Heavy is the head…
IndyCar sits in a weird place among the pantheon of global motorsports.
To briefly summarize about 100 years of racing history, just like every smartphone today is built in basically the same candy-bar, flat-panel touchscreen style, every car used to be just a couple of seats and an engine mounted on top of a ladder frame with some bodywork and wheels bolted on.
The takeaway being that just as Apple and Google today try and differentiate their phones with millimetric differences in bezel size and thickness, racing cars in the early 1900’s might have been slightly differentiated based on whether they were going to be running on dirt ovals, through city streets, or along highways, but they were all pretty much the same.
It was pretty natural to ask, “Which is the fastest car?” and “Who’s the fastest driver?” without thinking much about what kind of racing we were talking about. We might ask “Which one’s the best smartphone?” today, without thinking too much about whether we care more about watching videos, taking pictures, or actually holding conversations.
Pretty soon, though, as the march of technology progressed, racers and engineers began discovering all sorts of tweaks and features you could add to a car to make it faster, but for many of them it only made you faster under certain conditions. You could cover up the wheels, which was important for top speed and fuel consumption, but made you less nimble around tight corners since you were adding weight in the worst possible location. You could go the other way and add wings and flatten out the underbody, which would help around corners, but severely limit your top speed. Not to mention that a lot of the things that made a race car fast also made it completely unusable as a road car. Super-stiff suspension, shrink-wrapped bodywork, and only enough insulation to stop the driver from melting in his seat are all great on a race-track, but useless anywhere there are traffic lights.
Sooooo, round about the 1950’s it became clear that motorsport would head off in two different directions - so called sportscars, and Grand Prix cars. Sportscars would skew closer to street cars, often being based on mass-produced models or built as “prototypes” using technologies which were feasible to produce and implement on half a dozen race cars, but weren’t yet ready for public use. Grand Prix cars would use a no-holds-barred approach to building the fastest things on four wheels, letting practicality and efficiency fall by the wayside. Each form of motorsport coalesced around a top-level racing series for their form of racing - the Formula 1 World Championship for the Grand Prix cars, and the World Endurance Championship for sportscars.
Each one had its crown jewel - the Monaco Grand Prix for Formula 1, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the World Endurance Championship. These races are so important that no driver can hope to call himself the greatest without winning there. Teams spend millions on special R&D and preparation for those races, and those races alone. No other race can compare to the prestige and splendor of winning Monaco or Le Mans.
Except for the one giant, oval-shaped elephant in the room - the Indianapolis 500. The fastest race in the world.
See, once racing series started to split apart, people got the idea into their head that to really claim the title of best car and driver in the world you should have to win the Triple Crown - Monaco, Le Mans, and the Indy 500. Together, these three most prestigious races in the world formed a gauntlet that tested every aspect of performance. Where Monaco is the world’s tightest and most technical race, and Le Mans is its most grueling and competitive test of reliability and grit, the Indy 500 is a breakneck sprint trying to hold speeds above 230 mph for as long as your neck can withstand its 5G turns. At their peak, top speeds touch 250 mph, enabled by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s high-banked turns and simple oval layout.
In the 90 years all three of these races have been run only one man has ever managed to actually win the Triple Crown. Graham Hill completed the set at the 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans, after winning Monaco for the first time in 1963, and the Indianapolis 500 in 1966. Few others have even admitted that the Triple Crown is within their ambitions. Despite the fact that winning it would cement a driver as one of the greatest of all time, and catapult them to international fame and glory, only five drivers have managed to win even two of the three races. It had been only four until Fernando Alonso won the 24 Hours of Le Mans earlier this year after winning the Monaco Grand Prix for the first time in 2006.
So, if winning the Indy 500 is component to the greatest feat in motorsport, why am I saying that IndyCar is in such a “weird” spot right now? Why doesn’t it rank up there with WEC and F1 as one of the world’s premier forms of motor racing?
It’s always “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”
Well… the Triple Crown may have three legs, but despite what I said earlier, there aren’t that many different ways to design a fast car. Even Grand Prix cars need to give some thought to efficiency. Formula 1 cars are all hybrids these days, and there’s even an all-electric spinoff in the form of Formula E. Le Mans prototypes are themselves basically Grand Prix cars, except that they’re allowed closed cockpits and have to cover over the wheels with a skin of carbon fiber, partly to maintain the appearance of differentiation with Formula 1 and partly because they need something to bolt the headlights to for night-time racing down the banks of the Sarthe River.
