Is Racing Missing Some Obvious Changes?

By Tom Martin

June 06, 2018

Hey, look! No numbers!

I am an opera fan. I don't expect that you are one, nor will you be, but there are a few things racers could learn from opera. Simply put, opera could be summarized as "2-3 hours of okay music and drama while the audience waits for a few amazing songs". Opera, as you might expect given that formula, is not gaining in audience size. It simply requires too much patience mixed with an uncommon passion for a slightly inscrutable art form. The main attraction of opera back in the day (like 1850) was that it was an occasion for a party. Modern sensibilities have killed that feature, leaving opera on the decline and yet steadfastly refusing to change.

The funny thing is, sports car racing is a lot like opera, only in some ways it is less appealing. What I want to suggest here is that it doesn't have to be this way, but some things big and small would have to change.

Sports car racing, especially IMSA- and WEC-style racing (often viewed as the pinnacle of the sports car world), has an interesting mix of "features":

  • Like opera, sports car races tend to be long, with 2 hour events being common and 6, 12 and 24 hour events being regularly run (even Wagner didn't write any 24 hour operas, though he came close). This doesn't work very well on TV and requires an unusually large commitment from new fans. It also makes broadcasts expensive.

 

  • Like opera, sports car races are set up to be hard to follow. Opera is usually performed in a language other than English, which aids in creating an atmosphere of confusion. Opera also has lots of characters, who sometimes change names and anyway have difficult names to begin with. Sport car racing goes farther toward inscrutability. There are two nearly identical cars on many teams. Car numbers, which might aid in figuring out what you are looking at, are too small for television and not visible from the front (see photo above). The driver is completely hidden. Drivers are changed periodically in a race, so just as you figure out who is where, the names become completely different. Pit stops, and fuel strategies and tire choices mean that it is difficult to figure out who is actually ahead. And, if that's not enough, sport car racing puts multiple classes, with very similar cars, on track at the same time.

 

  • Like opera, racing organizers have resolutely avoided using technology to help. In opera, if you have a singer with a slightly weak voice in a big concert hall, you must never, ever provide amplification! That, after all, would help the audience hear, but violate the operatic code of ethics. Sports car racing feigns technological sophistication, but doesn't really commit. For example, the typical sports car broadcast has a leaderboard that rotates so quickly that you can't figure out who is in 5th place. Gaps between cars are almost never shown (but we do get a tiny picture of the driver - who we can't see, so why do we care? -- and repeatedly learn what national flag he likes for breakfast). In sports car racing, we also get to master channel hopping because individual events are covered on as many as four networks, "leveraging" two completely different platforms -- cable and internet. IMSA even has a super-cool app that as far as I can tell, simply fails to work.

 

  • Like opera, racing has a difficult schedule to follow. Many cities with an opera company may have only 4 or 6 operas per year. This means that on any given weekend there probably is no opera. So, if you're not an insider, you have to figure out if and when an opera is happening, which is almost never. More likely you just ignore the whole thing. There is a lot more racing, but it isn't clear when it occurs. Sure, if it is Memorial Day, then we have the Indy 500 and the Monaco GP. But what about early August? Or Mid-October? Yeah, you have no idea and neither do I. And F1 might be on at 7am or 1 am or noon. Who knows? Contrast this with the NFL. Mid-October? There will be a set of games on Sunday at 1pm and 4pm and 8:15pm eastern. Mid-November? Same thing. Mid-February? There won't be a game. I can organize my life around the NFL (not that I want to, but I could, which makes it much easier to be a casual fan).

 

  • Like opera, the format of racing is designed to be boring. In opera, there is a lot of repetition ("I love the water, I love the water, I looovvvvveeee the water!") and less real singing than you might think. The action unfolds glacially. In racing, there is guaranteed action at the start since the cars are by definition close at that point. Then, someone usually gets into the lead and the cars space out and they drive around for a while. There might be a double yellow, which gives fans a second start (yay, another 60 sec of action!), but then someone gets into the lead and stretches that out and... Yeah, boring.

 

I could go on, but you probably know what I'm talking about. The point isn't to condemn, but to suggest that all of these are solvable problems. The sizes of car numbers and on-screen graphics and racing schedules and race formats and almost everything here are all changeable things. Some changes (like scheduling) would require coordination between enemy organizations, so I wouldn't bet on this happening. But making it happen doesn't require violating the laws of physics, it just requires leadership.