Yes, I'm aware of the self-deprecating ambiguity in the headline of this story, so maybe having a picture of myself right under the headline is a mistake. Some may think it's very apt. And now that I think on it, maybe my agreeing to that juxtaposition is actually proof of the headline's accuracy.
Soon, very soon, you motorsports-loving web browsers are going to be stumbling over Top 10s, left, right and center as we reach the end of season for all the principal championships – except Formula 1, which just feels end-of-season after a long, dry Sebastian Vettel summer. No offense to the guy who clearly has an amazing talent as well as an amazing car, but I have to agree with the person who recently observed that F1 and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series have had precisely opposite problems this year: Cup has seen dull races with intriguing results, while grand prix racing has featured some gripping races with predictable conclusions.
This year, Justin Wilson has agreed to throw in his opinion to agree/disagree with RACER's own rankings of the top IZOD IndyCar Series drivers. Sadly, his accident at Mid-Ohio and consequent absence from seven races means Wilson cannot be included in the Top 10. Being the smart, observant guy he is, however, we're relieved to involve him in at least one capacity.
But I hope Justin realizes what he's let himself in for. I'm not saying my job is more difficult than his (regular) one, but ranking the IndyCar field gets ever harder. Each year, the first two or three slot into place quite easily, but when open-wheel veterans like Tony Kanaan believe the class of 2011 is as tough if not tougher than in CART IndyCar's heyday of the late 1990s, it's time to realize how complex the problem is. Arranging the great from the very good, the very good from the good and the good from the mediocre is easy enough; but if there are several contenders in each of those categories, how's it done? And, given that opinions are like assholes – everyone's got one – how do we make ours valid? Well, here's a sort of 101 that I work by and would pass on to anyone who wanted to write for RACER.
One easy elimination are the drivers who did only partial seasons. Neither Sebastien Bourdais nor Alex Lloyd will be considered for my top 10, because they shared the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing car – Bourdais for street and road courses, Lloyd for the ovals – and versatility on a wide range of circuits is one of IndyCar's calling cards. However, drivers who missed just one or two races like Sebastian Saavedra are still eligible. He won't be in the Top 10, but he's eligible.
STAND UP AND BE COUNTED
You can't chicken out by following the championship standings; any old reporter can point out that A is ahead of B who's ahead of C. If motorsports fans wanted to have the blindingly obvious reiterated for them, they could watch pre-race or post-race TV shows about NASCAR. When rating drivers, a feature writer needs to put each of them into context and state his or her opinion. If you think C should be ahead of A and B, you need to explain why, and you need to explain why that is or isn't borne out by the results.
DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS
It's all too easy to let statistics – particularly race results – blind us to what actually happened in the race or over the course of the weekend. As Vin Scully once put it, “Statistics are used like a drunk uses a lamp post – for support, not illumination.” Of course, you can't ignore the end result, especially if an event is settled in dramatic fashion like this year's Indy 500. But if you ignore lap 200 and think back to the preceding 199, you'll recall that Target Chip Ganassi Racing dominated before shooting themselves in both feet, and that Newman/Haas Racing's Oriol Servia played an excellent cameo role that should have earned him at least second or third.
Similarly, Graham Rahal should have finished on the podium in the last three races but through no fault of his own, has finished 10th, 12th and 12th. That kind of stuff matters if you're going to give an accurate picture of who really starred in this year's IZOD IndyCar Series. To dumb asses who just look at the points tallies and shrug, “Well, he didn't get the job done,” I have nothing to say.
Drivers such as Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti are bloggers for our magazine and our website, respectively, but they will not be cut any slack. And it should go without saying that at RACER, commercial considerations will have no influence over the choices. Verizon, GEICO and IZOD are among the companies who currently advertise with RACER, but this has no effect on where we'll rank Will Power, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe, respectively.
A FRIEND INDEED?
You can't afford to be thinking in terms of who is or isn't your friend on a personal level, either – especially as such things are largely delusional. Around the world, in each motorsport media center, there are a number of people – I hesitate to describe them as journalists – who think they are friends with several drivers, ignoring the rather obvious supply-and-demand nature of this business. A journalist needs a driver for a quote or a story; a driver needs the journalist in order to put his point across or to self-promote. It's that brutally simple. Think of that exchange in Die Hard 2, when Bruce Willis' character, John McClane, says to Colonel Grant, “Guess I was wrong about you. You're not such an a**hole after all.” Grant replies, “No, you were right. I'm just your kind of a**hole.”
There are a few friendships but, as a general rule, the driver and journalist wouldn't care much about the other if they weren't in the same line of business, which just highlights the difference between being friendly and being friends. If a motorsports journalist asks himself “How many of these drivers would go to my funeral?” and comes up with an answer north of five, he's fooling himself. Or he's Robin Miller.