IndyCar maintains it’s own rules and regulations that make it impossible for the same car to run in both IndyCar and Formula 1, but IndyCars are essentially Grand Prix cars not that different from Formula 1 cars. Indeed, the race that this post will eventually get around to talking about is officially titled the “IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma”, and there have pretty regularly been cross-over drivers who compete in both series. By my count, there are 10 current IndyCar drivers who have at least tested out a car for an F1 team: Takuma Sato, Sebastian Bourdais, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Max Chilton, Scott Dixon, Santino Ferrucci, Jordan King, Alfonso Celis, Jr., and Will Power.
However, a few complications render these separate series anything but equal.
First and foremost is money. F1 driver salaries can crest $40 million for those with multiple previous championships under their belt, and the top teams themselves spend in excess of $400 million in total per season, each. By comparison, Top IndyCar stars earn just over $1 million, with now 5-time series champ Scott Dixon pulling in an estimated $2.5-3 million. As a result, the top talent is all absolutely scrambling to get into F1, while IndyCar remains a viable but far distant second option. Note that there are plenty of IndyCar drivers who have flown over to Europe to test F1 cars, but few of them have actually made it onto an F1 starting grid (just Sato, Bourdais, and Chilton), and almost no one with an ongoing F1 contract would think of dropping it to make the switch to IndyCar.
To American ears it’s a little counter-intuitive to think of American endeavors being outspent by competitors from abroad, but while IndyCar remains a generally domestic, American product, F1 is a truly global enterprise, with races in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. As a result, the sponsorship and advertising revenue that flows into F1 is orders of magnitude greater than that available to IndyCar. Aside from driver talent, this also means that IndyCar teams can’t support the kind of engineering and development staff that enables the cars to get faster and faster year-on-year.
As a result, IndyCars are slower than F1 cars. It’s been more than 10 years since we had a direct comparison with F1 and IndyCar running the same track in the same year, but back in 2006, Indy’s pole time at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal was over 5 seconds slower than the F1 pole time. To put it another way, if that gap held under race conditions, then over the 70 lap-distance of the Canadian Grand Prix, the F1 car would lap the IndyCar 6 times before the race was over. What I said earlier is true - the Indianapolis 500 will sustain a higher average speed and top speed than any other race in the world, but in 2018 that gap has shrunk to an all time low. F1 cars broke 215 mph at Monza for the first time in F1 history, while trap speeds at Indianapolis have fallen to just over 240 mph from the 250+ mph records set back in the 90’s.
Some have contended that for IndyCar to really assert itself as a world-class motorsport, it needs to be more like F1. Expand abroad and hold races outside the US again. Open up the formula to allow engineers to begin pushing the limits of speed. Let Indy be a special race, and keep the other super-speedways on the calendar, but leave behind the short oval tracks that lay claim neither to the mind-numbing speeds of places like Indy, nor the technical, frenetic action of road courses and street circuits. They argue that it’s the only way to allow the sort of positive feedback loop of performance, attention, and money that would propel IndyCar back to global prominence.
And… they made that argument in the 80’s and 90’s, too.
And then they tried it.
And then the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway got mad, took his race, and went home.
Which left IndyCar in a weird position. Imagine if next year the NFL suited up all it’s teams, played the regular season and the playoffs, but when it came time for the Super Bowl, some guys from the Arena Football League played for the Lombardi Trophy, and the guys from the NFL played in the “US Bowl” for… I dunno, the Madden Cup? It’d be pretty weird, uncomfortable, and awkward for everyone involved. And it was.
So, round about 10 years ago, after a decade of running a parallel series, the consortium of team owners pushing to make IndyCar more like F1 and other international racing went bankrupt and folded back into one series again, and all was good.
Except that now we’re left with a racing series that can lay claim to being the “fastest form of motorsport on the planet”, except that it’s only the fastest on a special kind of track designed for top speed that only IndyCar runs. It can claim to be fielding it’s most advanced car design ever, except that every car on the grid comes out of the same factory, built to the same spec - a hallmark of the kind of “minor league” racing that drivers do in preparation for joining F1 or the World Endurance Championship. It’s got an international pool of drivers, but no races outside the US. It claims it’s champion is the “most complete” in the world since they do road and street courses, short ovals and super-speedways, but guys who never made it off the bench in F1 are regularly among its top performers, and the biggest news in IndyCar for the last two years is that Fernando Alonso (that guy from earlier who’s completed two legs of the Triple Crown) might, might run the Indy 500 some time soon.
