The Way Finishes Are Supposed To Be

My guess is that when you read the title of this post, you probably thought I was going to talk about some of the closest finishes in the history of the Verizon IndyCar Series. Not that I meant to mislead you, but you would be mistaken if that’s what you thought. No, this tackles what most will consider a far less interesting subject. In fact, some might label this as one of my neurotic tangents. But it’s a topic that has become more important to me in the last few years.

If you’ve ever heard Curt Cavin describe how good a race car looks in its full livery at the beginning of any race season, he uses a unique term that fits – “it pops”. He will describe any car that is striking to look at, in that way – It just pops out at you.

There are several paint schemes over the years you could say that about – the traditional Marlboro livery that went away after the 2009 season, any of John Menard’s cars, Scott Dixon’s lightning bolt that was brought back this season after a fifteen year hiatus; to name just a few. Another that just stood out to me were the AJ Foyt black Copenhagen cars with orange trim. Something about that shiny black car with the deep finish just looked fast, even if it wasn’t most of the time.


Go back even further to the British racing green cars of Jim Clark. When I saw my first race in 1965, Clark’s car just glistened from the middle of the front row as the field was coming out of Turn Four to take the green flag. And the nose of Ol’ Calhoun of Parnelli Jones was such a rich and lustrous blue, it looked as if you could put your whole hand right through it.


As much as this sport is about the racing, I tend to think that the looks of a car count for a whole lot. The shinier the better, I always thought. The same goes for passenger cars. I waxed my car over the weekend. It brought back a shine that I’d forgotten about. Nothing looks better than a shiny new car, especially when you’ve had that new car for over four years.

But there is a disturbing trend going on in motorsports and other sports. That is the use of the dull matte finish as a fashion statement. Here is where I will lose a lot of younger readers, as I show my age once again by revealing my dislike of the latest fads. You should hear me out and let me explain – right after I shoo some kids off of my lawn.

This is not a brand new trend. The first matte-finish IndyCar that I can remember was the William Rast car of Townsend Bell in 2008. If you’ll recall, it was a flat olive drab car with day-glow winglets and trim. While some liked it, I thought it was hideous. To me, it looked like an Army tank that had been vandalized with day-glow spray paint. I remember wondering at the time if such a finish produced additional drag over a glossy finish.


I figured this was a one-time deal, but lately – there have been more and more cars showing up on the grid that look like they have only a coat of primer and is not yet ready to race.

Last month we learned that Alex Tagliani is teaming up with AJ Foyt again for the Indianapolis 500. The car will carry the No.35 to commemorate Foyt’s thirty-five consecutive starts in the “500”, and is supposed to resemble the famous black Copenhagen car that Foyt drove at the end of his career. That’s a great idea except that Foyt’s car had a beautiful glossy finish. The car of Tagliani appears to have the dreaded matte finish, which is a shame because the glossy black on Foyt’s car really “popped” when you saw it in person. The finish on what I’m assuming is a computer generated photo just lies there.


On a bright sunny day, nothing looks better than colorful race cars sparkling on the track. If you saw the race at Phoenix two weeks ago, you saw most of the cars glimmering under the lights. Charlie Kimball’s new livery looked dead, however. The lime green jumps, but the flat black finish got lost in the darkness.

Like most styles, I wonder who sat around thinking This will be a good look because it’s so unique. There’s a reason why so many things are unique. It’s because nobody really wants them. That is until some marketing company convinces you that you will be laughed at by not having it.

Case in point – Nike. They can come up with the ugliest athletic clothes known to man. Yet, some marketing genius put together a campaign that convinced everyone that they were tasteful and good-looking, so everyone suddenly had to have them – regardless of how hideous they really were. There is no logical reasoning for fads. Otherwise, there would be some explanation how bell-bottoms and lime-green shag carpeting became popular in the seventies.

Remember the ghastly baseball uniforms of the seventies and eighties? Jerseys were pullovers and pants had Sansabelt for belts. They reached their pinnacle of ugliness when Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck clad his team in short pants and V-neck jerseys with collars. That sort of started the pendulum swinging back the other way towards more traditional button-up jerseys and pants with belt loops. There is no accounting for bad taste.


My first wife would come home with the oddest looking ensembles imaginable. If I dared to question her taste, she was quick to inform me that I obviously knew nothing about high fashion. I took it as a compliment.

