RACE: Moving the runoffs? [part 2]

[This article is the author's opinion, and should neither be considered as official news information, not as MNI's opinion on the subject.] This article originally appeared in the January '96 issue of _MotoRacing_ and was uploaded by the ...

[This article is the author's opinion, and should neither be considered as official news information, not as MNI's opinion on the subject.]

This article originally appeared in the January '96 issue of _MotoRacing_ and was uploaded by the author. You can subscribe by calling 800.58.KELLY.

STAND Moving the Runoffs, Part 2

copyright 1995 John P. M. Dillon

Last month I discussed the significance of the SCCA's Valvoline Runoffs and some of the requirements that a race track must meet to be a viable host for this "pinnacle of amateur road racing." In summary, given the current race format, the track needs to be long, smooth, challenging, accessible, with an infrastructure capable of supporting 700+ entrants and their crews and vehicles, workers and other officials, all the while meeting a weather criterion for safe competition.

While both Mid-Ohio and Road Atlanta meet these requirements, surely there must be other venues available for the amateur road racing champions to be determined, so I asked the following question:

<italic>Is it healthy for the SCCA to keep it's premiere amateur event at one venue forever?<end italic>

As mentioned last month, the vast majority of drivers I interviewed suggested that moving the Runoffs every three years would be a good idea. This month I'll expand on that thought, as well as identify other ideas the drivers put forth.

Let's start by clumping the ideas into four main groups: Moving the Runoffs periodically, picking a permanent venue, changing the event format, and combinations of the above. I'll quote several drivers, but I'll preserve their anonymonity for political reasons.

Road Atlanta hosted the Runoffs for 24 years. Depending on your perspective, this was 24 years of difficult tows, or 2.4 decades of home track advantage; a couple dozen years of trying to learn a track in one 20 minute session per day for five days, or almost a quarter century racing a half dozen races per year prior to the Runoffs.

I'll admit it, I live on the left coast, so I appreciate the time and expense west coast drivers go through in order to participate. Shoot, I've made the tow myself on two occasions.

On the other side of the coin, however, are factors like stability and tradition. For some drivers the trip to Atlanta took on the trappings of a pilgrimage. And, since the track was the same every year, repeat visitors began to enjoy something akin to the home track advantage the local boys knew. And, to be fair, Road Atlanta is a challenging track, one worthy of proving what makes a national champion.

Tradition has always played an important role in racing. Tradition calls for the national anthem before the start of a race, or a rock for the marker of Brian Redman's cat, or a chorus of "Back Home Indiana," or the sound of a cannon at the 5 minute and 1 minute warnings. Tradition also said that old timers never drove green cars, nor picked numbers that looked the same upside down, nor let women into the pit area.

Several drivers felt that a single location should host the Runoffs each year, but almost all of them suggested a more geocentric location. Frequently, Topeka was mentioned as being a relatively fair location to the majority of participants. Said one, "I think it should be more centrally located, ideally Heartland Park. However, that's not realistic since there are no hotels near there." He also pointed out "Some of the fast five drivers [in my class] I've never heard of; they're local people. They could drive Mid-Ohio in their sleep." At Mid-Ohio, one driver echoed, "I've got be prejudiced since this track is so close to home," but he added "I'm personally not opposed to moving every three years."

One of the problems associated with hosting the Runoffs is the sheer immensity of the event; smaller tracks simply don't have the space or community infrastructure to handle 700 entries. A couple of interesting alternatives have been proposed by competitors, each of them a "split" idea.

The first suggestion is to split the venue. Two different tracks would host the Runoffs each year. For example, half the classes could race at Sears Point concurrently with the other half running at Mid-Ohio.

The tradeoffs to this are obvious: First and foremost, it would impact the drivers who run multiple, dissimilar classes. Though there are only a few of them--and even fewer would be impacted, depending on their choice of cars--we must at least consider the impact. If you kept the GT cars together, for example, this year's GT1 champion Mike Lewis could still race his GT-3 Mazda at the same event. Similarly you'd keep the Showroom Stock contingent together, the formula cars, the sports racers, and the production guys.

