Anatomy of Great Races

BMW Z4 race car at Virginia International Raceway (VIR)

BMW Z4 racing in the 2014 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship

Many elements play a part in the making of a classic race. Since the beginning of auto racing, the great races tend to contain a number of common traits. First and foremost, racing is a battle of drivers. The cars, teams, series and tracks are there to provide the platform upon which drivers compete.

High tech for its own sake isn’t of much entertainment value. Racing is a human contest, not a science fair. So let’s not get all geeked out on technical minutia and rules that may or may not improve performance, probably won’t appreciably improve the show, will likely stir up controversies and penalties and definitely drive up costs.

A race can be viewed as the sum of three distinct phases. Similar to chess it can be viewed as having opening, middle and end stages – mixed in with a high rate of speed.

Most races have exciting opening phases. That’s often the best part of an event because all the cars are close together and anything can happen, good…

or bad ….

The middle phase of the race is where things can get boring. The cars tend to string out. Though the drivers are still going as fast as they can, the battles tend to be limited to a few pockets of a couple of cars.

Drivers are often allowed or even required to make pitstops and change tires or add fuel in an attempt to leapfrog the competition. Pitstops have evolved into events that shuffle the running order and produce closer racing – in theory. If nothing else, a car coming out of the pits has a chance to race closely with others coming up on it.

However, one of the reasons the running order can get shuffled mid-race is because of mishaps related to those very stops. Perhaps organizers should consider shorter race distances in more evenly matched cars and drivers instead.

The closing phase or end stage is what really makes classic races – if competitors and protagonists are close to each other. Good opening and middle phases should, in principle, set things up for a truly exciting finish, one that is not the result of outside influence such as the issuance of dubious penalties and questionable yellow flags to “bunch up the field”.

True racing fans want to see great competition and good sportsmanship on display. It’s uncertain what portion of the audience is composed of such fans, and what portion is of the type that want to see a crash derby. But that’s not the point of racing. There is no place for intentional contact and rough driving in real racing.

No doubt the Daytona 500 received a ton of exposure not only from a close finish a few years back but also from the multi-car pile up that ensued and with announcers uttering lines like “Clint Bowyer came across the start/finish line on his roof. They’re wreckin’ everywhere.”

Sure, banging fenders and trading paint is attention getting. But in the long run, racing that caters to the lowest common denominator will end up perceived as such.

For that reason, open wheel formula-type cars, or cars with some form of performance degradation resulting from contact, are ideal for producing clean racing among drivers who are skilled and brave.

Nail It Off-Track First

As crucial as it is to have great action on-track, there are many more off-track factors that have to click in order for things to really go well on-track.

Races are usually part of a series of events which form a championship. In general, the sequence of each event should be clear for the casual fan to follow along. The simpler and more exciting a race is, the more potential that type of racing has to become popular as a spectator sport. A sprint format is ideal for this. Longer endurance races have a very different feel and are not as easy to follow.

In a championship the consistency from one event to the next in terms of how the event is staged is  important. Formula One (F1) has this template pretty well nailed. The length of each race and the procedures by which the races are run are nearly identical from one event to the next.

IndyCar and sports car racing differ from F1 in this regard. They run on more types of tracks, tailor their starts and durations to the track or venue and, in the case of sports car racing, employ varying class structures. It can confuse and bewilder the many casual fans and makes it harder to follow.

F1 is clear because it has a standard format: Three sessions of qualifying on Saturday, followed by the race on Sunday, which is run to a set number of laps that’s close to 200 miles in duration or two hours, whichever comes first. Unfortunately, this year the powers that be decided to attempt to spice up the championship by awarding double points for the final race. It remains to be seen what impact that will have.

Further, the consistency of the race director and race stewards is crucial to penalty decisions. Of course these are largely subjective, so it’s important to at least have the same group of stewards from one event to the next to try to maintain that consistency. F1 does not have this in place yet. Instead it relies on different guest stewards who are usually former F1 drivers. By varying the stewards F1 has increased the challenge of arriving at consistent rulings.

The penalties should be easy to understand and proportionate to the infraction. It’s a huge disappointment when a great battle spoiled by the announcement of a disproportionate penalty to be meted out to one of the competitors. That tends to spoil the race, particularly when the driver involved is in the midst of a great on-track battle and has to dive into the pits to serve a penalty.

The same goes for post-race penalties that affect the outcome of the race, especially if it involves the top finishers. Where at all possible, penalties should not be applied retroactively. It’s deceptive to the fans to change the script after they’ve already seen the show.

Sanctioning bodies should do everything possible to ensure that when the checkered flag waves, the finishing order is the final result. That makes for a delightful final cherry atop the cake of a well baked race.

Photo courtesy BMW Group

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