In Defense of the Purity of Racing

Podium finishers prepare for restart at 2023 Indy 500

Despite being a part-time amateur motorsports journalist for most of the last decade, I’ve often found it difficult to form opinions about what I see on and off the race track.

Reporting the facts, performing unbiased analysis, and equating passing to on-track excitement — these are the aspects of my race weekend role that come easily to me.

Taking a side on an issue, especially a divisive one, is harder for me to come by. Yet, that’s just what I’ve done with regard to the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 and its unprecedented three red flags.

Unlike the approach of many others on this topic, I’m not looking to spark debates or denigrate the NTT IndyCar Series. I don’t have a problem with a race ending under yellow or a red flag with two laps to go allowing for a one-lap shootout without a proper warm-up lap.

I won’t join the chorus that says Marcus Ericsson or Santino Ferrucci should have won if the established protocols were followed. I’m also not going to read the rule book cover to cover and provide recommendations on what INDYCAR should or shouldn’t do when it comes to Race Control.

What irks me about the red flags — and it takes a serious “irk” to get me riled up enough to write an opinion piece like this — is the reaction to them, especially the third one that set up the fourth-closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history.

Marcus Ericsson racing in 2023 Indy 500
The 2023 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing nearly fell into the hands of multiple drivers in the closing stage. | Karl Zemlin/Penske Entertainment

With reactions come justifications: why INDYCAR did what it did.

Most of the rationale involves something called “the show,” reflecting that the race’s final red flag provided a better product for the more than 330,000 attendees at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the millions watching on television.

Take Tony Kanaan, a driver I greatly respect due to his contributions to Indy car racing and his larger-than-life impact as one of the series’ most popular drivers.

“It’s funny because obviously, you have guys like Santino and Marcus that are mad, and you have Josef that’s happy,” said Kanaan after his last Indy 500 start. “But we need to think about the show.”

Using “the show” as a justification increases my irritation level — but Kanaan isn’t the only one. During NBC’s broadcast of the “500,” former IndyCar driver Danica Patrick relayed a story about how she was considered an “entertainer” when she traveled internationally. Thus, by extension, her job was to provide entertainment, and the ultimate goal of professional racing is to entertain. It’s hard to dispute this when one considers that Penske Entertainment owns both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series.

There is a certain level of purity when it comes to sports as entertainment versus more traditional forms, such as films, television, music, and theater. Football, baseball, basketball, and others have long histories to draw on and rules that both control the game and serve to make it more entertaining. Other entities under the umbrella of sports entertainment have strayed further from sport and toward entertainment, like professional wrestling.

Over 130 years of precedent contribute to the modern game of baseball, which has evolved to suit modern tastes. An example of this is the addition of a pitch clock for the 2023 season, which speeds up the game and adds excitement. But the pitch clock, like the other changes to baseball this year, is not arbitrary or case-by-case. Major League Baseball doesn’t decide when to have a pitch clock or if they should enforce it — it’s employed the same way for every team for all 162 games. MLB has improved “the show” by evolving, not by making in-game changes that have the potential to affect outcomes.

Those who enjoy watching baseball do so not for manipulation-caused entertainment but because the game itself is entertaining. Rules that govern gameplay should be concerned with competition first and fan appeasement second. The best rules enhance gameplay and make the game more entertaining for spectators.

Cars leave pit lane to restart the 2023 Indy 500
Somewhat-ambiguous entries in the INDYCAR rule book leave race results more up to chance than they perhaps should be. | Paul Hurley/Penske Entertainment

Applied to motorsports, NASCAR exemplifies the reverse of these priorities, where concepts like stages and green-white-checkered finishes alter the natural flow of a race to make it more entertaining. In defense of NASCAR, the sanctioning body has at least codified its competition-altering rules: All competitors know that there will be stages of specific lengths and repeated attempts to complete the race’s final two laps until the leader takes the white flag.

INDYCAR’s approach to how to end races is case by case, and that’s not only my interpretation — it’s stated in the rules themselves: Rule gives Race Control complete latitude and no accountability when it comes to how to handle a restart after a red condition:

INDYCAR’s decision to restart or not to restart a Race stopped by the declaration of a Red Condition may not be reviewed and/or appealed.

The rule’s ambiguity allows Race Control a wide berth, and this is where accusations of unfairness and manipulation can sneak in.

It’s one thing to have varying degrees of penalties depending on the severity of an infraction. It seems quite different to have unchecked latitude when and if to restart a race from a red flag and whether to call one at all. Rule 7.1.5 provides no ability to question the call:

The decision as to whether to declare a Green, Yellow, Full Course Yellow Condition, or Red Condition may not be reviewed and/or appealed.

IndyCar’s history is long — almost as long as baseball’s — and should be respected rather than ignored in the name of “the show.” Fans are essential, more so for IndyCar than other series that make their money from ultra-lucrative television contracts or direct support from manufacturers.

To a more considerable extent than other series, IndyCar depends on its events’ success in person and via TV or streaming. I contend that good racing in the form of a sound formula and competitive rules makes for good entertainment without the need for manipulation.

Pure racing focuses on what happens on the track and whether it’s fair and consistent with the rules. Any meddling in the name of entertainment devalues the series and the sport.

Professional wrestling is entertainment. Professional racing is a sport and should do all it can to remain one. NASCAR is an example of what straddling the fence looks like. INDYCAR must decide where it lands, and I hope it stays clear of entertainment.