Is it true sport, or just P.T. Barnum show-biz?

 by Mark Cipolloni
April 11, 2002

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When I hear words like easy flat, or wide-open-all-the-way -round,  I cringe.  Maybe I'm getting too old, and today's mindset has changed, but I remember the days when winning an auto race meant the best driver won.  Now I'm not so sure anymore.

A popular definition of a sport is - An activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively.  This implies there is some level of skill involved, and at the end of the day, may the best athlete, or team of athletes win.

Auto racing has come under much criticism over the years for not being a true sport, because the machine (the car), not the athlete (the driver), often determined the winner.  Those of us who truly understand the sport know how hard it is to be a fast race driver, and to win a race.  We also recognize that it is a team sport.  The pit crew, the mechanics, the engineers, the managers, all make up a winning team.

What really caught my attention was the statement Jacque Lazier made on TV recently after trying out the super smooth, recently diamond grinded, Indy Motor Speedway.  He said, "it's so smooth it's easy flat."  Indy was always a low-banked high-speed oval that required real skill to navigate quickly. It is/was the Super Bowl of auto racing that only the very best mastered.....but now it's easy flat.

While I don't fault the Indy Motor Speedway for wanting to make their track smooth and fast.  However, when a race car has either too much downforce, not enough HP, or a combination of both, that enables a driver to circulate the majority of tracks on the IRL circuit at full throttle the entire race, I begin to lose faith in our sport as being a true sport.

Certainly traveling at those high speeds is dangerous and takes nerve. Even driving easy flat requires the driver to make many decisions during the race and to keep the car from hitting others around him.  We all know the consequences could mean death, hence why drivers are sometimes called Gladiators.  However, being brave is one thing, being a great driver is quite another.

When I hear 'easy flat,' I go ballistic.  Does football's Super Bowl determine the best team of athletes?  How about Baseball's World Series, Basketball's championship, or Ice Hockey's Stanley Cup?  Does our World Series determine who has the most horsepower?  God help us if that's what it's coming to.  Even drag racing, a HP dominated sport, requires a driver to balance traction and throttle, and to steer a 3,000 HP rocket ship in a straight line for 1/4 mile, to win.

Road course racing remains to this day, the most challenging form of auto racing.  With the heavy braking, variety of corners, upshifting and downshifting, using the clutch (downshifts only), taking one had off the wheel to shift while turning, driving in the rain......all require far more skill from a driver than an 'easy flat' oval.  F1, even with all its high-technology, to this day is regarded as the true measure of a great driver because 1) it's 100% road courses, 2) the cars have a high HP-to-weight ratio making them a handful to driver and easy to spin out, and 3) the variety of circuits is a challenge.

Sometimes I wonder if we haven't lost sight of the fact that our sport must be both a sport and a show, i.e. good entertainment.  If not, race drivers will be looked upon down the noses of the stick-and-ball sport lovers who feel their sport(s) require pure athletic ability to excel.

CART attempted to put more driver skill back in the sport years ago when it took downforce away from the cars.  This served two purposes, 1) it slowed the cars down in the corners because speeds were getting dangerously fast, and 2) low downforce meant the driver had to make a true lift off the throttle entering the corners and drive the car through the corner balancing the throttle with steering input. 

What CART struggled with, however, was the quality of its show.  The Handford Device (also implemented to slow the cars) created such dirty air, that a car running behind, with low downforce, could never get close enough to the car in front exiting the corner, so the driver can make the pass down the straight.  In addition, the combination of tire marbles and low downforce, took away the great side-by-side racing through the corners that every fan loves to see.  However, it certainly was a measure of driver talent, and the great driving talents of this world, like Juan Montoya, showed us what our sport, if we are to call it that, is really about - the best driver/athlete.

So how do we solve this dilemma, to reach a happy medium between an easy flat IRL series that requires very little driver talent, but puts on a great show for the fans, and CART, which requires a huge amount of driver talent, but sometimes the 'show' suffers?

The answer is not en easy one, especially because oval tracks are involved.  Oval track racing means speed, high speed.  If you give them too little HP, the cars are easy flat.  If you give them too much downforce, they are easy flat.  If you give them too much HP, they become a coffin with wheels.  If you give them too little downforce, they put the audience to sleep, though the driver certainly gets a good workout.

The challenge before the IRL, and CART to a lesser extent (fewer ovals), is to not lose sight of the fact that auto racing is a sport, and not P.T. Barnum show-biz.  If I wanted to be strictly and mindlessly entertained, I could go to the "World Figure 8 demo-derby championships at Islip Speedway in Long Island, NY.  If I want to see the best drivers race, I want to know that at the end of the day they've really accomplished something grand.

Cristiano Da Matta says it is much more demanding for a driver to win on a street or road circuit. In a recent LA Times article written by Shav Glick he states, "On a superspeedway, the car is 95% and the driver only 5%, on short ovals, the car is 85% and the driver 15%, but on street and road courses it's 50-50," he said. "It's never boring running on a big oval, not when you're going 250 mph, but you don't get the same challenges you get on a road or street course where you have to have more understanding of what your car is doing."

Heroes in sport are always about the best athlete, and auto racing should be no different. All the heroes in auto racing history have been great drivers, and easy flat does not make great drivers,......nor heroes.

The author can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

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