What is pure racing anymore? A deep dive here

INDIANAPOLIS — With NASCAR using the 750 package at Darlington earlier this month, it got me wondering, what is the ideal racing package for motorsports these days? It seems like it’s a slippery soap to go down, but I’m ready to ask the right questions.

A lot of race fans want more horsepower and less downforce, like the one NASCAR used that day. The drivers obviously do too, as this puts racing back in the hands of the ones steering the ship. But, when that’s done, it also creates the potential for spread out racing too.

Just nine cars were on the lead lap that day. Only 14 were within one lap of winner Martin Truex Jr. While some fans applauded that, others didn’t. You had some still say that they wanted more cars on the lead lap and tighter racing. Other clamored that what we witnessed that day was in the form of pure racing.

That’s why NASCAR has experimented the last few years with less horsepower and more downforce. In turn, that has bunched up the fields, but it’s also made it very hard to pass too. How can you pass someone when you are both running the same speeds? How can you pass someone when you have so much downforce the car catches itself before it ever thinks of getting out of control? How can you pass someone when the tires aren’t degrading over the course of a run due to slower speeds and more grip? How do you pass someone when the turbulent air behind the car in front is so great it makes your car almost undriveable?

The lower downforce and higher horsepower package allows you to do the things the opposite side of the spectrum don’t. You can pass. You can separate yourself from others based off talent and a good car. It also has a way bigger potential of separation too.

So, what is the perfect balance?

For the NTT IndyCar Series, they’re trying to find it too. Here at Indianapolis, they had what fans wanted in when this new car came out in 2012. It created such a big hole in wake that passing was way more prevalent than anything we’d ever seen before. There was a race record 34 lead changes in 2012. 68 more came in 2013. We had 34 again in 2014, 37 in 2015, 54 in 2016 and 35 in 2017. But, with a new UAK in 2018, it made passing more difficult again. We had 30, 29 and 21 respectively the last three years, with a majority of those coming in pit sequences.

Some say INDYCAR went too far the other way. Others say that this is more pure racing in the sense that the best cars get an advantage back. I mean, racing is supposed to be hard. Passing isn’t supposed to be easy. If it was, anyone could do it.

But, there also has to be a happy medium so, what is it?

“Honestly, I think it needs to be a little racier than it is at the moment,” James Hinchcliffe told me. “Just because you could have a great car that gets mired down midfield for some reason then you have no opportunity to get yourself back up to the front. I think we’re not at the best place than it’s been if I’m being perfectly honest but I also think everyone’s aware of that and we’re all consciously trying to make it better. Hopefully we can keep chipping away at it and get it back to being an entertaining race.”

Marco Andretti agreed.

“I think they’re getting pretty close to it,” said the third generation driver.” I think passing should take you a few laps to set up. It’s one that you should watch ahead for a lap or two to see where he’s weak, see where you’re strong, see where you’re tools work and set him up. I think it’s pretty close. It’s not easy out there. The cars don’t feel great anymore. We just to be able to find that “ahh there it is.” Now when these fast guys are out there and you look at their steering and you can tell they’re not comfortable.”

Pato O’Ward says that he think’s the definition of pure racing is “close racing.”

“The closeness of it,” he told me. “People respecting each other. It’s not very fun going over 220 mph with each other and someone who’s just a moving chicane. I think respect is a big factor, especially at superspeedway’s.”

He also said like Hinchcliffe did that work still needs to be done. At the moment, pit sequences are the only real way to move up here.

“I gets pretty terrifying when you’re behind 12 cars and you can’t do anything about it,” he continued. “I feel like we’re taking steps in the right direction but it’s just really tough. There’s just no way in moving up if you’re the 10th, 12th car in line unless you have mega pit stops and making everything up in a pit sequence. If you don’t do that, then you’re otherwise stuck. I need to be within the first 4 or 5 cars in the train. If you’re 12th on back, you’re going to feel like trash. You’re in an out laps are so crucial because if you can gain a couple of spots there, you gain so much downforce back.”

One of the best guys who ask was Juan Pablo Montoya. He’s driven everything and won in it too.

