Monday, June 27, 2011

On Luck

(That’s right-two posts in one day! Consider yourselves lucky.)

Much has been discussed recently about Dario Franchitti’s success, and how much of it is attributable to luck.

Dario has been “lucky”:
He was leading Indianapolis in 2007 when the red flag flew for rain, allowing him to win.
At the 2009 Motegi race, championship rival Ryan Briscoe hit a traffic cone on pit road, incurring a penalty and allowing Dario to score more championship points.
The season finale at Homestead in 2009 ran caution-free, allowing him to stretch his fuel mileage while his competitors had to make an extra pit stop-Dario used the advantage to win the race and the championship.
At Indy in 2010, every other car from Penske and Ganassi either had pit road trouble or crashed, and a very late caution allowed him to run the final lap at much-reduced speed, ensuring that he had sufficient fuel to finish (and win).
At Chicagoland in 2010 Will Power’s crew failed to completely fill his car with fuel, necessitating an additional pit stop. Franchitti won the race while Power finished well-down in the running order.
At the 2010 season finale, Power was eliminated from competition in a single-car wreck. Dario took the championship with an easy top-ten finish.
At Milwaukee in 2011, the only two cars that appeared capable of running with Franchitti were Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan. Kanaan spun on his own and hit the wall; Castroneves had to pit to replace a deflating tire. Franchitti won without serious opposition.
At the 2011 Iowa race, Will Power damaged his car on pit road, then crashed out. Dario finished fifth.

“Luck” alone isn’t enough, however, to win races and championships. One has to be in position to exploit the misfortunes suffered by other competitors-running fast enough and clean enough to be leading (or ahead of the competiton) when those circumstances arise. It wasn’t enough for it to rain at Indy in 2007, Dario had to be in the lead when the rain came in order to win the race. It wasn’t enough for Power to lose time in the pits at Chicago, Franchitti had to win the race out of the pits, then protect his lead for the rest of the race.

What is said about “luck” (“you make your own luck,” “luck is where opportunity and preparation meet,” and so on), is true. In racing, luck may help you get the lead or hurt your competitors. You have to be ready to act, though, when that luck comes. Being “good” or “fast” can help produce luck, too. The first-place starter (or restarter) is much less likely to be caught up in an accident that isn’t of his own doing-there are simply fewer cars around him to cause problems. The holder of the pit stall nearest pit exit (earned by qualifying, points, or results) has a distinct advantage over other competitors-he is guaranteed a straight shot out of his pit box and is much less likely to be exposed to errant cars, tires, or other pit hazards.

To begrudge Dario for winning races thanks to luck is to minimize the speed and strategy he and his crew employed when that luck came.

This doesn’t only apply to Dario Franchitti, however. It’s applicable across the board, and in other forms of motorsport. In the 1990s I was a Mark Martin masochis-er, fan. Time after time after time I saw Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham get “lucky” and wrestle victory from certain defeat. Even when things went well for Mark Martin, they went better for Jeff Gordon. At one point, a flustered Jack Roush went as far as publicly accusing the Hendrick team of cheating. Ray Evernham was particularly fond of citing those above platitudes about luck.

1 comment:

  1. Two things:
    1) People who win races like many of those examples (something happens to the other strong guy that day), they don't just magically find themselves running second, as if it were granted to them by a leprechaun. They work to get there. They maximize what they have and put themselves in a position to capitalize on somebody else's misfortune. Anybody who can do that on a consistent basis (like Dario has done his ENTIRE CAREER, and I mean since 1998) is going to win a lot of races and they'll probably win several championships.

    2) You don't get to be in the top-10 of all-time IndyCar race winners just through luck. You get there by being a very, very well-rounded driver: fast, good at driving to a set strategy, aggressive when the situation calls for it, relatively passive when the situation calls for it, adept at maneuvering into the best equipment available, whatever. Foyt won races and championships doing all of the above. So did Mario Andretti. All of the Unsers did too. Seriously, I wonder if somebody went back through the record books and tallied up how many races those 5 guys I just named won when they weren't the "fastest" on that day, and we saw exactly how many races were won through those "non-speed related" measures, would anybody be calling for asterisks by those guys' names as well? Methinks, not so much.