Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Embracing Your Inner Goliath...

So here we are the finale of the 2009 IndyCar series, three drivers in a winner take all final race for the yet to be named, but potentially soon to be Izod championship. While the year has been a bit of a struggle, the league could not have hoped for a better set up to the finale. Three decent stand up guys all worthy of the honor are in the position to put on one heck of a good show. Since none of them are named Meira or Hunter Reay, JP has at least another season before “One of my Guys” takes home the prize. Next year my chances may go up a bit if a team owner out there does the right thing and gives JR Hildebrand a chance.

Most people, when they don’t have a dog in the fight will tell you that they root for the under dog. Not sure that any of the three fit that moniker exactly. Two (Scott and Dario) have been there before and the one who hasn’t (Briscoe) has Team Penske on the side of his car. My heart seems to be tempting me to paint my face blue and white and wear plaid, my head is saying something else. In this case I have decided to pull for the driver whose win most benefits the series. I have been doing a lot of that the past couple years, and the league certainly needs it. So who is JP’s Choice?? We’ll get to that in a minute.

Those of you familiar with Indianapolis sports radio market know that 1070 has local talk shows from 10 – 1 and from 3 – 6. From 1 – 3 they have a tape delay of ESPN radio’s Colin Cowherd show. Which of course is like listening to fingernails on a chalk board. Primarily because he has this annoying tendency to notice the big pink elephant in the room and talk about it incessantly. Inconvenient truths that typical sports fans don’t want to acknowledge.

One of his “Truths” that he frequently pontificates on is that Dynasties are good. People may say they root for the little guy, but they don’t switch the channel to watch him. He points out that when the Yankees are in the world series, ratings are significantly better than when Tampa Bay has the honor. The Lakers in the NBA final will always out draw the Spurs in the finals. A golf weekend with Tiger on the leader board invariably doubles the ratings number put up without him.

Ultimately, the point is, watching a team or an individual who may have a claim amongst the all time greats is always going to draw more viewers than will a faceless no one’s one shining moment besting mediocrity. For as much as we say we like underdogs. Without Goliath, there is no David. Just a bunch of other David’s competing that no one can tell apart. David needs Goliath inorder to stake his claim to fame.

IndyCar needs a Driver that is Goliath. Right now it has teams that are Goliath and that only goes to perpetuate the idea that racing is car over driver. IndyCar needs someone who we can all point to and say “He is the best of this generation and is up there for all time” becoming the face of the series. IndyCar needs a Goliath to be the polarizing figure that becomes the guy half the fans follow because he is that good and the guy that everybody else hates because again he’s that good. Greatness becomes interesting, and the struggle to ultimately best it becomes compelling.

So who is JP pulling for in the finale? Who is the best candidate to become Goliath? If you said Scott Dixon, Gold Star to you. Lost in the hoo haa about record keeping a couple months ago when Scott passed Sam Hornish Jr IRL record for wins was an assessment of what Scott HAS accomplished and what he very well COULD accomplish by the time he is done.

Suppose Dixon wins on Saturday, that will be AOWR victory 23 and championship #3 for a guy who is 28. If he stays at TCGR with the same current formula, it is not unreasonable to imagine that he could win another 4 races each of the next two years (which would be a step down from 08 and 09). These would bring his victory count up to 31 for a driver who would only have turned 30. Then tied with Paul Tracy, that would leave the rest of his career to pursue Unser Jr (34), Michael (42), Mario (52) and AJ (67).

AJ’s number will probably never be threatened, but Dixon could have a shot at Mario’s talley. It could be argued that records mean different things in different eras, but with a victory Saturday, Dixon will have dominated his own. For some benchmarking let’s compare Dixon’s numbers to the second generation boys. Unser won 10.3% of the races he started, Michael 13.2% and Scott (both ChampCar and IRL) 14.5% (15% if he wins Sat, and IRL only of 18.8%). Among the elders, Mario 12.8% and AJ 18.2%* A stat that stunned me while doing this research, Dixon has been top 10 for 67.1% of all races entered and 72.3% for IRL races. Michael was 62.1%, Tracy 25.3%.

Of course you could argue that there’s less talent, more races, more imbalance and while I won’t profess the extent to which any of that is true – it does stir discussion and is another benefit to having a Goliath in our midst.

I would suggest that a compelling sporting series needs three things within it’s portfolio of competitors. The first are champions that stand above the rest and leave mediocrity to shame. Second are rivalries and the third are personalities. Please note, neither the second or third matter if you don’t have the first.

For those of you in Indiana, think back 15 years ago to the IU/Purdue men’s BB games, now think about them now. The games are as fierce a rivalry as they were then, but back then both teams were regularly in the top 10 and the entire nation watched. Rivalry without greatness is like watching drunks in a throw down outside the liquor store, pathetic, not compelling.

A series with personalities but without greatness ultimately fixates itself around the comings and goings (not necessarily related to the sport itself) of people on the competitive fringe like Anna Kournikova, or dare I say…Well you know who I mean, but the result is that frivolity and zipper shots, not competitive excellence defines the sport.

Once Goliath is crowned many other story lines could fall into place:

- A rival can be found (Briscoe in ’10, I can feel it now)
- Spawning a rivalry formed from a different premise (what brave American can step up to the challenge from down under?)
- Spawning another rivalry (Which “Everyday American” (Hildebrand, Summerton or Edwards) will challenge the “Silver Spoon American” (Rahal or Andretti))
- Personality can flesh out the otherwise nameless victims
- And ultimately personality will tell a future David’s story. (it began with an acceptance letter from MIT...)

The question is now to be answered – Will Dixon claim Goliath’s crown on Saturday.

*That one is astounding if you recall that for the last 10 years of AJ’s career, his girth kept him from finding the gear stick during races, forcing him to challenge the field using only first gear. Meaning that during the competitive portion of his career, AJ’s win % was well over 20% compared to Dixon’s 18.8% for his IRL career.

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