The Simplicity Of IndyCar

Although it rained throughout most of the event, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Rolex24 from Daytona this weekend. Not only was it good to see a good representation of current, former and perhaps future drivers from the Verizon IndyCar Series – it was just nice to see racing again. Congrats to Wayne Taylor Racing, and Jeff Gordon in particular, for their win. Another tip of the hat to Chip Ganassi Racing and Sébastien Bourdais for their winning effort in their Ford GT.

One thing I have always liked about racing is that the concept is simple – once the race starts, the first car to reach the finish line in the prescribed distance (or time), wins.

Yes, there is strategy involved and a lot of subtle nuances that sometimes take years to understand – but a first-timer to the sport can understand the basics enough to know what is going on and have a thoroughly enjoyable time, whether they are on-site or watching on television.

That rule applied to no matter what type of racing a first-timer may be watching – IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula One, sports car racing or even drag-racing – once the race started, whoever crossed the finish line first won the race and left with a trophy.

That may or may not have changed for NASCAR’s three divisions (Monster Energy Series, Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series) last week. Unless you’ve been living under a rock or never listen to NASCAR news, you now know that NASCAR unveiled their plans for segmented races, beginning this season with next month’s Daytona 500.

I’ll be honest; I’ve studied the details and I’m not sure there is a way to put it all in a nutshell that can be easily (and correctly) explained in a paragraph or two, but I’ll give it a try.

From my understanding, which could be way off – in its most basic form, all races will be divided into three segments. The first two segments will make up a little more than half the race, the final segment will be a little less than half. For example, the Brickyard 400 is 160 laps. He first segment will end on Lap 45, the second on Lap 90 and the remainder of the race will make up the third and final segment.

The winner of each of the first two segments will be awarded a “playoff” point that will be banked for when the series heads into what used to be known as The Chase (now The Playoffs). Winning the final segment awards five playoff points, in addition to the forty “regular” points awarded for winning the race. As I understand it, the amount of regular points gets a driver into the playoffs. The amount of bonus points seeds the driver throughout the first three races of the playoffs.

There are other rule changes for 2017, but the segmented race format is the biggie.

Maybe I’m missing something or have completely misinterpreted what I’ve read, but one thing I do know – it’s very confusing. In fact, it’s too confusing. I don’t consider myself an idiot (then again, most idiots don’t), and I’ve watched a lot of racing over many decades – but this may be the most convoluted way to run a race that I’ve ever seen.

To me, the biggest mistake that NASCAR Chairman Brian France is making is to try and compare auto racing to stick and ball sports. He decries that every other sport has innings, quarters or halftime breaks and racing should too. That’s a flawed way of thinking simply due to the nature of the sport. The only breaks are naturally occurring ones due to either weather or accidents. Besides, no playoff points are awarded to football teams that win a half or a quarter. It’s who has the most points at the end of the game that determines the winner, regardless of how they got there.

Of course, this way of thinking is from the same folks who brought us competition cautions – pre-planned yellow flags at a certain point in the race to monitor tire wear or whatever special circumstance presented itself over a race weekend.

Remember what I said earlier about crossing the finish line first in the prescribed distance? NASCAR is also the group that gave us the green-white-checkered (GWC) finish to ensure that fans were treated to a green-flag finish – meaning that a 500-mile race may actually go 510, which greatly affects fuel strategy.

Over the years, NASCAR has been famous for manufacturing drama through gimmicks. The Chase, the GWC-finish, the Lucky Dog all came about in the last sixteen years since Dale Earnhardt was fatally injured in the 2001 Daytona 500. As other stars have retired from the sport, they have been replaced by corporate automatons that seem to be interchangeable. In the same time, they have had the Car of Tomorrow and other common templates that have failed to capture the imagination of current fans, much less potential new fans. In the midst of all this, NASCAR television ratings have plummeted.

Rather than give fans drivers that don’t look and sound pre-programmed, and cars that provide exciting racing – they continue to come up with gimmicks that they somehow think fans want. France insists that this latest system was brought about by drivers that overwhelmingly wanted this change.

I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it. It’s hard to imagine Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett or Cale Yarborough lobbying for these changes. Dale Jr. sounded like he was just towing the company line when he defended it against fan backlash. The only driver I’ve heard to really speak favorable was Denny Hamlin, whom I have never thought was representative of the typical NASCAR driver.

This may work out to be the boost that NASCAR needs to reverse its negative trend in attendance and TV ratings. I doubt it, but I’ve been wrong many times before. I think that anything this confusing to explain or understand cannot be good for the sport.

But one thing I know – I’m glad IndyCar has not taken the bait for gimmicks like NASCAR has. That doesn’t mean that IndyCar has remained gimmick-free. In the last dozen years or so, they have continued to make changes to the Indianapolis 500 qualifying system that had worked for decades. Now it is to the point that I think is anti-climactic, repetitive and almost as confusing to understand as the new NASCAR system.

But Indianapolis 500 qualifying aside, IndyCar has resisted the GWC, the Lucky Dog (to some extent), any type of Chase or segmented races. The double-points at the Indianapolis 500 and any other selected race(s) needs to go, but for the most part – IndyCar has remained pure and gimmick-free.

Instead, they’ve produced a great on-track product with exciting races and drivers that are allowed to have a sense of humor.

Naysayers will point out that NASCAR is still way ahead in the ratings and attendance game, but one thing you can’t ignore – IndyCar has had a significant increase in TV ratings over the last couple of seasons. NASCAR would love to be able to make that claim.

So say what you will. IndyCar is far from perfect. But from a purist standpoint, it offers a much more appealing albeit simpler product to understand. To me, that’s how you lure new fans. Isn’t that what all sports are trying to do?

