or not meant to be taken seriously. This is the format the series used. Even the green flag stint limit, while unconventional, was a part of the series. It was in the rulebook and couldn't be a surprise to anyone. 

6. Flexibility to change
    After the opening night, which had pacing issues, the series adjusted the race weekends. Heat races were shortened and so were main events. The series worked to make sure each event was completed within the two-hour time window. I don't think anything was lost because some main events were only 76 laps and others were 100 laps. I think the series made a smart choice shortening the dirt races to 50-lap features. There is such a thing as too much of something and we have seen plenty of stock car races on dirt this year that were too damn long for their own good. The good news is neither SRX dirt race fit that category.

7. The top of the driver pool
    The drivers at the top of the championship did a fantastic job. Tony Stewart came out on top, which wasn't a surprise, but Ernie Francis, Jr. had the coming out party we expected, Marco Andretti looked strong, Bobby Labonte still has something in the tank, and Hélio Castroneves was constantly quick. 

The local short track car added talent to each race. Doug Coby won the Stafford season opener and Chase Elliott won the finale. Slinger Nationals winners Luke Fenhaus and Kody Swanson were runner-up in the two races they were the local favorite. Bobby Santos III was fifth at Slinger. The only local driver not to finish in the top five was Brian Brown at Knoxville. Credit the series for getting drivers who would raise the stakes. SRX also put a national spotlight on some drivers who are often overlook. That is positive should not be overstated. 

What didn't work?
1. The green flag lap limit in the heat races
    The heat races were only 12-15 minutes. I think we have long enough attention spans that the field doesn't have to be bunched up in such a short race. I understand those cautions allowed a commercial break to get in without going to a commercial break, but in most cases, it seemed like we would get seven to eight minutes in, have a caution, and then return and restart with about two or three minutes to go. If that is the case, why not just have three eight-minute heat races, invert for the second race and have the cars line up during the commercial break and go green when back from break and then the third heat could be an invert of just the top six or that lineup could be decided another way? 

The green flag lap limit wasn't terrible, but it did kind of get in the way of a great race at Slinger. Stewart, Labonte, Andretti and Fenhaus had a great battle all race. Those cautions weren't warranted and dampened the race a little. I would rather have seen that race be left unaltered. I know the officials shouldn't do that, especially if it is in the rulebook, but there were times when we should have just let the racing continue uninterrupted. 

2. Championship conversation
    Too often was SRX mislabeled as an exhibition series. It wasn't. There was a championship table, points awarded for every race and a prize to the champion and race winners. This wasn't some fun show drivers decided to put on at smaller short tracks. This was a legitimate series, but too often was the championship ignored. Some of it was down to timing. A race would end and there wouldn't be enough time to show the standings at the end of it. But the series never made sure to make the standings known at the start of the broadcast for the next race either. 

    Unless you were closely following the series, I doubt many knew Stewart, Ernie Francis, Jr. and Andretti were the three drivers alive for the championship entering the finale. It doesn't have to make the championship out to be the greatest prize in motorsports, but it shouldn't have been acknowledged more than it was. 

3. Post-race coverage
    SRX wants to make the most of its two-hour television window, but too frequently was it scrambling to get off air and could only interview the winner. That was a damn shame because some of the local drivers would drive in the top five and be the darling of the evening. The only problem we didn't get to hear from that driver. Some races are going to run long, but the goal should be to leave the final ten minutes to recap the race and talk to the field. 

4. Were the local drivers too successful?
    As I said before, the local drivers took five top five finishes from six races. Two of them won and the only full-time driver to win multiple races was Stewart, who won both dirt races. My one concern after Coby won at Stafford and part-timer Greg Biffle was second was, what if all the races are won by non-full-time drivers? I feared SRX would lack an identity or an interesting battle if the local guy or the ringer won every race. It would be hard to keep an audience if the previous race winner was never in the race. I like featuring a local driver, but it runs the risk of overshadowing the entire series. 

5. The back of the grid
    Someone must be at the rear of the grid, but with SRX you could pencil in the bottom three or four drivers each time. It was my one concern that it would be the field of two halves. The good news is the bottom wasn't as large as I first thought. It was really a top half, a quarter that could provide a surprise result every now and then and then the bottom. That is not a bad mix but there is room for improvement. Will SRX make the adjustments and raise its own profile? 
    How much does this series want to balance living on past reputation and introducing new names? While there were a few local stars that got one shot, Francis, Jr. was the only full-time unknown. Everyone else had a past or a present. It is great to live on Stewart, Castroneves, Kanaan, Andretti, Labonte and Waltrip, but most of those guys have a shelf life. At some point your 50-somethings look begin to look like 50-somethings. While it was nice to see some of these guys again, most of these guys we have seen for decades. Eventually, they lose their appeal. 

