Defining ‘Good Race’ in the Aeroscreen Era

Dixon and Rahal at IMS

Nearly one month removed from the delayed 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season opener on the high-for-open-wheel banks of Texas Motor Speedway, the championship returned to action July 4 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Even though it was the second race of the highly modified schedule, the myriad issues with the year’s first event at Texas — suboptimal track surface and novel one-day format included — kept observers from gaining a clear picture of what the Aeroscreen era will be like.

With Texas feeling more like an experiment than a proper kickoff to a 14-race season, the more traditionally structured Indianapolis weekend consisting of practice, three rounds of knockout qualifying and the race itself spread over two days provided the best look yet at what fans and pundits alike can expect from IndyCar in 2020. It also delivered a solid set of data points to compare to past events on the 2.439-mile road course in considering the impact of the Aeroscreen on competition.

Many metrics can help gauge the level of competition on track, yet none can completely capture the subjective determination of a “good race.” A come-from-behind victory could make for an exciting finish, but the good race designation is often predicated on how hard the driver worked to get from the back to the front. A similar feat achieved on a technicality — a well-timed caution or an on-track incident that takes out faster cars — doesn’t quite live up to the standard of excellence many demand of IndyCar. Similarly, a truly dominant performance where a single driver leads a significant majority of laps and crosses the finish line first comes across as a runaway and generally less exciting than a race where there’s constant jockeying for position at the front of the field.

Part of the blame for this perception, despite assurances from apologists that talented individuals behind the scenes are watching everything and showing the best of the best, falls on television coverage. The focus rightly remains on the leader and the group of drivers that have a realistic chance of challenging the leader, thus potentially delivering what may turn out to be the most significant moments of the race to the viewing public. When those moments never come, a race might be called boring or a follow-the-leader affair, completely ignoring the rest of the action on track.

Racing without spectators only serves to exacerbate the concept of focus because fans cannot consume the event except through a screen. Whereas someone sitting near the top of the grandstand at Texas, Iowa Speedway or Worldwide Technology Raceway may be able to see what most of the field is doing at any given time, the television watcher can only consume what’s shown to them. While it’s not possible for an onlooker to take in every corner of a road or street course from a single location, it is possible to move around those venues and access different viewpoints, providing richer context than strategically placed television cameras.

Even so, lack of agreement on what is or isn’t a good race can’t be placed solely on the back of NBC Sports. Just as there’s no single strategy guaranteed to be successful in every race, there’s no single aspect of racing that every observer will consider the most important when it comes to forming such a subjective conclusion. Some will favor displays of immense skill, like wrestling with an unruly car and taming it by the checkered flag. Others will root for the underdog to do well even if it’s short of a victory, and others have their favorite driver that they’ll always root for no matter what.

For IndyCar in 2020, it’s clear after two races that Scott Dixon is the man to beat. Unfortunately for those who want non-stop action up front, the five-time champion earned both his victories in relatively dominant fashion. Having led 65% of the available laps thus far, Dixon stands far ahead of his competition with defending champion Josef Newgarden at 16% and Will Power — who appeared primed to do well at Indianapolis until an ill-timed caution and a pit lane mishap dropped him back — at 10%. With such early-season performance, it’s entirely fair to wonder if anyone can stop Dixon with 12 rounds remaining. It’s also fair to ask if the first two races were any good given how well the New Zealand driver did compared to other top competitors in the series.

Lacking an agreed-upon way to evaluate races, one must be chosen for sake of comparison. Passes per mile and position passes per mile provide significant insight into the amount of action on track, even if some of those passes occur in the pits. Considering the total miles traveled by all drivers in a race also equalizes the statistic so different types of track and track lengths can be compared, as well as accounting for differing numbers of drivers at each event and not all drivers turning every lap. Thus, the total number of passes and position passes for each mile completed provides a useful metric that can not only compare races at the same venue over time but also ovals versus road courses and street circuits.

It’s easy to dismiss this year’s Texas race due to the issues mentioned earlier, yet compared to recent visits to the 1.5-mile oval as measured by passes per mile and position passes per mile, it wasn’t far off. Considering that’s with all of the extenuating circumstances plus the addition of the Aeroscreen, it’s quite remarkable. While a 40% decline in overall passing compared to 2018 and 25% less than 2019 may sound like a lot, the 2020 race still ranked seventh in passes per mile compared to all races from the previous two years. The condensed schedule, being the first race since September 2019, the less-than-stellar track surface and the impact of the Aeroscreen could easily explain the falloff in passing. When position passes per mile are considered, the race stacked up more favorably with a 7% increase over last year and just 17% less than 2018, potentially pointing to the notion that despite all the adversity, the drivers were as motivated as ever to pick up a position or two.

The GMR Grand Prix didn’t have the same pitfalls as the season opener. Despite taking place in a different month and featuring the Aeroscreen, it was in every other way similar to previous runnings of the event, thus enabling a more direct comparison. From both a passes per mile and position passes per mile perspective, the most recent road course race at IMS was down compared 2019 with reductions of 28% and 20%, respectively. The deltas between 2018 and 2020 were not as large yet still down, pointing in a real way to the impact of the Aeroscreen on on-track performance, whether that’s drag, heat management, additional weight, tire impact or any of a cascade of effects.

Ultimately the sample size remains small with two races to draw from and only one of them being reasonably representative. More data will help, and with two consecutive doubleheader weekends beginning with Road America and continuing at Iowa Speedway, comparisons will be easier to make and passing metrics will be plentiful, thus painting a clearer picture of a very unconventional 2020.

The question of whether Dixon’s back-to-back victories to start the season were good races remains an open one, yet when passes per mile are factored into the equation, it seems like the answer trends toward no at least based on previous years. Notably for Dixon, good and bad races pay the same number of points, so he’ll still roll into the 4-mile road course he’s won at before with 104 points and a potential sixth title waiting for him in October.