What exactly is good racing? That is the elusive question that every racing series on the planet wrestles with at all times. The answer to that question of course varies wildly depending on who you ask.
Is good racing watching a driver use expert race craft and knowledge of the air, all to create speed and defend his track position all race long against an ever-dwindling group of competitors, while trying to stay wide-open on a fast track? Is good racing watching a driver manage his tires better than anyone else and making the most time while his car is sliding around a track that lacks grip? Is good racing watching drivers manage near non-stop traffic and essentially outmuscle his competitors on track, all while using expert braking skills?
There is zero consensus on this question. Ask three separate race fans, and they’ll all probably spit out three different answers. This problem is the biggest in the world of IndyCar today: no one in the sport really knows what they want out of the series.
Why do I bring this topic up? Well, the most recent race on the IndyCar schedule was the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. Texas is noteworthy in this regard, because since the debut of the DW12 chassis in 2012, the racing at the mile-and-a-half track has changed more dramatically than at any other facility on the circuit. Prior to 2012, Talladega-style pack racing was the order of the day at TMS, and it was like that for many years. Texas built a reputation on the IndyCar circuit for being the series’ most exciting track, as the drafting, tight racing and close-quartered battles inherent to pack racing made each and every race at the track memorable.
Indeed, pre-2012 Texas had a great balance in terms of the on-track racing. Yes, they raced in packs and that pissed many fans off, but tire wear was still paramount and handling was always important. That of course didn’t prevent a large swatch of fans from complaining however, even in spite of the fact that the track was certainly a great challenge and always put on a good show.
But, as we all know, Dan Wheldon’s fatal crash at Las Vegas in the 2011 season finale, which some (perhaps erroneously) attributed to pack racing, forced IndyCar to make changes to the aero package for the intermediate-length oval tracks that the series visits, much to the joy of the anti-pack racing crowd. Ergo, every Texas race since that fateful day has featured a low-downforce, high-tire wear package designed to slow the cars down in the corners, make the drivers have to lift and spread out the field.
Once again, as we all know, it worked. The ensuing races at Texas have been ultra-spread-out affairs, with very little of the close wheel-to-wheel racing that fans had grown accustomed to at the facility. The many fans who complained for years about the packs screamed the praises of IndyCar for bringing the drivers back into the equation (which is a statement wrought with fallacy) and spreading the field out to promote good racing. That was fine and dandy for a year or two, but once the novelty of new Texas wore off and the pack racing supporters felt comfortable enough to voice their opinions in the wake of Wheldon’s death, division over the racing at Texas once again sprung up in full force on IndyCar message boards around the internet.
Half the fans felt that IndyCar needed to change the package once again, citing an obvious lack of passing and close competition in the DW12 Texas races as a reason to bring back the packs. The anti-pack racing crowd defended the new-look racing at Texas with full zeal, believing that their conception of good racing was far superior to the pack racing supporters’ conception of good racing. Arguing over the racing at Texas has continued to this day, and after this weekend’s race at the facility, which was another low-downforce, spread out style race, the debate has raged harder than ever before.
Clearly, you can see what the problem is here. IndyCar is faced with a dilemma that it is almost impossible to solve with Texas. On one hand, the series has set a precedent in the past with close, pack-oriented races that were high on intensity and drama, but also high on perceived danger, and thus would face a PR crisis if they went back to that style. On the other hand, the new style of racing has proved polarizing, with some fans proclaiming it as more legitimate than pack racing despite its obvious lack of excitement. Attempts at finding a middle ground between the two styles – like something similar to the racing at Indianapolis of late – of racing have proven futile. Texas is too large to make low-downforce races exciting and too small to have a draft/pack-oriented style of racing that pleases the majority of fans on both the racing legitimacy front and the safety front.
Once again, IndyCar finds itself in a no win situation.
As long as fans remain divided on what qualifies as good racing, IndyCar will forever be stuck in a dilemma when trying to design its rules packages. Texas is the ultimate example of this, and frankly, it is sad to see. The sport is chasing an outcome that can never be reached. Some portion of the fan base will always be angry over the product on the race track.
Good racing does not exist. It is an ideal. Your conception and my conception of what good racing is are both equally valid. Pack racing is good racing. Low downforce racing is good racing. It is all entirely up to one’s perception.
I think we, as race fans, would all get along a whole hell of a lot better and enjoy this sport more if we could all just accept that. So please, save the talk of what qualifies as legitimate or good racing. No answer will ever be correct. Let’s enjoy this sport for what it is and let the chips fall where they may.
That’s the only way to achieve happiness as a race fan.