Managing Expectations

There appears to be a growing trend among the Tweeting and blogging communities to mark any race which doesn’t have wheel-to-wheel action on every lap as “boring”. I’m beginning to find this a little frustrating.

In times past, a good race was often one where Participant A was in the lead and Participant B was giving chase, perhaps Participant C was in close enough quarters to threaten should the other two falter for some reason. A and B would trade fastest laps and B would eventually make a move, which may work and A gives chase as best he can, or it doesn’t and B ends up in the gravel or wall commiserating a poor move but knowing he’s laid a marker with the fast guy, and getting kudos from the fans for giving it a go. Perhaps A is faster in the twisty stuff and B has more power on the straights. Throw a bit of tyre or fuel strategy into the mix and a few more similar battles in the field, and that’s a pretty good race – it just happens to unfold over 90 or 120 minutes and there are occasional lulls between bouts of action.

It seems to me that for some this isn’t enough. For some, it seems they want to have a battles raging for every lap of the race, okay maybe not the same battles throughout but enough to sustain constant attention. I’ve noticed this in particular about fans of oval racing, specifically IndyCar and NASCAR.

I admit there are many boring races, too many in fact. Some are abominations. Anyone who’s seen F1 at Valencia or Magny-Cours, or IndyCar at Sears Point or Nashville (you can’t have a single-file oval!) can attest to that. Or to be frank, most NASCAR races in my humble opinion! If there is a way to cut down on them sign me up right now, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that not every single race can be a thriller – that’s why we get so excited when those good races do happen – and let’s also not lose sight of the fact that there are some good races going on which aren’t edge-of-the-seat thrilling but interesting in other ways. Let’s not be so quick to criticise.

What I’m getting at is that people seem to be losing their appreciation of the art of racecraft. It isn’t all about the balls-to-the-wall side-by-side stuff. A well-executed move can sometimes take a few laps to set up, you see the driver working to close the gap, trying a few different lines while the leader tries a few lines in defence – note defence not blocking, there is a difference – and making a pass. They might even then drop back again to conserve their tyres before a final push in the closing laps. The best place to find this sort of racing in the current era is MotoGP. I’m hopeful the new F1 rules will bring back the same sort of thing there.

The IRL made it’s name by featuring ultra-close finishes after lap after lap of side-by-side action on ovals. Which is fine and all very entertaining, except it was much derided by others in the early days because the cars have so much downforce all the driver seemingly had to do was mash the throttle and turn left, unlike previous open-wheel oval races where the overtaking manouvres had more of an element of planning and racecraft about them, of choosing when to make your passing move rather than inching forward over five laps and hoping the other driver backs out. Sometimes it feels as though you might as well run a lottery to decide the winner. I like my race winners to have earned their place.

Sometimes – shock! horror! – a driver or car was faster than others and they’d build a lead of several seconds on the field. And that was fine, because they’d done a good job and had earned the win. Get a race like that now and there’s uproar.

I think a generation of fans is growing up expecting every race, or 9/10ths of the schedule, to feature countless battles through the field and multiple changes of lead. I’m sorry but that’s just not realistic. We all love it when it happens but it has to do so organically. The series can do their best to set up the cars and tracks to make it happen but at the end of the day this is the real world, this isn’t Hollywood, no matter what NASCAR does to manipulate the format to generate faux-excitement.

As I said before, I know, a lot of races are tedious and sometimes it can be hard to tell a boring race from one where the drivers are trading lap times, especially without the necessary information to hand. That type of race isn’t for everyone, I get that. But let’s just manage our expectations and not call out a race for being boring before it has even finished.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “Managing Expectations

  1. rubbergoat

    Great stuff – I agree, we live in a culture where it’s fashionable to call everything rubbish for the sake of it. Enjoy what you have, sometimes a good race doesn’t need much overtaking anyways!

  2. “The best place to find this sort of racing in the current era is MotoGP. I’m hopeful the new F1 rules will bring back the same sort of thing there.”

