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.
DON'T BE A MAVERICK…
These rankings are supposed to provoke discussion and entertain but primarily they should enlighten. So there's no excuse to be deliberately controversial. Bear in mind even your genuine feelings are likely to annoy or enrage a few, so you don't need to poke the hornet's nest by being willfully obtuse. Should you do so, your future work will be treated with extreme skepticism – and with good reason.
Decades ago, a guy by the name of Keith Botsford wrote a book called Champions of Formula 1. It may not have been his fault that the title was so misleading – publishers often overrule in these matters – and it was very well written. But within the first few pages he'd laid out his reasoning for dismissing every F1 champion up to Jackie Stewart. Seriously. The great works of Alberto Ascari, Juan-Manuel Fangio and Jimmy Clark were not seen as being accomplished in the so-called “professional era” so were treated as less meaningful than what Stewart, Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti had achieved. I already had a keen sense of motorsport's heritage, and read the remainder of the book in disgust, regularly seething at what I saw as attempts to regularly make me seethe! (I took my reading very seriously.) For all I know, Botsford's pithy and unfavorable commentary on Colin Chapman had validity, but after the author described an incident in which he was being driven by Chapman and the Lotus boss ordered him to leave the vehicle, I couldn't help wishing it had been traveling at 100mph.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, while you don't want to slavishly follow a results table, there has to be logic to your argument if the driver who finished 18th in the championship is your number one. (Sorry, Mr. Viso, that's not going to happen here.)
…BUT DON'T BE AFRAID TO BE HONEST
Most drivers won't hold it against you if your rankings don't match up to their own opinion of themselves. Last year, in my IndyCar Top 10 of the season, I ranked Dario Franchitti second, behind Will Power. Once I had justified my choice, it really didn't come across as the world's most controversial decision, so I didn't expect a problem with the three-time champ. Sure enough, Franchitti's subsequent behavior toward myself and RACER has borne that out. In every dealing we've had with him over the past 12 months, be it a pre-arranged interview or a media conference, face to face or over the phone, Franchitti has been helpful, courteous, thoughtful and eloquent. His description of driving Indy, as told to John Oreovicz (see June issue), is one of the most absorbing features we've had in RACER this year.
Then again, let's have a reality check here. Every feature writer needs to play through their mind on a constant loop the following lines – Why the hell should the driver care? Your opinion is not the be all and end all! If Dario had come up and hit me with an IndyCar stat book, pointed at the results and yelled “Ha!” then I'd have to take it. We are opinionated and well-informed writers in the lucky position of having our voice transmitted by a respected magazine and website. But we can't argue with the record book, no matter how much we add context.
I was amused (or perhaps, “bemused” is more appropriate) when I heard a journalist describe how he had slammed one particular driver in a story he'd written, yet hadn't had a problem with him thereafter. It seemed not to have occurred to this writer that (a) the driver may not have read the story, (b) the driver may have read this story but thought the writer was an idiot whose opinion didn't matter, or (c) the driver was self confident enough to really not give a damn about what was written about him by anyone. [In this instance, it was (c).]
Ah, we're all human, and to a lesser or greater extent, we all seek validation at some point or in some area of our lives. But, as journalists, it's worth remembering there's real truth in what Ron Dennis of McLaren pompously, tactlessly and unwisely told one press member many years ago: “We make history. You just write about it.”
DO YOUR RESEARCH
That doesn't just mean fact checking, although obviously an error in your stats can severely devalue anything you have to say. It means going behind the scenes, asking team managers and race engineers for their opinions – you can never have too much information. However, don't be naïve. Check if these extra sources can be trusted or if they have a hidden agenda and therefore a very good reason to say what they say, be it positive or negative. And if they talk in bland generalizations, ignore them.
Under this category, let's emphasize that you should also examine the whole season. The most recent races are naturally the ones freshest in your mind but, for example, the improvements made by Charlie Kimball and James Jakes should not distort the fact that they were distinctly underwhelming in the first seven or eight races of 2011.
SET RULES AND STICK BY THEM
A dilemma I've faced in the past is whether to judge the driver purely on his or her form in that season, or to build in at least a percentage of how I rate their talent overall. If you're an adherent to the philosophy of “form is temporary, class is permanent,” then you can find yourself giving too much credit to someone who has still got the speed, but over the past season has flaked when the pressure is on. Those people are damn annoying to assess.
And then there is a set of circumstances these drivers find themselves in. For example, if – and I stress the if – you were to rate the Newman/Haas duo, James Hinchcliffe and Oriol Servia, as being on a par this season, do you take into account the fact that Hinch is a rookie and Servia is a veteran and therefore rank the Canadian higher than the Catalan? And what about JR Hildebrand, when he has no teammate as a point of comparison?
Whatever you decide, be consistent, and apply the same rules to all.
Confession time. Within a couple of weeks of publishing my top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2010, I wanted to make a minor adjustment. Because I'm the argumentative sort, I could still make a good case for how I left it, but there is one niggle in there that I'd love to tweak. So once you've made your list, check, re-check and re-re-check that you're content with it and can justify it for all time. Because if you can't convince yourself that it's right, you can't hope to convince the readers.
Which is why, although I'll have a tentative Top 10 IndyCar driver list formed by this Sunday evening, I'm going to stew on it, tinker with it, rethink it, and maybe even rip it up and start again before it goes onto RACER.com some eight days later.
But at least if you disagree with any or all of it, I can just point you in the direction of this column, which I'll be using as my guide. Or I'll take the easy route and simply blame Justin for being a bad influence.