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Counterpoint: Should fans be more tolerant of fuel mileage races?

Paul Dalbey & Steph Wallcraft
| Aug 09, 2011


In Counterpoint, Paul Dalbey and Steph Wallcraft of MoreFrontWing.com face off on topics related to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Neither reviews the other's argument until after the article is compiled for posting. It's up to you to decide who's made the better case!

This week: Should INDYCAR fans be more tolerant of fuel mileage races?



There's something to appreciate in every type of race -- yes, even a fuel mileage race!

Every fan has his or her own reasons for tuning in to an IZOD IndyCar Series race. Some people hope to see high-speed, wheel-to-wheel, hanging-by-a-thread racing for every moment from start to finish. When these fans tune into a race like we saw this past weekend, all they see is cars going roundy-round in procession. They quickly declare, "This is boring!" Then, they either take a nap, hop online to complain about it, or change the channel.

But there are others who tune in to analyze the nuances of auto racing -- not the nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat action but the skill and strategy used by drivers and teams that make the sport more like watching a good chess match. Believe it or not, those people were quite happy with the race at Mid-Ohio on Sunday.

Yes, there was very little passing. But consider this: with very few exceptions, 27 drivers executed 85 consecutive laps with such precision that they couldn't gain on one another enough to overtake. And on top of that, they needed to conserve fuel to make it the full distance on two stops, and they did that by using their feet and the shifter paddles (not just by setting a knob as in years past). That sounds like kind of skill required to be one of the best drivers in the world, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, back in pit lane, the teams were analyzing telemetry data to learn everything they could to give their drivers the best cars possible on every pit stop. And 162 of those team members twice climbed over the wall into a ridiculously tight pit lane and put their personal well-being in jeopardy to execute flawless pit stops over and over again. One particularly enterprising team took a look at a bad situation and turned it to their favor by calling for an alternate pit stop strategy, giving a rookie who's rumored to be running out of funding the opportunity to lead 26 laps and turn a race on its head.

Somewhere along the way, these sorts of details became lost on some fans, and that's very sad. These days, viewers of any sport seem to demand big, flashy, constant action, and nothing else will do. If these people could be educated to appreciate some of the finer details that make auto racing the great sport we all love, it could greatly increase their ability to fully appreciate it.

Of course, some people are simply not interested in these sorts of details, and that's their right. Those folks can vote with their remote controls. Any race that doesn't attract enough attention through ratings and attendance will eventually drop off the schedule in favor of more profitable venues. So, if the majority of the fan base decides to tune in for Toronto and tune out for Mid-Ohio, that's naturally the type of event that the Series will lean toward. If you don't like it, don't watch it -- if the majority of the fan base agrees with you, your preference will eventually follow.

But the beautiful thing about today's IZOD IndyCar Series is that it offers nearly every type of auto racing around -- oval and road, action and strategy -- and everyone can easily find the racing they love somewhere on the calendar. More importantly, for every race that one fan watches and doesn't love from start to finish, there's someone else out there who does.  If we could all make an effort to educate ourselves on the things that make every type of racing great so that every portion of the schedule holds at least some appeal, it would go a long way toward helping IZOD IndyCar Series racing grow and thrive.



Americans like results -- quickly.  We aren’t a people who like to sit around and watch events in a planning stage.  We want our food fast.  We want our money yesterday.  And we want to be there now.  We are by nature a fast-paced society, and when we sit around waiting, we quickly lose interest.  Call us unsophisticated or accuse us of being an ADD society, but the fact is we want action -- not two hours from now or after 20 minutes of planning, but now!

The rest of the world enjoys Formula 1 and soccer, neither of which have ever really caught on here in the States -- at least, not at the stratospheric level that they have elsewhere around the globe.  (Yes, I know there is a fan base for soccer in the US, but ask 100 random people who won last year’s MLS Cup. How many will know the answer?  I don’t.)  A game with a score of 1-0 just doesn’t grab our attention.  Instead, we enjoy sports like basketball, where 100 points is the standard for our professionals, and football, where we give the scoring team six points just to run the numbers up a bit higher.  Even baseball, America’s national pastime, is falling out of favor these days because many simply find it too slow and boring to devote a three-hour block to on a routine basis.  Sure, an occasional slow game here and there is permissible, and a good pitchers' duel can be exciting if we really witness something special, but even watching a no-hitter every single time would cause a fan’s interest to burn out faster than Mark Pryor’s right arm.