    Amen to that; In the art of preparing the perfect move at the perfect time, there is nobody like Rossi :-)

    I’m divided about next year F1 rules, about if they will produce more ‘racing’ or they’ll just kill the single source of excitement coming now from strategy. I guess it will be down to how good or marginal the tyres are at each race. If the tyres are perfect pieces of eternal rubber, we’ll see more processional races than in 2009. If they’re at the limit where a good driver/car combination can make a difference in taking care of them, then Abu Dhabi’s Webber-Button fight will be the rule.

  3. mr. c.

    interesting to note that i had to turn off twitter during danica’s nascar last race, because the stream of information was either negative, sarcastic, or critical of every wheel the girl turned. i lasted maybe ten minutes before i decided to watch it on my own.

    first time that’s ever happened to me, i think. i enjoyed what i saw by meself though.

  4. I must admit I am quite critical and sarcastic about NASCAR generally, especially so on Twitter, so I break my own little ‘rule’ there. I noticed the same thing on Saturday though, and for a short while I tried to argue against it by telling people she can’t parachute in and be instantly competitive. I got bored of that after a short time.
    I sometimes find it quite hard to restrain myself when I’ve got that cursor blinking away in front of me. :) I really don’t think many people appreciate how difficult it is though.

  5. mr. c.

    it just seemed wall-to-wall angst. how do you even begin to reason with that?

  6. I agree and I think occasionally we all fall foul of this but on the point about drivers pulling out a huge gap whilst I do agree said driver does deserve the race win, this doesn’t provide an exciting race, there is no excitement for me to watch a driver pull out a one second lead every lap, yes they deserve the win, but I don’t enjoy it and I think then we can call that a not so exciting race?

  7. I disagree with you somewhat. First off, I can tell Fontana will be a boring NASCAR race because any COT race on an oval between 1.5-2 miles will be boring. As well, when there’s a techincal aspect (ALMS) it’s a little different, but for Spec Racing (NASCAR/Indycar) there’s even less reason to watch when the on track action isn’t good.

    There’s good racecraft, then there’s Infenion/Mid Ohio Indycar. Cars still need to be able to pass to have an interesting race. But, then again, some of the NASCAR fans are only happy if it’s Restrictor Plate racing every week.

  8. Fantastic. Agree 100%.

    Especially in NASCAR circles, I have seen quite a few commentators like Michael Daly (who is always worth reading because he is knowledgeable but is mostly full of shit at the same time (http://www.catchfence.com/author/miked/)) draw a distinction between “driving” and “racing” that I admit I don’t understand. He argues that superspeedways are the great tracks because there is more racing and competition (drafting etc…) while road courses and short tracks are worthless because they are about driving the track and passing is very difficult. This is a distinction I have seen TONS of NASCAR fanboys make. Now I do a 180 from Daly and say that the good NASCAR races occur on the road courses, short tracks, and I’ll add the 1-1.5 mile tracks as well (Dover, Phoenix, Loudon, Darlington, Rockingham RIP). Yes, there is less passing at these places, but the racing is more real. I completely disagree with the point that there is no racing on these tracks, even though there is less passing. Since when MUST racing involve passing? I would tend to argue the best racers are the best drivers, you know, while again Daly would not. He would argue somebody like McMurray is a great racer because of his success on plate tracks (and I’ll agree that as far as restrictor plate ability is actually measurable, which is debatable since Dale Earnhardt’s death, he has a good bit considering he has not been winning for the premier teams), but I would say the good racers/drivers (I see no distinction) are those who show up on the short tracks and road courses. Granted, McMurray actually doesn’t suck on road courses, but still…

    This NASCAR mentality existed in spades with the fans of the early sucky IRL which had three good tracks (Indy, Phoenix, and Loudon) and a sizable collection of cookie cutters, where the car carried the driver (just like on the cookie cutters in NASCAR) and although there were endless race-long battles they were just random engineering exercises for the most part where the driver almost can’t make any difference. Is Dan Wheldon REALLY so bad on ovals that he couldn’t win on a Panther car? No, he’s still better than Dario is on ovals in my opinion, but he can’t show that because Panther’s engineering package can’t compete.

