The Indy Racing League (IRL), fresh from its 12-year battle with the Champ Car World Series over which one would be the premier open-wheel racing governing body in the United States, has embroiled itself in yet another controversy.
Racing cars are carefully regulated—weight, height, wheelbase, engine displacement, wheel and tire width, electronics, and aerodynamic aids are all tightly defined to ensure that every team can build a competitive automobile.
Weight, in particular, is carefully monitored. In Indy car racing, the difference of 100 pounds might be a difference of a second per lap—the difference between starting on the pole and last place at the last Indy car race in Homestead, Florida on March 28.
With drivers ranging from the petite Danika Patrick (100 lbs.) to 193-pound Justin Wilson, IRL had to devise a rule that would not penalize a driver while, at the same time, not giving an advantage to a driver.
IRL decided to divide drivers into weight classes, with the lightest being forced to carry ballast and the heaviest allowed to build their cars slightly lighter. Precise details are not available but rumor has it that lightest drivers will have to carry an extra 35 lbs. while the heaviest drivers will get an equivalent credit.
Different Drivers, Different Reactions
Driver reaction has been mixed. The lighter drivers tend to object to the change while the heavier drivers feel that more needs to be done.
Champ Car weighed cars with drivers on board, and mandated that all cars had to weigh as much as the combined weight of the heaviest driver and his or her car. Some IRL drivers feel that this system should have been adopted instead of the current rule, with annual driver weigh-ins and five weight classes. Many people feel that the old Champ Car standard will be substituted for the current rule next year, after the IRL has integrated the Champ Car teams that have switched leagues.
Graham Rahal, a former Champ Car driver who has made the switch to IRL, supports the Champ Car rule.
"Hopefully, with Tony Cotman coming over from Champ Car as vice president for competition we can get that rule in place for next season," he told the Tampa Tribune's Tony Fabrizio.
In racing, driver strength is a factor, as are reaction time, endurance, eyesight, and many other physical factors. But overall strength is not the deciding issue. If it were, Danika Patrick would not be a top-rate driver, which she demonstrably is.
Obviously all that extra muscle isn't what makes a race driver. Equally obviously, anyone who has the other requisite abilities can develop the physical strength needed. Being physically large and brawny is not an advantage in racing.
Being physically small and light, under the old rules, was.
In auto racing, as in horse racing, the performance of the total package—car and driver, rider and mount—must be considered. It is so obviously necessary and effective in horse racing, why would anyone argue against it here?
Performance in motor sports is based on a combination of driver and machine. To achieve parity, so that an actual competitive measure of the performance of each machine, each driver, and each crew—in other words, to determine the actual winner—all the variables must be balanced. And vehicle weight is one of the most important variables. Every aspect of performance on the track is directly affected by vehicle weight.
No one is penalizing small drivers—Danica Patrick is not losing any driving ability. Her crew is no less able, the team's designers are no less able. Nor are larger drivers being given an advantage over smaller drivers. The drivers, the crews, the teams are all the same. Now, to a greater degree, the cars will be the same too.
The only change is that one inequality in measuring actual driver skill, and team and vehicle performance, is being removed. Now smaller drivers will not have an inherent advantage over larger drivers.
Now when Danica Patrick beats another, larger driver, she can know it was her skill and her team. No one will be able to mutter about the second-a-lap advantage that a 70-pound weight advantage gives. When Danica Patrick rolls home a few tenths of a second ahead of a competitor, she will know that she—and her team—deserver to be there.
I would think that every driver, regardless of physical size, would want equality. Who wants to wonder if he or she won due to an unfair advantage? Surely every win will be sweeter now.
I am certain that next year Indy Cars will be weighed with drive on board as were Champ Cars. Until then, I hope the controversy dies down somewhat.
What the fans really want is the most competitive racing possible. The fans will still go home satisfied after a race if they feel they saw a fair and hard-fought contest, regardless of who stood atop the podium.
So, I hope all the drivers get out there and drive their best, and that their teams give them the best possible support, so that whoever gets the checkered flag at the end of the day, will certainly have earned it.
Justin Wilson, another Champ Car driver making the switch, remarked that every aspect of performance is dramatically affected by weight. Indeed, a lighter car, all other things being equal, can accelerate and brake faster, corner at a higher speed, and use less fuel than a heavier car.
"On a road course, ten pounds equals a tenth of a second, so if you're 100 pounds heavier than someone it's a second a lap you're giving away," he told Autosport.com
The series' lightest driver, Danica Patrick, is upset at the new rule. In her opinion she is being unfairly singled out noting that there are no weight or height regulations in football or basketball. "In so many other sports, athletes don't get penalized for being too strong, or too tall or too fast … and that greater strength or size is a benefit in those sports," she told USAToday.
The weight debate actually started back in 2005, when multitalented race car driver Robbie Gordon stated flatly that Patrick's weight gave her an unfair advantage, and he refused to race against her in the Indy 500 unless a weight equalization rule was instituted.
Gordon has competed successfully in off-road racing, several NASCAR series, sports cars, and Indy cars, and is highly respected among drivers of every form of motor racing.
Some NASCAR series have such a rule, setting a minimum combined weight using 200 pounds as a base driver weight and adding ballast for lighter drivers.