This same scenario is what we're seeing on several of the road and street circuits on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule.  While I’m sure the scenic Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course provided campers with a gorgeous facility to watch race cars run around all weekend, the race was an absolute snoozer and left even this die-hard INDYCAR fan wondering if perhaps I might not be missing something much more exciting on Iron Chef America.  Similar stories have also been the norm at Barber Motorsports Park, Long Beach, and even the second half of the race at Edmonton.  It’s not that I have something against road and street courses in general -- I just have something against what I consider to be boring races.  I know, I know, it’s all about setting up the pass and forcing the other guy to make a mistake.  If watching three passes per race based on that theory excites you, more power to you.

It’s not really a question of fuel-mileage racing, either.  As Steph perfectly said in her wrap-up from last weekend on MoreFrontWing.com, so long as race cars have finite-size fuel cells, there will always be the question of fuel mileage.  Regardless of the size of the track or the length of the race, a conveniently timed yellow can turn any race into a fuel-mileage affair.  That doesn’t mean the race has to be boring, though.  Case in point (and I cannot believe I am actually going to put this on the record) was this year’s Brickyard 400.  While many found it to be dull, I actually found the end quite interesting.  Yes, Paul Menard was making a fuel-mileage game of it by stretching his fuel to the end, but Jeff Gordon was running full throttle trying to catch him.  As he shaved a second off Menard’s lead each lap, the final 10 laps were reminiscent of the Johncock/Mears battle in the 1982 Indianapolis 500 -- except that Gordon had to shave that time and pass about 10 cars to catch Menard.  In the end, Gordon came up just short and Menard scored his first NASCAR victory, but the final 10 laps showed that, even in NASCAR, "fuel-mileage racing" doesn’t need to be synonymous with "boring, follow-the-leader parade."

I’ll admit that American race fans have not always been so fleeting in their attention span.  Even oval racing was different 25 years ago.  When a victor lapped the field, it was considered a dominating display of talent and machinery, not a boring, lack-of-action call for a new era of racing.  In 1993, it was unheard-of for the top 10 finishers to be on the lead lap at Indianapolis.  In 2011, it was an afterthought when the top 12 finishers all went the distance.  Regardless of why this change in philosophy has transpired, the fact remains that the attitude of today’s race fan is different than it was 20 years ago, and with more entertainment options today, racing must deliver what the fans want to see: action throughout the race with lots of clean passing.  Whether it is for the lead or 10th place, fans want to see drivers racing hard.

And ovals don’t get a free pass here, either.  If we’re being completely honest, the middle 100 laps on an oval are rarely as exciting as the first and last 50 laps as drivers are now often simply content to run laps.  It might be a lot faster, but watching what amounts to a test session during races can be just as boring on an oval as it is on a road course.  It’s probably more dangerous, though, and perhaps that's what adds some level of excitement to it for some viewers. But the situation exists throughout the schedule regardless.

Should INDYCAR fans be more tolerant of fuel-mileage races?  If by tolerant you mean excited about single-file, follow-the-leader parading, then no, I don’t personally care to be any more tolerant.  If you mean trying to conserve fuel while still demonstrating that you are racing all-out and not simply content to follow the chain of cars in front of you, then yes, I think that’s a race I can invest some time in.


Paul Dalbey (@Fieldof33) and Steph Wallcraft (@99forever) are co-editors of MoreFrontWing.com (@MoreFrontWing), your source online for blogs, photos, podcasts and more covering the IZOD IndyCar Series and beyond. Reach them both at feedback@morefrontwing.com.


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  15. 15 Jason 11 Aug
    The reason fuel mileage racing needs to go is because EVEN DANICA can win one of those. Make race distances too long to make it on two stops so that full out vs. just less then full out determines how long you have to "splash" for to get out of the pits just ahead of the leaders and make the finish. Yellows will always play a role, but average them out in the elected race distance and make the winner the fastest/smartest/most daring driver- not the one who's engineer got to the math first and the driver who hit cruise control like we do.
  16. 16 DZ 10 Aug

    In either case, I find the commonality is the shortcoming in the presentation of the sport on TV. 