    I know everybody strives for a 50/50 oval/road balance in IndyCar, but given the current package, I don’t think I agree. The good drivers can show up on the road courses, where you could pretty much (within reason) stick anyone in a Penske or Ganassi car and they’d win on an oval. I’m tired of the road course bashers when that is where the best driving takes place (unless you want to make that retarded distinction between driving and racing).

    Yes, there should be a few wide-out mash-the-gas races. I pick Michigan, Texas, and Chicagoland for IndyCar, but that’s more than enough. BRING BACK ONE MILE OVALS! Phoenix, Loudon (which are both still possible), Nazareth, Pikes Peak (which are sadly not), Rockingham, NC (I keep pushing this one because NASCAR has deserted it and it’s in their country; I think it could work.)

  9. Thank. You. Pat.

    There’s something good to be found in just about every race. Sometimes the TV coverage makes it impossible to find, but when the TV crew is doing its job properly (showing cars that are in close proximity to each other, explaining varying strategies, highlighting how difficult the cars are to drive), I find it almost impossible NOT to be entertained.

    Things got badly skewed in the late-’90s. The IRL and the Handford Device in CART made passing and wheel-to-wheel racing a seemingly everyday occurrence. NASCAR used constant (like, weekly) rules tweaking and the contrivance of the Green-White-Checkered finish to make “promises” to fans that they were guaranteed a classic, “tell your grandkids about it” finish basically every week. All of these things attracted fans in the short term, but it also made for an atmosphere where sanctioning bodies are seemingly terrified of two straight races being declared as “boring” by the fanbase. Sometimes an auto race is just an auto race. Up until about 1996 or 1997, it was an odd, once or twice a year occurrence to have passes on the last lap for the win, and that goes for NASCAR just the same as all of the other sanctioning bodies.

    I remember reading a book around about ’92 or so by Alan Henry, “Fifty Famous Motor Races”. Some of those races featured very little passing, but they were still famous for being exciting, because something special happened. Moss beating the Ferraris at Monaco in ’61. Rindt and Gregory driving flat out for hours at Le Mans in ’65. Alan Jones clinching the championship in Canada in ’80 after a startline accident and Piquet’s engine blew up. Gilles Villeneuve holding off the entire field at Jarama in ’81. It’s when something special happens that makes watching races worth it.

    I’m convinced that chasing the group of that is only interested in photo finishes is a losing battle. People like that will only hang around until they find the next “most exciting thing EVER!”, whatever it is (Red Bull air races, the X-Games, 3-D movies, X-Box 360, curling, whatever), then they’re gone. The nature of auto racing has never been that of constant photo finishes, and it never will be.

    It occurs to me that I skewered IndyCar for not tweaking their aero rules last year, and then I skipped going to the Iowa race because I thought it’d be boring. My one defense there is that it appeared that cars were nearly 100% able to pass on the ovals. That sort of thing needs to be avoided, because the nature of oval racing is that of being able to pass. On the other hand, it occurs to me that I was fostering the sentiment that racing sucked. Well, shame on me for forgetting who I am and what I like (cars going fast). I won’t make that mistake again.

  10. Er…”UNable to pass on the ovals”. I are not teh best typr.

  11. Prehaps the issue is that there is zero passing on Indycar road courses? Of course, I think if they ran Road America, Road Altanta, Sebring, Cleveland, ect it woudl be better, instead of the street parades and motorcycle tracks

  12. Great article, and I totally agree. A case in point: I actually enjoyed last year’s European GP at Valencia (2008 was a dull affair though)

  13. Hopefully the tyres won’t be so hard they’ll lack grip, I’d rather not have to watch them conserve those as well as fuel. That’s the thing though, I think people are going to have to reset their brains for this year because we’ll have a different kind of racing in F1.

  14. I like sportscar endurance racing because something may not have any significance for an hour or more – its like cricket or golf, you can just have it on in the background, paying attention when something notable happens. Conversely I also like touring cars because they are 25-minutes of wheel banging. There’s room for both.