George Phillips

11 Responses to “The Simplicity Of IndyCar”

  1. I don’t care what kind of points system NASCAR has, and I doubt that the audience they are aiming for, the elusive casual fans, care enough to be passionate about it, or in fact, about anything.
    So if NASCAR is lucky, their new points system is merely met by most of its followers with a “Huh?” and a blank stare. And “Whatever, I’m here to enjoy the race, so let’s get it started”.

    However, having followed different kinds of motorsport since my childhood, I guess NASCAR may be shooting themselves in the foot with this one, especially when the announcers feel the need to explain this rulebook stuff over and over again and fail to actually comment what’s happening out on track because they are busy with something else.

    Also, in Formula E, they do have something like a half-time break: the pit stops during the middle of the races when the drivers change to their 2nd car, which is necessary because at this point, the batteries of their 1st car are down. That kind of half-time break is currently being treated as necessary and fans coming upon the series for the 1st time are still bewildered by it.

  2. Indycar is the last of the non-gimmack systems. Racing constantly wants to be compared to other sports but I like the endurance of the full season counting towards something, it’s an endrance!

  3. NASCAR continues to shoot itself in the foot. Have they made a good decision in the last 10 years?

  4. When I first read about the Nascar changes from Robin Miller, I thought it might be one of those fake news stories. Did they hire the Boston Insulting Group? I will watch the first Nascar race just for the entertainment value. It should be fun listening to the Boogity X 3 guy explain the new system. Does this mean there will be only one Boogity per segment? Hopefully IndyCar will not install any more gimmicks. I think they have too many already. The best pure gimmick free racing can still be had at your local dirt track. Not crazy about those wings though.

  5. I quit paying attention to NASCAR when it changes from auto racing to pretend competition like professional racing.
    I have followed IndyCar racing closely since 1959. If changes are made that alter the format of first to the finish line is not the whole point of a race, I will tune out.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    As someone who recalculates Indycar points standings using the CART and USAC systems for fun, I found the new NASCAR system to be initially confusing as well. I’m pretty sure I get it now, and I’m pretty sure I’ll understand it once it is in practice, but if I am confused by it for even a minute then I cannot imagine how new or less involved fans might feel.

    There are two things that I particularly don’t like about this new format. One is that there are stoppages of the on-track action between each segment. The other is that the winner of the race can score fewer points than a non-winner who collected more points in the segments. If you want to have heat races and a feature, have heat races and a feature, but don’t act like they are all one single race.

    These changes, and pretty much every points system tweak going back to the original chase format (that debuted in… 2004? Makin’ me feel old) were asked for by seemingly nobody. I’ve never heard of any significant call for these changes from fans, teams, tracks, sponsors, etc. Whoever these changes were made for, they aren’t watching.

  7. There is one huge difference between NASCAR and IndyCar: IndyCar is competition driven while NASCAR is personality driven. This is the reason some of NASCAR’s latest efforts smack of desperation: Many of the personalities that kept NASCAR growing for so long have either retired or soon will. They got a real reality check when Dale Jr. spent a lot of last season on the sidelines, particularly with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon now retired.

    Additionally, even the casual fan (like me) is prone to watching the first 10-20 laps of a race, then tuning into something else until the last 15 laps or so. This latest gimmick is designed to make fans want to stay tuned in for the whole race, although I question whether that will succeed.

    As several have pointed out, most IndyCar road and street races are two hour events, as are many of the short oval track races such as Iowa. The exceptions to that rule are the 500’s and Texas, but often the racing is sufficiently exciting to keep the interest of IndyCar fans. NASCAR does not have that luxury. With most of their races running 400-500 miles, they are challenging the attention span of most viewers. Even some of the current drivers have mentioned that some of these races need to be shortened.

  8. I was not able to see the Rolex 24 this weekend due to having to move. One thing I do know is this new contrived system by NASCAR goes against all logic of the typical NASCAR fan. This is suicide in my opinion. I’m not sure what the top brass is thinking. It reeks of desperation to me. Are things really this bad?

  9. I agree NASCAR is jumping the shark with alarming frequency. Segments may in fact be the worst thing NASCAR has ever come up with. I get the need for more exciting NASCAR races but you’re going to get that by a better car, either one that has significantly less downforce and thus less dirty air, OR one which is able to draft and pass (RE: Indycar at Indy, Indycar at Fontana). The uh. . . current NASCAR car is the worst of both worlds. Also- heat races, twin 125’s, or just shorter 300 mile races are needed. Something, anything, other than 4+ hour long races at tracks which are visited TWICE a season.

    I do not think Indycar should stake itself to “pure racing” though. Depending on what you consider pure racing, the line between pure and boring (RE: F1/LeMans) can be very narrow. What is important is having clear rules, and also having things set up to be exciting without being dumb. I like the Green White Checkers rule and believe it would be great for Indycar, but even then, NASCAR has ruined that by replacing it with an overtime rule that INCREASES the odds of a yellow flag finish, which is weird for NASCAR to do. I get the concern at the Plate tracks, but Overtime was an unnecessary change for the main season. Having caution free races isn’t good and is boring, but a manufactured caution is not good either.

    Indycar has a lot of potential, and, if you count Rahal as young, they probably have a better stable of young and exciting drivers (Rahal/Newgarden/Hinchcliffe/Karam) than NASCAR. But, part of growing into that potential will be delivering consistently fun racing (which 2016 at times lacked) and making sure there is parity, some team stabiity, and decent car count (which impacts the passing, yellows, and such).

  10. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    One thing I DO like about NASCAR’s “competition management department”, they’re not afraid to reload after shooting themselves in the feet.

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