Fuel mileage races are race fans greatest fear. No more are we watching a nerve racking competition of speed, oh no, what we have on our hands is now a challenge not to run dry on the last lap. This often involves going just slow enough to stay ahead of the competition, and if you are behind, not attempting a pass because the points for finishing are more important than gaining a position only to DNF because you ran out of gas. Unfortunately, these lock-step-fuel-savathon races are a mainstay of any racing that allows refueling. Yes Formula 1, I’m looking at you, DTM mechanics can service a car in four seconds and refuel…
Here in Indycar, we seem to have more fuel mileage races than not, and those are clearly no fun for anyone, but what can we do to give a particular race a better chance to end as a speedy fight to the finish? NASCAR uses entirely too long race distances that require more than a handful of stops, hopefully mitigating the chances of a save-a-thon. Even in these circumstances a poorly timed yellow can seal the deal on a late afternoon nap with the race on as background noise. Over here in INDYCAR, we have seen more than our fair share of caution related fuel races. And one oval race whose distance was just right, and allowed Dario Franchitti to drive fast enough not to be lapped yet slow enough to need one less pit stop. Homestead 2009 was the epitome of poor race distance planning.
I was curious how our current race distances stacked up and whipped some numbers together. Initially, I was looking for a correlation between mileage and what I felt were usually good races… judged with my always accurate anecdotal gut. My first thought was to standardize race distances, similar to F1 where race length is defined as the fewest number of laps that exceeds 305 kilometers or 189.5 miles, Monaco is a bit different due to its speed with a race length of 260.5 km or 162 miles. Was there a better race mileage than others? I choose to ignore the “yellow factor” as you can never predict how those will fall as, again, Homestead 2009 proved. What I saw were race distances that were all over the place.
St. Pete = 100 laps, 180 miles, 2012 pole time 1:01.4 ~ 102 min
Barber = 90 laps, 207 miles, 2012 pole time 1:10.5 ~ 106 min
Long Beach = 85 laps, 167 miles, 2012 pole time 1:08.6 ~ 97 min
Toronto = 85 Laps, 150 miles, 2011 pole time 59.6 ~ 84 min
Edmonton = 80 laps, 178 miles, 2011 pole time 1:18.5 ~ 105 min
Mid-Ohio = 85 Laps, 192 miles, 2011 pole time 1:08 ~ 96 min
Infineon = 75 Laps, 173 miles, 2011 pole time 1:18.6 ~ 98 min
Baltimore = 75 Laps, 153 miles, 2011 pole time 1:20.2 ~100 min
Motegi = 63 Laps, 188 miles, 2011 pole time 1:38.4 ~103 min
Watkins Glen = 60 Laps, 202 miles, 2010 pole time 1:29.3 ~89 min
Old Edmonton = 95 Laps, 187 miles, 2010 pole time 60.7 ~96 min
I used the road courses because the numbers are a bit easier to manage. We have distances as low as 150 miles, all the way to 207 miles. This is close to a full fuel run if not more. I then realized our race distances must be chosen to fit a two hour TV race window. This may be common knowledge, but it was an unexpected revelation to me. Total race time was figured using the pole speed from the most recently ran year, ignoring the possibility of yellows, to get a raw speed for each event. Throwing out the wreckfest of Toronto, clocking in at an obviously-planning-for-yellow time of 84 minutes, we are within a 10 or 15 minute window. Lap count at new road events is clearly chosen based on elapsed time of the event and a predicted pole time.
INDYCAR has no other choice in the matter; they are totally bound by a restrictive TV contract. Our time window on NBC Sports Network has always seemed a bit more flexible than ABC; possibly because there is nowhere left for them to bounce us if we run over. But, because of these contracts it isn’t really feasible to standardize race length and consistently fit into a two hour window without having wildly varying race times. These windows are probably why we don’t see longer oval races either; we have worn out our welcome and need to appease the TV gods.
How about a floating fuel cell size? Assuming the race runs green through the end; instead of tailoring race distance to a completely arbitrarily chosen two and a half fuel runs based on an 18.5 gallon tank, why not change tank size to fit the race mileage and therefore the TV window. We know INDYCAR has slick golf ball things that can easily be introduced into the fuel cell to alter volume. They actually went to great length to explain just how easy it was to alter cell size because of the poorly sized tanks in the DW12. This may hurt the purity of the sport; the sacred grounds of open wheel racing, but sadly, we are far past that point right now.
Would it be anymore confusing to a standard viewer when during prerace for some future 2013 even that they were told: teams must use both red and black tires, drivers have two minutes of push-to-pass, and our fuel cell size is 17 and 3/4 gallons this weekend? I cant imagine that this would diminish the national or world opinion of INDYCAR either, because we are more or less invisible anyway. Would you hardcore viewers really care if INDYCAR made an attempt to lessen the chances of a fuel mileage race? If done correctly, this could take initial fuel strategy completely out of the picture. Make the crew chiefs start writing the game plan in-race, right when the first yellow falls; make it impossible to cut a stop out by running slow.
A gimmick? Maybe, but really no different to altering race distance to fit fuel load. I often enter a given weekend assuming it will come down to a fuel race so I have some surprise when it becomes a race to the finish like Long Beach. I know we are bound by TV, but a bit of foresight and an attempt to match equipment to playing field is not an idea we are foreign to. A pie-in-the-sky plan that most likely will never happen but a cool thought nonetheless. At this point I am more than willing to try out nearly anything if it turns our street races into street fighter races.