    To be honest I stopped watching NASCAR at the weekend when a car had a half-spin and continued and they threw a full-course yellow. There was no apparent need for it. It is perfectly acceptable to build up a big lead on an oval, the guy may still crash or suffer a pit error or his next set of tyres may be bad and his opposition may find the sweet spot. That’s racing, not this contrived artificial yellow stuff.

  15. It isn’t exciting on a level that releases the endorfins. Sometimes I do find it a pleasure to witness a driver/car/team execute the perfect race. I don’t mind that from time to time – it becomes a problem when it happens frequently, as it did in the previous Schumacher/Brawn era. That’s when we essentially knew who would win most races and it wasn’t fun. I’m saying we should find a balance between those extremes.

  16. I think there is a difference between a ‘driver’ and a ‘racer’, but for me the definitions came from Nigel Roebuck’s writings when he was with Autosport. According to Roebuck there are lots of very good drivers, but not many are /racers/. A driver is good over a lap or good at stringing together fast consistent laps, but they can’t pass. A racer may not be the out and out fastest but they can come through the field. The perception is such that Trulli is a driver and Montoya a racer. Of course, this isn’t always fair.

    Drafting well is certainly a skill because it requires careful positioning of the cars, and it is good to see the likes of Wheldon excel on an oval by working the draft (that is, as you say, when his car allows). What’s less good for me is when the whole field is doing it, then it just becomes an exercise in who can hold out the longest or simply who gets lucky. The car advantage is potentially a problem though. In any case that brings up another point – you can’t expect more than half the field to be in with a shot at a win at every race, there have always been top teams and ‘the rest’. It is for ‘the rest’ to get better and move themselves ahead, unfortunately this only really seems to happen with regulation changes.

    I agree with your picks for the ‘wide open’ IndyCar races and agree that there is a place for a few of them. As I’ve not seen a flat one-mile open wheel race for years I don’t know that I can comment on that, I think I only saw one Nazareth race before it was canned. I do think Milwaukee needs to be back, somehow.

    Great comment Sean, thanks.

  17. IndyCar’s selection of road courses has long been dubious. Frankly several of the American road courses need resurfacing and widening, either they just can’t afford to do it or doing it would ruin their character. If it is a choice between leaving them as they are or letting Hermann Tilke at it, I’d leave ‘em be..

  18. Good point about the TV coverage, that makes a massive difference. I don’t know if you recall F1 races before FOM got involved – the local ‘host’ broadcaster filmed the races and invariably they would either focus entirely on their local driver or team, or they’d doggedly play “follow the leader” regardless of other action. Particularly bad in France even as late as about 2005, just watching the Renaults go round and round!

    There’s nothing wrong with including an exciting event – Chicagoland’s IRL race is usually fantastic, there needs to be more than that though.

    As I said elsewhere on this page there are boring races with little merit, and that you chose not to go to Iowa is indicative of IndyCar’s problems on ovals last year. There’s no fun in watching drivers locked into a single groove for the whole race, knowing nobody can pass even if they tried, that’s why I singled out Nashville. Now if it starts as a single groove and they can work on making a second, that’s fine… So I don’t blame you for not going.

  19. Heheh.
    Forgot to say in my other reply, another great comment, thanks.

  20. Pingback: Thursday Thoughts: Blogging « I Watch Too Much Racing

  21. Sean, it seems that McMurray describes “driving” as “being capable of moving the steering wheel and pedals to make the car go as fast as possible”. Given that definition, restrictor plate racing and 2009 IndyCar pre-tweak cookie-cutter racing didn’t involve “driving” because cars went flatout the whole lap and not-drivers had it easy to point the cars to the correct way. In that environment, drivers just have to pick the best line, follow the air-breaking car and making the passing move at the right time, besides being conservative on tyres and fuel. In contrast drivers must actually “drive” in road/street courses and (let me add low-banked) short ovals because they must brake at the correct spot and be careful with the throttle while taking corners.

  22. True. I do like some twisty tracks, though. The full-course caution policy has also killed some IndyCar road / temporary course races.

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