Friday, October 21, 2011

Competition vs Entertainment

(by Thomson Philips pitpass.com 10-20-11)

The last time I managed to finish a column for this website (Short Sighted or Short Circuit) it was a rant against the silly rumours that Formula 1 circuits would be moving to IndyCar*. Since then much has happened in IndyCar*, none of it good, culminating in the death of Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon's death is a personal tragedy for his family, friends and racing community, but let's be blunt. This wasn't an accident or a 'freak thing' like Henry Surtees. It was an inevitability. While Formula 1 has made leaps and bounds in safety (and I will grudgingly give full credit to Max Mosley), IndyCar* has done very little to negate the lift effect of their cars, a problem since the current Dallara chassis was introduced back in 2003. The safety record has been abysmal, with broken backs occurring nearly every May in the lead up to the Indianapolis 500.

IndyCar* has dodged many bullets over the years with their "Flying Crapwagons" (as first dubbed by Paul Tracy). Time and again the cars have gone airborne including 2003 when 63 year old Mario Andretti hit a piece of debris entering the backstretch at Indy. The Dallara he was testing flew up higher than the top of the catch fencing and back-flipped at least 3 times. Luckily for Mario the car came down right side up and he was unhurt, but the sheer height of the flip was an early indication of major trouble.

Safer barriers be damned, when an open wheel car is doing 220 mph and gets airborne into catch fencing, the end result is going to be spectacular and potentially gruesome. Just ask Kenny Brack. Or Ryan Briscoe. Or Mike Conway. Or Will Power, whose flight during the Las Vegas crash defies logic. Had any of those guys gone into the fencing cockpit first like Dan Wheldon, they would not have lived to race another day.

Not much has ever been done about the flight pattern of the IndyCar* Dallaras. One of the reasons is that the powers that be want to maintain the packs of wheel to wheel action at speeds over 200 mph. It's their claim to fame. It's the 'entertainment' value that Americans crave. It's Russian Roulette, all the more ironic given that the race was in Las Vegas and Wheldon had a roulette wheel motif on his helmet.

Am I a ninny who wants motor racing banned, or the cars slowed? Not necessarily. Slowing the cars down to say 185 mph to race on a high banked oval three abreast will still lead to the kind of disaster that happened in Las Vegas. What is needed is separation. The cars are underpowered with high downforce. They can't pull away from each other and the talent levels of the better drivers are somewhat negated. Everyone runs together in a giant pack, and one mistake collects at least several cars. It's one thing for NASCAR to have 15 cars tumbling end over end at almost 200 mph shedding pieces and parts and having the rednecks stand and applaud when the driver climbs out onto the top (or bottom) of the car and takes a bow. But it's another for an open cockpit car to take on the flight path of the space shuttle and careen into metal fence posts 15 feet in the air.

In an email I received after the last column, one reader stated "IndyCar realizes that racing is first about entertainment and second about engineering." Three others mentioned how much more 'exciting and entertaining' IndyCar* is.

Do you think Adrian Newey regards Formula 1 as entertainment? Frank Williams? Luca di Montezemolo? They all know the value of entertaining the fans, but all value the competition above all else. I'll gladly take the excitement of The 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is an exercise in engineering.

IndyCar's* current modus operandi is 'entertainment' in a Circus Maximus kind of way. Warriors, gladiators fighting it out to the death on an oval at 220 mph in wheel to wheel excitement. But is it a competition of skill or bravery?

There is a difference between entertainment and entertaining, but also between entertainment and competition. I want my racing to be entertaining, but I want the entertainment to come from the cold hard battle of competition, not gimmicks, contrived equality, or the bravado of foot to the floor, 100% throttle 100% of the time wheel banging with the prospect of 'The Big Crash'. Note what the ABC announcers said as the crash began. It wasn't "Trouble" or "Oh, no" it was "Here we go" as in "Here we go, we knew it was going to happen and it's what we were all waiting for."

Motor racing is dangerous. It doesn't need to be made more so by desperately clinging to a faulty vision. It would be very wrong to compare Dan Wheldon with Ayrton Senna, but that Imola weekend was a watershed moment for Formula 1, where the powers that be took a major step back and looked at many different aspects of the sport. Wheldon's death needs to be the same.

It's time for IndyCar* to admit they were wrong and revamp everything. Eliminate mile and a half ovals designed for NASCAR. Go back to the drawing boards for a new car, one that looks good, doesn't launch itself into orbit or fracture spines. Eliminate the contrived excitement of the pack mentality. Give the cars enough horsepower with less downforce so that throttle modulation and driving skill determine who makes it through the corners instead of planting your foot to the floor and praying you don't get caught up in someone else's mistake.

Honour Dan Wheldon's memory by doing something difficult, like making major changes, even if it means reducing or eliminating next year's schedule.

Taking the easy way out like naming the new car or a trophy after Wheldon will make his death as meaningless as Scott Brayton's, Tony Renna's or Paul Dana's.

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