On any given post-race Monday, take a few minutes and peruse the different social media outlets, article comments, Reddit groups, etc. and read the fans’ reactions. Every week, it’s guaranteed that there will be disagreement on the quality of the past weekend’s events. Some will say what an “amazing” spectacle they witnessed, while others will describe the very same event as “dull”, “boring” and “a snooze.” Hell, you may have had that debate with your family or friends on the ride home from the track! This has led some of motorsports’ leading journalists to ask a rather intriguing question: what needs to happen for a race to be “good”?
There are many, many factors and opinions that can help carve out this answer, but if you were to poll race fans everywhere I think the most common characteristic that comes up is passing. No one wants to see a 2+ hour parade. I have no interest in going to the free parades in the nearest town on July 4th, much less pay money to see one at a race track. Fans want close competition, with drivers testing their skill and bravery to outduel the rest. Who will brake latest going into that hairpin corner? Who’s going to risk using the dirty, outside line to gain a position in a high speed sweeper? Passes are what get people out of their seats, specifically if their favorite drivers are involved in the battle. But that brings up another question…do the passes have to be for the lead, to make a race good?
Obviously passes for the lead hold more weight, because no one remembers who finishes second. That pass for the lead could later turn into the pass for the win. Is there anything cooler in motorsports than a last lap pass for the win or a photo finish? Probably not, but I would argue that a great finish doesn’t equate to a great race. Sometimes fans sit through a brutally boring event, and their frustrations are rewarded with a couple of exciting moments at the end. In my opinion, if one person gets everything right and runs away with the lead, so be it, as long as there’s action for 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and so on. I would much rather be entertained for the entire race watching battles throughout the field than see and exciting last 10 seconds after being bored. That’s how the IndyCar race at Road America was this year: Alex Rossi took the lead in turn 1 and was on another planet for the rest of the afternoon. His margin of victory was 27 seconds! There might have been only 1 full course yellow the entire day, but I still thought it was a pretty good afternoon because there was so much else going on. Scott Dixon spun on the first lap and was in 23rd position, but battled forward to a 5th place finish. That’s a 17 position improvement without the help of caution flags to bunch the field up over and over again. Displays like that are fun for me to watch!
Some race fans, usually the ones of a more casual nature, want to see crashes. To them, a race isn’t good unless they see cars torn up and multiple yellow flags. If you are one of these people, I don’t want to associate with you. I have no problem with people who aren’t diehard race fans like me. I would argue that both of my cohosts can be classified as casual race fans. But they also appreciate the work involved by all the teams and the skill being demonstrated by the drivers, and they don’t root for failure. If all you want is wrecks, go to your local fair and watch the demo derby. Cheering for crashes is also applauding extra work for crews already stretched thin, extra expense for the team owners and potential injuries for the drivers. In other words, you’re a dick.
The more I thought about this, the more I think the mark of a great race can be summed up in a single word: unpredictability. I don’t want to drive through the gate on a Saturday or Sunday morning and know for sure, or at least have a good idea of, who’s going to cross the finish line first. Some may argue that because of the high budget teams in racing, our favorite weekend pastime has become more predictable recently. It’s true, every form of motorsports is driven by funding, and no matter where you look you will find “haves” and “have nots.” Take IndyCar for example…the “Big 3” teams of Penske Racing, Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing often find themselves filling up podiums and competing for championships. But here’s the thing: Penske runs 3 drivers, Andretti runs 4, and Ganassi another 2 cars. Even if ONLY those 9 cars were to win races, that’s still over a third of the full time Indy grid that COULD find the top step when the checkered flag falls. You go ahead and pick 1 out of 9 every week and see how often you’re right. And they aren’t the only teams that win! Sure, they win more often, but would you have bet that a then 18-year old Colton Herta would steal a win in just his 2nd career start? How about the ever-polarizing Takuma Sato, winning 2 races this year including a crazy Gateway event where he was in last place at the first round of pit stops??
And it’s not just about who wins, either. You never know who is going to pull off a pass for the ages, or who is going to have a slow pit stop that drops them multiple places at a crucial moment. This unpredictability is what makes IndyCar, in my opinion, the best racing on the planet. IMSA isn’t far off either, especially their triple-A series, the Michelin Pilot Challenge. It’s not uncommon that IMSA’s undercard is the best show of the weekend. Remember also that these two series race in the rain as well. If you can remember an umbrella or can handle getting a little wet at a race track, if you’re lucky enough to witness a rain race, you’ll be treated to what can only be described as (somewhat) controlled chaos.
In contrast, look at Formula 1: at any given race over the past 6 YEARS, you’ll be good to bet on a Mercedes. It’ll either be Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg…or more recently, Hamilton or Valterri Bottas. From 2014-2018, the team won 74 out of 100 races. Just 2 cars combined for 74% of the total wins on offer. In 2019, the team has won 10 of 13. There’s not much fun in that as a spectator. And don’t give me that “appreciate greatness as it happens” crap. I’m not discounting the effort that the engineers and team members put into making Mercedes’ F1 cars unbeatable, and not for one second am I discrediting the greatness of Lewis Hamilton. And frankly, I don’t feel any sympathy for their competitors either. Teams like Ferrari and McLaren F1 are spending upwards of $300M annually, and they still can’t get in the same zip code as the Silver Arrows. Sucks to suck, huh guys? But I’ll have plenty of time to appreciate greatness as I’m sitting in the retirement home looking through the record books and telling my grandchildren the same racing story they don’t want to hear for the 36th time. As a paying consumer or TV viewer, I want something I can talk about with other gearheads the next day. I want something memorable. And no, Lewis Hamilton winning by 30+ seconds isn’t memorable anymore, it’s routine. And routine doesn’t make for exciting races.
Some want to see a last lap pass for the win, others want more passes than they can count. Some want to see more time behind the safety car than under green conditions, because in their skewed minds crashes = a good time. Me, I just want some uncertainty. It’s weird, because in most other places in my life, I enjoy knowing what I’m in for. It helps me establish my daily and weekly routines for work, dating, podcasting, basketball leagues, etc. But I want leave all of that routine at the gate when my race ticket gets punched. If you are surprised at any point between green and checkered, odds are you’re going to have a favorable experience and want to get back to the track soon. One last side note, a race weekend is always more enjoyable with a large, enthusiastic crowd. Seeing others enjoying their day, feeling that energy in a section of grandstands as a race is about to start, having friendly, healthy debates with the lady in front of you or the guy you brush past in the paddock all help for a positive race. If there’s a poor crowd, the on track action seems…almost pointless. So, what makes a good race? There’s only one way to know for sure: get to your local track and find out!