More critically, the Runoffs would be tougher to promote and coordinate. To which site would the TV cameras go? How about the Court of Appeals? Would sponsors expect a big bang for the buck if the bucks were split? Even your "brain trust" of workers and other officials would be split between two sites.

On the other hand, a lot more tracks could handle 400-car fields, so the opportunities to "share the wealth" would be broader. Drivers wouldn't have to consistently tow across hell and damnation every year, but instead could race in their back yards every once in a while. As for the workers... this year's Runoffs Worker Directory listed something like 650 participants. I think each of two tracks could man the course with 325 per track. As Cal Club's Flag Chief, I staff the Long Beach Grand Prix with around 120 flaggers, and the total worker count includes maybe another 150 of the other specialties. If we can staff a Grand Prix with less than 300 workers, we should be able to do the Runoffs with a similar count.

The other "split option" is to split the week-long affair into two half-week affairs. Let's arbitrarily lump all the formula and sports racer classes in Group 1 and everybody else in Group 2. At whatever track we choose, we set up the following schedule for each of the two groups:

   Mon-Tue             Open track rental, non-SCCA
   Wed                 Practice, 2 or 3 sessions per day
   Thu                 Warmup or practice, first qualifying
   Fri                 Warmup or practice, second qualifying
   Sat-Sun             Warmup, Races

What advantages does this provide the competitor? First, the actual "SCCA" day count is reduced without reducing track time, so his "away from home" time can be reduced. Second, she gets two sessions per day instead of just one, so her setup and testing data are more meaningful. Third, races are guaranteed to be on a weekend, thus more spectators can see your sponsor's logos. Fourth, you're effectively splitting 25 races across four days (two weekends) instead of 3 days (one three-day weekend) so you could supplement track time or make the races longer.

What about the workers? Well, while it would probably reduce the number of people who supported the full event (across two weeks), it would make it easier for them to attend at least part of the series. Let's face it, it's a whole lot easier to take off part of a week than a full week plus travel time. And, if an official wants to drive to the event, she's got a couple of extra days to make the trip in less-than-bonzai fashion.

The stewards and Court of Appeals have real jobs too, so they'll be impacted the same as the worker contingent, but again, the SCCA has plenty of stewards--at Mid-Ohio there was one stationed at every corner!--so staffing should not be a problem.

The track operator would benefit by spreading his load over two weeks instead of just one, as well as getting two weeks of revenue. Basically it would smooth out the money spike. Since the field size is spread out more, smaller tracks could successfully bid for the Runoffs and handle the necessary crowds: instead of hosting 700 entries they'd only need to accomodate maybe 400, a much easier task.

Though the following idea doesn't alleviate the overloading problem, one driver felt that a "one winner take all" race didn't do justice to the title "champion." He suggested the event be organized into a pair of shorter "half-point" races followed by the main event. The most points would determine the champion. This would reward the consistently fast driver, not the one with the necessary round things to crash out his competitors.

Clearly to implement the last, serious schedule changes would be needed. His suggestion would dovetail nicely into the split-time option described above, since more track time would be available to the competitors.

Speaking of combining ideas, all three of the above could actually be implemented together. Group 1 races on one one half-week at one track, while Group 2 races the next half-week at a different facility. The following year, the groups switch venues and times. Within these groups the heat race/main event concept could be integrated.

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Deadlines for the new year are rapidly approaching and I still haven't quite finished this topic, but the word count is swelling like a party balloon so I've got to stop before you explode. I'll offer up some closing comments in the next issue, and then go on to another topic that has me bleeding from biting my tongue (for now).

As this is probably the closing issue of '95, I'd best thank you now for your indulgence and patience in wading through my many words. More importantly, I wish you the best in the coming year and hope your holidays are wonderful. See you at the track!

John Dillon presently makes his stand in Yorba Linda, California.

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