“You always want to try to be able to come out and get a good run behind somebody to get a draft, but right now, if you’re in the middle of the pack the guy in the draft is getting the same draft that you’re getting so it makes it really difficult to pass,” he said in regards to the state of driving an Indy Car. “It’s kind of the nature of the beast.

“If the guy gets a run on you, he should be able to complete the pass. Right now, it’s very difficult but it’s the same for everybody. I don’t think it’s about complaining on if this is the right package or not but it’s more about making the best of it.”

Josef Newgarden also says that they’re close to the right package, but worries that there’s a chance that they could go too far with it and make it too easy.

“I think almost less downforce than we have right now would be better, but you have a decrease in separation from clean air and dirty air,” said the two-time series champion. “That’s what we’re fighting. Everyone has a really good handling race car when they’re alone but as soon as they get in traffic they have a big wash out and they’re not handling the same. They’ve reduced that separation from clean to dirty air from the changes but I still don’t think that’s enough. We could go more and I think part of the way that we helped the problem was adding downforce to the car.

“One thing that I don’t want to see is making the cars too easy to drive. I think they should be low downforce, hard to drive but easier to follow. I know it’s kind of an imperfect science around this place. Not all of it’s INDYCAR’s fault. It’s a very hard balance. It’s very difficult without being in the race itself to tune that in perfectly. We have a really good package. It’s raceable. You’re going to have a lot of passing. I just don’t want to make the ‘500 too easy where any one can run at the front where anyone can run up front when they may not have a car that’s capable of that.”

I mean if you look at some of the older Indy 500’s, the time during the “glory years” it wasn’t uncommon to have just a couple of cars on the lead lap at the end of the race.

The 1992 race was ranked as one of the best ever. Al Unser Jr. beat Scott Goodyear by just a few tenths of a second, .043-seconds to be exact, but what if I told you that only four cars even completed all 200 laps that day. Eighth place was five laps down that day. Only 12 of the 33 cars finished.

Now, I also get the conditions were treacherous that day. So, lets skip ahead a year. 10 cars were on the lead lap. 24 of them were running. But, 24th was also 8 laps down.

In 1994, Emerson Fittipaldi was so good that year, he had lapped literally everyone in the closing laps. He crashed with 15 to go. Even so, two cars were on the lead lap at the checkered flag with Al Unser Jr. beating Jacques Villeneuve by 8.6 seconds. Sixth place was two laps down. Eighth place was three laps down, 10th place four laps behind. 16 cars were running. There were three leaders all day.

What about 1982? Rick Mears vs. Gordon Johncock for the win in the closing laps is still one of the best end of the race battles that IMS has ever seen. They were the only two on the lead lap that day. Fourth place didn’t even finish, he blew his engine three laps from the end. Sixth place was four laps down. Ninth place was 14 laps arrears. Eight cars crossed the yard of bricks at the end.

I can go on and on, but you get the point.

Last year we had 18 cars on the lead lap. 25 of the 33 were running at the checkered flag. 2019 saw 17 cars on the lead lap and 26 of them running at the completion.

So, which is better? Which do you want to see?

Another layer to this is TV. There’s no doubt about it, TV is arguably the most important piece to this puzzle. TV contracts are the lifeline of sports these days because of their value and the monetary gain. NASCAR’s current one that they’re operating under is over $8 billion. That’s why they can race during a pandemic even without fans in the stands.

INDYCAR doesn’t have that luxury but they’re wanting to increase their value not lessen it. Their contract is up at seasons end. They used to split for years between ABC/ESPN and NBC Sports. That’s before NBC Sports got the sole contract as the only TV provider for the series starting in 2019. This is the third and final year of that. So, with that bargaining chip available, INDYCAR needs good racing. They need Indianapolis to be a barnburner. They need big ratings and what drives big ratings?

Close racing.

But, how do you manage that? How do you get close racing but not compromise the integrity of what we’re doing after all and that’s racing. How do you create close racing but also make these cars able to pass and be passed?

That’s the million dollar, scratch that, billion dollar question. That’s the biggest question in racing for this era. Innovation appears to be long gone, so how do we create the best racing equation to make the most amount of people happy?

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