I think there are four drivers that arguably can be told "thank you for the service" and not invited back for 2022. It is also likely Castroneves will not return as a full-time SRX driver, as he will be full-time in IndyCar with Meyer Shank Racing. Let's say there are five open spots. How does SRX fill those? Does it look for another batch of retirees in their 50s? Does it lean more into short track racers and overlooked talent? Does it find a medium between the two? 

SRX should lean into short track races and overlooked talent, the Francis, Jrs of the world. It should grab Bubba Pollard, Josh Berry, Oliver Askew, Spencer Pigot, Joey Hand, Kody Swanson and raise the bar. Hell, Matt DiBenedetto and James Hinchcliffe both might be looking for work next year. Talent is what will take SRX to the next level. It should not waste any more time and grab it now.

Some SRX Facts
1. Tony Stewart won the championship and he had five top five finishes, the most of any driver. 

2. Tony Stewart won the championship with 237 points. The six local drivers aggregated 205 points, the second most in the series. 

3. Ernie Francis, Jr. was second in the championship, but only had two top five finishes. 

4. The driver with the second most top five finishes this season was Bobby Labonte, but Labonte was ten points behind Francis, Jr. for second. Labonte was also the top driver in the championship without a race victory or a heat race victory. 

5. Marco Andretti's worst result of the season in the finale dropped him to fourth on 171 points. He did win two heat races, one of four drivers with multiple heat races this season. 

6. Hélio Castroneves opened the season with three consecutive top five finishes and proceeded to finish ninth, tenth and ninth in the final three races. Coincidentally, Castroneves won heat races in the two races he finished ninth. 

7. Thirteen of 20 drivers finished on the podium this season. 

8. Of the drivers to run multiple races this season, the only ones without a top five finish were Tony Kanaan and Willy T. Ribbs.

9. Nine drivers won a heat race this season, including five local/ringer drivers. The only races where two full-time drivers won each heat race were Eldora and Nashville. 

10. Only twice did a heat winner not win the feature. One was IRP where Scott Speed and Castroneves won the heat races and Francis, Jr. won the race. The other was Nashville where Bill Elliott and Castroneves won the heat races and Chase Elliott won the feature. 

August Preview
With the Olympics concluding, motorsports will blow up in the month of August. It is difficult to pick out one event, but it has to be the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

We will have dedicated 24 Hours of Le Mans preview later, but for now we need to celebrate the return of the world's greatest endurance race. This will be the second consecutive year the race is not taking place in June. There are a few interesting entries. 

Ricky Taylor will be in a High Class Racing Oreca-Gibson while Jan and Kevin Magnussen will drive together in the other High Class Racing Oreca. Defending IMSA LMP2 champion Patrick Kelly will make his Le Mans debut with PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports with Gabriel Aubry and Simon Trummer. Risi Competizione will have Oliver Jarvis and Felipe Nasr lead its LMP2 effort. 

Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor will reunite in the WeatherTech Racing Porsche with Cooper MacNeil in GTE-Pro. Vanthoor will also have a familiar rival in the GTE-Pro class. Dries Vanthoor returns to Le Mans for the first time since 2017 in the HubAuto Racing Porsche alongside Álvaro Parente and Maxime Martin. Dries Vanthoor won in the GTE-Am class that year. Laurens won in GTE-Pro the following year.

GTE-Am will have a few debutants. Antonio Fuoco will drive a Ferrari for Cetilar Racing. Callum Illott will drive a Ferrari for Iron Lynx. Jaxon Evans won the Porsche Carrera Cup France championship in 2020 and now he will drive for Dempsey-Proton Racing alongside Matt Campbell and Christian Ried. Dylan Pereira was runner-up in Porsche Supercup last year and he will drive for TF Sport Aston Martin with Ben Keating and Felipe Fraga. IMSA race winner Robby Foley gets his first trip to Circuit de la Sarthe in the JMW Motorsport Ferrari. 

Other notable events in August:
IndyCar will have three consecutive races: Nashville, IMS road course and Gateway. 
NASCAR rounds out its regular season with races at Watkins Glen, the IMS road course, Michigan and Daytona. 
Formula E ends its season with a Berlin doubleheader.
IMSA returns to competition at Road America. 
MotoGP is back in action with two races in Austria and then Silverstone. 
Formula One will run at Spa-Francorchamps on the final Sunday of the month.