Racing Is A Sport, But What Kind Of Sport?

By Tom Martin

April 26, 2017

This blog is not about the argument over whether race car drivers are athletes. They are, and it really takes someone who knows essentially nothing about the sport to misunderstand. Rather, this blog is about how we - drivers, teams and sanctioning bodies - design racing series to measure certain things. A missing discussion is the one about what, exactly, we're trying to measure. Is it lap pace, or passing skill or standing starts or fuel usage or pit work or car endurance or ?

Of course, there is no need to have every series measure the same thing(s). Funny Car and WEC are trying to measure different things, for example. That much seems obvious. What I want to point out here is that within a series there are rules that affect what we actually end up measuring. I am not convinced that these rules and the resulting "sporting philosophy" are sufficiently examined and discussed. Rules are too often made for some kind of administrative or operational convenience, and then the "sport" is a somewhat accidental byproduct. That is not a great way to build a great sport.

Since Winding Road Racing is involved in the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup series, let me use that as an example. The points here are not about MX-5 Cup per se, but it helps to look at some details to see how this works (or doesn't).

MX-5 Cup starts with a pretty strict concept of a spec racer. All the cars are built by one shop (Long Road Racing). The parts can't be changed, the engines are sealed, the cars are audited and parts are swapped between cars to deter cheating (who wants to give a cheater part to a competitor?). This takes the emphasis off race car engineering, although it leaves room to reward testing and setup expertise (because the dampers, bars, ride height, tire pressures and other setup items can be adjusted). This puts the emphasis on driver skill, especially since this is a sprint series, so there are no pit stops. It also keeps costs down, which allows more drivers to participate, which again keeps the focus on driving skill. That driver orientation is but one choice among many, although I will say, for a sport, it seems reasonable and kind of basic. Still, a lot of ink has been spilled on the car restrictions and rules across most series.

Now, for a driver-focused series, the (mostly) undiscussed parts are the rules that affect what kind of driver's sport we have. Are we designing biathlon, triathlon, pentathlon, decathlon or what? To give you an example of how this works, MX-5 Cup uses a qualifying system that has one qualifying session to cover the two races on each race weekend. The fast lap from qualifying determines a driver's starting position for Race 1. The second fastest qualifying lap determines the driver's starting position for Race 2.

Before I go on, you need to know that MX-5 Cup cars throw off a lot of turbulence and thus drafting is a key part of the series. As a result, the qualifying system plus a spec car means that the fastest qualifiers are almost guaranteed to be the only people who can win a race. That's because someone starting on row 5 or row 6, even if she has excellent race pace and great passing skills is going to get behind someone slower (because row 5 probably has a slightly slower driver who will create a gap to row 2 or 3 that is very hard to overcome) for a while. When this happens, you can't catch the draft and you're done.

This might seem fine, but I think it is an unexamined error. Certainly, rewarding one lap pace is a sensible way to come up with a grid. But if you have two races to work with (and MX-5 Cup, like many series, does), it seems a shame to use both races to measure essentially the same sporting skill (one lap pace plus teamwork for drafting). It seems better to use Race 2 to measure some other sporting items, like long-run pace, passing skills and the ability to not get in trouble (e.g. crash or have an off).

It would be easy to construct a system to reward these latter factors (while also measuring one-lap pace and teamwork in qualifying). In fact, the obvious one is pretty common: qualifying for Race 2 is determined by fast lap in Race 1. I think it is likely that this diversifies what the sport measures, and I think that is generally a good thing. If Race 1 lap speed sets the grid for Race 2, some drivers who are great in traffic or at starts may move up the grid. Some fast qualifiers who crash will move back. Drivers who spend Race 1 fighting with other drivers or burning up their tires may move back. This is likely to mix things up a bit, which seems good to me.  But the front runners, who would appear to be the fastest drivers on one lap pace, still have a good shot of turning in fast race laps and being far forward on the Race 2 grid - because they get to draft other front-running, fast cars.  In the case of MX-5 Cup, I have heard the arguments against setting Race 2 grid from Race 1 fast lap, and they are essentially the arguments of the top qualifiers against a threat to their singular key skill. But in a big series like MX-5 Cup (30-40 cars per field), it seems odd to first go out of your way to level the field with a spec car and then un-level it with a qualifying system that rewards one set of drivers repeatedly for a skill that doesn't even take place during the official races.

Again, the point here isn't about MX-5 Cup. The point is that we should have more discussion of how the rules affect the athletic measurement on offer and fewer discussions about how the rules affect the car. That would make for a better sport, which is what we should be building.