So like I said, IndyCar is in kind of a weird place right now.
A Real Sense of Accomplishment
Anyway, all this was playing out in the back of my mind a few weeks ago when Ashley and I made our way to the IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma.
I started following IndyCar a little more closely a few years ago when F1 was caught in a particularly bad spat of the recurring downside of all the money being poured into the sport - poor competition.
While the top teams in F1 can afford to spend hundreds of millions each year on operations and R&D, there’s typically not more than 3-4 such teams in the field, and the top teams don’t all get their money’s worth. In any given year, there’s a strong chance that 2-4 drivers will have a significant advantage over the rest of the field just because their car is that much faster. The difference in car performance is usually more than enough to drown out any difference in driver performance. You could be the best driver in the world, but if your car can’t hack it, you’ve got no chance in F1. Conversely, if you put a great driver in a great car, they can be near unbeatable and win 80% of the races that year without much challenge.
Every couple of years, F1 goes through the motions of introducing a new basis for the formula which always comes with the promise of shaking up the pecking order and making the racing more competitive, but…
A few years ago F1 one of these shake ups involved moving to high efficiency hybrid-turbo engines and Mercedez-Benz was able to put together a package that gave them an average winning margin of over twenty seconds. A Mercedes driver has won the championship every year for the last four years. Before that, when the engines were relatively even between the teams and aerodynamics was a more important differentiator, Red Bull Racing were similarly able to put together a string of four championships in a row.
Frankly, for all its glitz and glamour, for about the past decade, F1 has been failing pretty hard at the basic task of any competition - being competitive. It’s been more like a video game where the rich kids who bought all the extra add-ons and special powers run rampant all over the kids with just the stuff in the base game.
But, hey! F1’s not the only Grand Prix in town! IndyCar has a brand new, great-looking chassis this year! The races are run in American time zones so I don’t have to choose between trying to wake up at 2 AM to watch the race live or waking up at a normal time and trying to dodge spoilers on the internet! The cars are all equal, so the racing should be great! I live close enough to one of the racetracks to go see a race in person!
It all sounded pretty great, so I started watching IndyCar races and following the press, getting up to speed with the drivers, teams, and courses. I even tried to go to a speedway race in Texas, though the only thing I ended up seeing that night was a giant robot dinosaur eating junkyard cars since the race got rained out.
It seemed… not quite as brilliant as I thought it would be going in, but I couldn’t quite say why, which became a puzzle in and of itself to solve. After all, I still liked F1, and IndyCar seemed to be like F1, but it fixed all the problems I thought I had with F1. So I should have liked it even more, right?
The IGP at Sonoma turned out to be a nice, neat little allegory for IndyCar’s place in the world and offers some nice perspective on why it just can’t quite measure up to F1, even when F1 is in a bit of a rut.
See, this was the last race of the season, and going into it, there were basically two drivers in contention for the win. (There were a further two who were technically still in the running, but let’s gloss over that for now.) Out in front, was Scott Dixon - a four-time IndyCar champ with a commanding lead. Trying to chase him down for the hope of winning a first championship was Alexander Rossi - a younger, scrappier, but arguably faster and certainly more aggressive driver.
Sitting in the grandstands, the crowd was pretty clearly on Rossi’s side. Maybe it was his frank, open demeanor compared with Dixon’s more subdued persona. Maybe it was the thrill of his driving style that drew people to him. Maybe it was just that he was the underdog.
The underdog hypothesis is worth dissecting a bit. It’s a common aphorism that “people love an underdog”, but I don’t think that’s quite true. On that day, in the middle of that crowd, I felt more like I wanted Rossi to win simply because that would likely involve a more exciting race than almost any scenario where Dixon won. Dixon had qualified ahead of Rossi - all he had to do was hold station, make few mistakes, and hope his car held together long enough to cross the finish line. A world where Rossi won would probably be one full of daring overtakes, blisteringly fast hotlaps, and a bold, risky strategy.