H.L. Mencken was famous for saying “No man ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”. My question is…why do sponsors approve or encourage a race car with a matte finish? It seems to me that a sponsor would want their car to “pop” and stand out for everyone to see.

Fortunately, the matte finish is still somewhat unique and I hope this is as far as it gets. I certainly don’t ever want to see an Indianapolis 500 with thirty-three cars that look like they just got their first coat of primer. I take solace in the fact that there are still some good looking liveries being introduced. For instance, have you seen the good looking and glossy livery that Graham Rahal is running this weekend at Long Beach? Now, that is a good looking car.


So keep this grumpy old man from getting any grumpier. Say NO to the matte finish, be it on football helmets, racing helmets or race cars. There’s a reason why race cars have been mostly glossy for the last hundred years – they look better.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “The Way Finishes Are Supposed To Be”

  1. I don’t mind the occasional matte finish, but the glossy look always appears faster.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      I think you touched on something very important there. Subconsciously, we all think a glossy race car is faster and “finished”. Psychologically, I wonder if a glossier car implies an advantage over other cars and perhaps affects some drivers of other cars even slightly.

  2. In my humble opinion the only color where the matte finish doesn’t look bad is black. Other colors in matte finish look weird. Case in point the Renault F1 cars this year. They look cool, but would look even better if they were gloss finish. Just my opinion of course.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    I say NO to the matte finish! No disrespect intended to Tom Matte of course. I tend to favor the blue on the front of Ol’ Calhoun and bright primary colors such as red, yellow, and orange. A few years ago one of the teams featured a bright orange car that had some pop. I don’t like yellow and orange for personal cars, but I think they look great on race cars. The colors, sounds, and smells of race cars and race fuel should get your senses to full alert.

  4. Bright shiny and fast is the way to go. The occasional matte finish doesn’t bother me. The thing that bothers me is when everyone runs the same damn color scheme. For instance, Rahal’s car is gorgeous, but there’s no way I’ll be able to tell him apart from the silver and black Penske’s now. The worst offending race series for this is the WEC. The LMP1 cars from Audi, Porsche and Toyota were so damn similar in livery last year I had absolutely no idea who was who during the races.

  5. George, I noticed your comment about matte finish cars possibly having more drag. Since I don’t understand who the wraps used on most race cars today are constructed nor applied, I can’t address drag relative to the wraps, but I do understand paint and matte paint is not smooth so that it scatters the light that hits it, rather than reflecting it directly. I learned these details in my days as a photographer because the choice of finish of the paper photos were printed on could make a big difference in how viewers would perceive an otherwise identical image.
    As a result a matte paint finish would be disruptive to airflow, maybe in a very, very small way, but it is the details that make a huge difference in auto racing.
    I suppose the experts involved with IndyCar design, who know all the technical aspects, may feel they can gain a slight edge based on the strategic application of glossy and matte surfaces.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I believe it was mentioned during one of the Daytona 500 Speedweeks broadcasts that Martin Truex Jr. and the Furniture Row Racing team were happy to be running a glossy paint scheme for the first time in quite a while as it was more aerodynamic than the matte finish they had been using. Apparently, it took some convincing from team personnel and sponsor Bass Pro Shops to get owner Barney Visser to give up his favored matte paint scheme.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    It looks to me like Tagliani’s Foyt tribute car is using a glossy black in those renderings, not a matte black. In the second rendering, you can see the #35 on the vertical section of the front wing end plat reflecting in the black on the horizontal section, which would seem to indicate a glossy finish. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but we won’t know until the car rolls out of the garage next month.

    I happen to like 1970s baseball uniforms, at least as far as the trend of wearing light blue instead of gray on the road is concerned. And the 3-color Montreal Expos caps, those were great.

  7. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I enjoy variety. If a sponsor wants to stand out, so be it. Their cars may be microseconds slower, but I think sponsors want to be easily recognizable first, and first, second.

  8. Graham’s car is absolutely gorgeous. Newgarden’s cars over the last couple of years have been arguably the best in recent memory. The glossy look really does make the car look sexier, especially in person.

  9. I vote for the British racing green. I have always thought it super cool. Can’t beat the blue of Parnelli’s Ol’ Calhoun! Gorgeous!

  10. EDGAR Emmitt Says:

    They all look nicer under a bright sunny day.
    My vote is for the glossy look.

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