    Steph's points speak to those more sophisticated Indycar palates who look for those small details which tend to illuminate the race behind the standings on the pylon. Paul's point is also valid in that the sheer visual interest via TV is lacking. The current TV coverage (with the exception of in-car cams) seems to do neither side full justice and this is to the extreme detriment of the growth of the sport. 

    If you've ever seen the coverage of F1 via Speed on TV, they make a 'racing parade' where the outcome is mostly a given (complete with blocking and very little passing) take on drama that makes for enjoyable viewing. 

    I also think the TV coverage plays down the intelligence to its perceived audience, when in truth, I believe we (remaining die-hards) would appreciate much more of the nuance and possibly garner new fans when these stories are promoted and revealed on raceday via TV.

    I've said forever that to fully appreciate Indycar is to see it in person, but without sufficient funding and independence to follow the trucks to every race, TV is the only remaining option but barely fits the bill.

  17. 17 Dave Hoff 10 Aug

    Both of you have good points and I agree with aspects of both.  I readily admit that I enjoy watching Indy Cars on ovals more than road/street races.  It's more exciting, faster, riskier, grittier racing.  However, I do understand the nuances and strategies behind road/street racing and have found myself enjoying those races as well.

    My only worry is that IndyCar is moving toward a road/street court heavy schedule.  I think that would absolutely kill any interest that casual fans have and drive away even hardcore open wheel racing fans.  Like Paul said, we're Americans and we want our action right now!!! 

    Either way, I just want to see IndyCar continue to expand it's schedule and explore diversity in it's racing venues. 

  18. 18 Paul Weingart 10 Aug

    The reason that Indy Cars attracts me is the varied tracks, I like the roads because here the drivers get to show you their talent, why they are paid the $'s, I like the ovals for the close racing & high speeds, & I like the streets for the atmosphere & for the spectator you can't get much closer to the action.

  19. 19 Rick Hunt 09 Aug

    You both have good points and may be more in agreement than not. I think the key to enjoying a race (or almost any event) is the story, not just the result.  We want to have a degree of uncertainty about the outcome for as many cars as possible. Not a total crapshoot (NASCAR at Talladega perhaps), just some realistic uncertainty.  This is where the story element is so important. If there is a lot of overtaking throughout the field, then the uncertainty is obvious to a casual observer. A so-called fuel mileage race (although I agree with Steph, all races long enough to require refueling are fuel mileage races) is only exciting if the spectator knows that it's a fuel-mileage race.  The same applies to pit timing, tire choices, mechanical issues, etc. If we know about all the non-obvious variables, then we feel the uncertainty that provides the entertainment value.

    The basketball to baseball analogy is appropriate and I've used it previously myself. The action in basketball is mainly explicit while in baseball it's much more nuanced.  You have to have a minimum level of knowledge of the game to fully appreciate what is happening on the field. If you see that the Cubs-Cardinals score was 6-4 you know the outcome, but not the story. If you see the line score with 8 of 10 runs in the last two innings, then the game seems a bit more interesting. Now examine the full box score and you'll learn about individual performances. If you could see the scorebook, then you can nearly replay the whole game pitch by pitch and you find out that one starting pitcher had a no-hitter going into the 8th. It is the details of the story that change your perception of the game from ho-hum to being one of the best of the season. If you watched the game and had that information as it was happening, that's entertainment.

    All that being said, some people like to have the action delivered to them with explosions and others like to have it delivered via well-crafted dialog. The trick is to play to the strengths of each while not going too far and having the fans of the other tune out. Either way, IndyCar has to make sure that the fans are always presented a level of uncertainty. Some events provide that more readily than others. IndyCar and the radio/TV crews have the ability to tailor the product using tire compounds, fuel cell sizes, race length, etc. along with providing the spectators information about the non-obvious details happening throughout the race. If there's a good story with uncertainty, we'll be entertained.

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