Often times fandom is posed as a matter of being a fan of specific drivers or teams. Often it gets jumbled up with tribalism and group identity. It’s somehow weird or unaccepted to be a “fan” of resultant properties of system, rather than the elements which are expected to produce them. Like being a fan of “progress in human physical capability” rather than a fan of Usain Bolt who embodies that progress. Or, very bluntly, being a fan of “effective governance” rather than a fan of Republicans or Democrats.
I imagine that this behavior is a sort of residual or side effect of tribal politics in early human cognitive development. Developing a preference for systematic properties of bureaucratic institutions probably makes a lot more sense today than it did a few hundred thousand years ago. That said, the people-focused approach still works pretty well today, especially on a more tactical level since it can approximate a property-focused approach and makes it much easier to solve coordination problems since there’s less need to simulate potential allies’ thought processes.
Soooooo…. to get back to the metaphor, sitting the grandstands, I felt much the same way about Rossi as I did about IndyCar as a whole. He/it/they represented the possibility for a future that was exciting, if nothing else. If Rossi could pull off the come-from-behind win and take the championship from Dixon, maybe we ought to rethink IndyCar’s prospects of closing the gap to F1 and earning recognition as one of the world’s premier forms of motorsport. (Yeah, I know there’s no real sensible link between those two events. Bite me.)
Except that once you start to think about how to structure institutions so that they produce certain systematic behaviors, you begin to notice an asymmetry between what fans what out of a sport as compared to what participants in the sport want. If fans want, “exciting, entertaining racing” which likely means “unpredictable, competitive results”, there’s a trade-off there against teams and drivers who want “results commensurate with skill and investment into the effort”.
There are naturally tons of other considerations that go into determining how to structure a racing series or any other institution, but right from the outset we can see that on some pretty basic dimensions, natural conflicts emerge.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the negotiating and politicking that goes on between power-players in the sport which might make for better drama than what actually ends up on the track.
GET TO THE $*&#ING RACE, ALREADY
Instead, for the Sonoma race, we got to see Rossi run into the back of one of his teammates on the first corner of the first lap and limp back to pitlane to change out the front end of his car before rejoining at the back of the field, more than a lap behind Dixon and the other leaders.
The metaphor between this particular breakdown of coordination between team-mates and the Split which left IndyCar floundering in its pursuit of worldwide relevance isn’t lost on me, but bear with me because it gets even better. See, Rossi was a lap down now, but when he changed out damaged front of his car, he also put on new, fresh tires, which made him faster than the leaders who were still on the worn sets they had started the race on and worn down with a few laps of hard charging. Pretty soon he had been able to force his way back onto the lead lap, overtaking Dixon himself in doing so.
It was a small victory for Rossi, but an important one, because halfway through the race, another car suffered a breakdown on track, forcing everyone else to bunch up behind a slow-moving safety car which would guide them around the hazard. Rossi wouldn’t be allowed to make any passes while the safety car was out, but since he had brought himself back to the lead lap, he was allowed to come around to the back of the now very compressed pack, turning what was an impossible task into one that was merely incredibly difficult.
Once the damaged car was cleared out of the way and the race resumed, Rossi put on one of the most brilliant displays of racecraft I’ve ever seen, and made overtake after overtake, charging his way up the field. For a time he seemed unstoppable, as if her were simply on another level from everyone else in the field.
Ultimately, though, it wasn’t quite enough. Rossi eventually raced his way up to 5th place - ahead of where he started the race from, but still a few spots behind Dixon. It was a valiant effort, and a pleasure to witness, but in the end Dixon walked away with his fifth championship, and I walked away still not quite sure if I was really a fan of IndyCar racing.
Like Rossi, the sport has made an impressive recovery from a monumental mistake, and has fought its way back to the point where it’s beginning to challenge the leaders in its field. But also like Rossi, it’s struggling to make it any further than that. There’s an argument to be made that the Split is what caused the problems in the first place, and that the natural evolution of the series is to become more like F1 to attract more money and talent to the series, but I’m not so sure that isn’t a deal with the devil, to trade the the interest of those with the money to make investments against the interest of everyone else involved in the sport. That might succeed in making IndyCar more prominent, but would it make it better?
I don’t know.
But, then again, if IndyCar does become more like F1, they probably won’t have MC Hammer come out to kick things off again, so maybe we should keep things exactly the way they are.