Putting Passing in Perspective

Zach Veach launches down IndyCar St. Pete runway

The NTT IndyCar Series’ 2018 season started memorably with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, jumpstarting storylines that persisted throughout the remainder of the year. From rookies coming on strong to the debut of the universal aero kit, the season-opening race a year ago marked the beginning of more than just another 17-race season of open-wheel racing.

The street race along the shoreline of Tampa Bay was also noted for its on-track action, due in large part to the near-record volume of passes during the 110-lap race. Like rookies, aero kits and a host of other topics, passing became part of IndyCar’s 2018 narrative.

Beyond emerging as a statistic worthy of highlighting, the influx of passes — encouraged by the aerodynamic characteristics of the new Dallara-supplied aero kit — led to new questions. The concept of what constitutes good racing emerged from the passing statistics, giving credence to the notion that while cars getting around other cars is important, it’s the larger whole that matters.

Stuck between generating excessive passing to cater to one portion of its audience and keeping its racing pure and its purist fans happy, INDYCAR is embroiled in an epic struggle between past and future, aiming to grow a sport that must appeal to all sides while looking attractive on television.

This is why putting emphasis on passing as a measure of good racing risks impressing some while irking others. But even though the full impact of passing is open for debate, the raw numbers tell a compelling story that will stand as a benchmark for future seasons and chassis formulas.

Devising a New Data Point

Perhaps anticipating the increasing importance of passing statistics, INDYCAR began providing passing data in the Event Summary document it issues after each race beginning with the 2017 Iowa Corn 300 at the 0.894-mile Iowa Speedway.

While passing and position passing numbers look good in isolation and make comparing year-over-year changes easy, the diverse nature of IndyCar venues and races demands a statistic that can be provide direct comparisons irrespective of a circuit’s length, the number of laps in a particular race or even the number of cars on track at any given time.

In combination with INDYCAR’s miles completed figure that is also present on the Event Summary document, passes and position passes can be put in the context of the event itself by taking into account the number of miles completed by all cars over the course of the race. For example, a 500-mile race on a 2.5-mile oval with 33 starters will have more opportunities for passing than when a 22-car field competes for 310 miles on a 1.25-mile oval.

To account for differences in length, distance and field size, dividing passes by the number of miles completed results in passes per mile (PPM). The same context can be drawn for position passes by swapping the total passes count for the position passes one in the formula.

Bourdais passed by Pigot during 2018 IndyCar race at Iowa
The PPM figure for the 2018 Iowa race was astronomical but passes for position were few and far in between. | Photo: Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media

Although not completely attributable to the unified bodywork that entered competition in 2018, the sleek and sexy cars coupled with other factors gave the five street circuit races the highest average position passes per mile at 0.037, beating out the six road courses’ 0.031 and a position PPM of 0.026 at the six ovals.

Despite the small size of the resulting numbers, the insight gained by comparing them is massive. Last year’s 366 passes, 283 position passes and 4,411.8 miles completed at St. Petersburg resulted in 0.083 PPM and 0.064 position PPM, bestowing the honor of the most 2018 position passes per mile to the first race of the season.

These numbers stand in stark contrast to the perception of street course races as being processional — a common refrain that was finally put to rest, thanks in part to INDYCAR’s new bodywork.

The strength of the somewhat comparable design on courses with left and right turns didn’t necessarily extend to tracks with only left turns. While the series’ visit to Iowa Speedway had a fantastically high 0.177 PPM — 0.076 higher than Texas Motor Speedway which had the second-most passes per mile — it was due to cars being lapped; position passing suffered on ovals long and short.

The superspeedway variation of the 2018-spec kit, utilized at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas and Pocono Raceway, has been criticized for its role in creating a less exciting Indianapolis 500. Yet, when considering the six ovals, last year’s Indy 500 ranked third behind Texas and Iowa in position passes per mile while Gateway Motorsport Park, ISM Raceway and Pocono occupy the bottom half of the list.

Alexander Rossi ahead in 2018 Pocono IndyCar race
Won by Alexander Rossi, the 2018 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway featured the least passing across all races during the season, both in general and for position. | Photo: Jamie Sheldrick / Spacesuit Media

Comparing 2017 when manufacturer aero kits were still in use to the first season of INDYCAR’s universal aero kit, the data indicates a downward trend in oval passing that corresponds with the shift away from the manufacturer kits, highlighted by Pocono’s massive 87-percent year-over-year decrease. Iowa’s 14-percent loss was balanced by Gateway’s 28-percent gain.

Lending credence to the aero kit’s deficit on superspeedways is Pocono’s position as the only race with less position passes per mile of the six races that can be directly compared, beginning with Iowa when the data involved in determining PPM and position PPM was made public. The five other races improved from 2017 to 2018 — on paper, at least.

What’s the Point?

As the series embarks on another season sure to induce thrills and chills, passing may yet again become a topic worth following.

Passing, like any other metric that can be made into a statistic, gives IndyCar observers an easy way to quantify on-track action, but what it means for the racing itself goes beyond the numbers.

“I think when we’re able to pass and we’re able to make things happen, it’s always welcomed by everybody,” four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais told The Apex. “There’s nothing worse for a driver than being stuck behind someone knowing that you’re half a second or second faster and can get to him and can’t even make a move.

“So, no, I think that’s always a pretty critical part to the racing in general. … We’re an entertainment business, so if we can’t entertain because it’s a standstill and it’s a procession of cars, then you’re not accomplishing what you’re supposed to. I think it’s win-win for both everybody that’s inside the series — drivers, teams, sponsors — and the fans.”

A win for stakeholders keeps the IndyCar’s positive momentum heading in the right direction. The series’ new deal with NBC Sports in the United States has given it the opportunity to have more races on network television and making the most of the opportunity isn’t lost on the drivers.

“If you’re going to be on TV and showing something, you better show something good,” Bourdais continued, with a laugh.

Alexander Rossi begins new lap of 2018 Firestone GP of St. Pete track
As a championship contender, Alexander Rossi factored into the PPM figure for several 2018 races, including the action-packed St. Pete opener. | Photo: Jamie Sheldrick / Spacesuit Media

Putting on a good show is also a treat from behind the wheel. Now in his second year competing part-time with Meyer Shank Racing, Jack Harvey only turned a handful of race laps in St. Petersburg last year due to a tire issue but he’s hoping increased passing opportunities continue to be a factor this year.

“That’s what people want to see,” Harvey told The Apex. “It makes the racing fun, it makes racing exciting and frankly, the more people who get eyeballs on the race, the better I think it is for everybody.”

Always the pragmatist, five-time series champion Scott Dixon took note of the strengths and weaknesses of last year’s car and the potential for better results this year.

“I think there’s some circuits that, with the aero kit, they maybe missed a little bit — mostly the bigger ovals and maybe some of the short-track ovals too — so they’ve definitely worked on that to help it,” Dixon told The Apex. “But the road and street courses were very hard to predict, which is great for racing.”

Whether it’s measured by passes on track, the number of people watching from home, or the reactions of the NBC Sports broadcast team, great racing stands at the core of IndyCar’s forward trajectory.

Whether or not this year’s season opener lives up to last year’s barn burner, on-track action will be followed emotionally and statistically as IndyCar traverses its 2019 calendar.