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
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
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