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What's the point of it all?

By Rocky Entriken

R.Entriken@mcimail.com

Rocky is a freelance journalist who contributes a regular column to the Sports Car Club of America's Sports Car magazine, and is an active motorsports enthusiast participating in Road Racing, Autocross, and Rally events in the Midwest.

I recently tuned into a discussion involving a driver lamenting the injustice of the points system for a series in which he was competing. My impression is he was fairly new to the game, an impression boosted by his assertion that the peculiarity of which he was complaining was "unique" to his series. In his case, he was speaking of visiting drivers taking points away from series regulars.

Not only is this not unique, it is not even particularly unusual.

Nor was his complaint. The baseline fact is, there are nearly as many different ways to score points as there are series. The "problems" a driver may complain are unique to his series turn out to be common to just about every form of motorsport, indeed to just about anything in which a championship is decided on a points scale.

Why am I being vague about the series in question? Because it does not matter. The point is, every points scale favors something. Some favor winning, some favor consistency, some favor commitment. The ultimate bottom line for anyone venturing into any championship quest is this: learn the points scheme for the particular championship and play it to your best advantage. Deal with it.

Now this does not mean reasonable "adjustments" cannot be made for next season if it is generally perceived the system for this season was something less than satisfactory. I will not discourage the debate, but would suggest the debaters ought to examine what the current system's focus is and the reasons for that focus, and then consider whether or not it is a correct focus.

I am the Midwest Division pointskeeper, and wearing that hat I score two MiDiv SCCA road racing championships. I am also a motorsport journalist, and under that hat -- for my own reference and records -- I keep my own points score of more than four dozen professional racing series worldwide. So I am exposed to, and score, under a wide variety of systems.

MiDiv National racing (indeed, National racing in every division) is strictly governed by GCR. Top nine in class get points: 12-9-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. If one driver shows up and finishes, he gets 12. If 30 drivers show up the winner still gets 12. I figure that's OK -- a driver is not responsible for whomever else decides NOT to race.

In an earlier day when you had to actually beat someone to get points in SCCA club racing, divisional championships and Runoffs invitations were sometimes decided by the driver who elected to stay home so the other guy could not score points. Now to keep the other guy from scoring, that first driver must go out and beat him.

I recall especially when Dick Davenport and Frank Carney would show up to a race as the only entrants in C Sedan (forerunner to GT4/5). They would scream through the race nose-to-tail, 1-2 overall, Davenport getting the winner's points and Carney getting zip. Don't think they weren't good racers; Davenport was a four-time National Champ and they were 1-2 at the Runoffs once also, 1-3 another time.

Someone finally figured out that the Frank Carneys of SCCA were putting out a lot of commitment, time, car prep, tire budget, travel and lodging to get zippo for finishing second overall just because nobody else showed up to meet the challenge. So the points rule was changed. Now, if you finish in the top nine you get points, even if nobody else comes to play. Win a race as the only entry, you beat everyone who decided not to come -- and by their absence they let you have the points. Not your fault. You were there ready to take on all comers.

But what happens sometimes in National racing is that an out-of-division ringer shows up occasionally. They can, and frequently do, come in and take points away. You can be fighting someone for the divisional championship and be two points behind going into the final race where if you win you take the cup by one point, but the current National Champion shows up from out of division, waxes you both, takes the 12 points back to his home division, and you two are fighting for the leftovers.

Happens all the time. If you want the 12, you have to do more than just beat that Other Guy, you have to beat Everyone. That's what 12 means: You Beat Everyone.

Now in the Midwest Division's Mid-Am Championship it is slightly different. This is our Regional-race series, and to participate you have to register and pay a $5 registration fee. The Mid-Am only scores registered drivers, so if you are the first registered driver, even if 8th in class, you get the 12 points. The race for trophies is against everyone on the track. The race for points is only against other drivers racing for points. So in this scenario, the out-of-division visitor cannot take points away. Nor can the local but National-level racer who has not signed into the series (the National heavy hitters generally do not enter the Mid-Am, fully realizing it is intended for the low-bucks little-guy racer -- but if they do, a Mid-Am rule bounces them out if they score more than 30 National points).

Two series, two concepts, two variations of scoring points. To get 12 National points you must beat everyone who shows up. To get 12 Mid-Am points you need beat only the other Mid-Am drivers and the non-registered driver cannot hurt you.

Some regional championships, as well as some Solo II series, operate this way. Only the drivers "in the series" get points, visitors are running only for trophies and are ignored in the scoring. Other series operate on the basis of "everyone who races today takes points." Perhaps at the end of the season only the drivers "in the series" get to keep them, but once a visitor wins an event, those winner's points are gone forever even if that visitor was never seen again.

The pro ranks are no different in their variety of systems and focuses. NASCAR makes an interesting example. While the basic points system is the same for all of NASCAR's touring series, and every driver from first to last scores points, there are subtle variations.

Most familiar, of course, is Winston Cup. 175 to win, 5-point drops to sixth place (175-170-165-160-155-150), 4-point drops to 11th (146-142-138-134- 130) and then 3-point drops to last place (127 etc., down to 34 for 43rd place). Plus there's a 5-point bonus to any driver leading a lap and 5 more to the driver who leads the most laps.

This system places a premium not on winning, but on consistency. Terry Labonte won twice last year on the way to his second championship, while Jeff Gordon won 10 times but was runner-up in the standings 37 points behind. You often hear of some driver who breaks or wrecks early in the race and thrashes in the garage to get back out to get a few more points. They're important.

NASCAR favors close competition over winning. Its points system encourages drivers to race hard even if it is for 10th place, and they do. Which all serves to make it a good show for the fans in the stands. Seems to work. It's the most successful racing on the planet. By the same token, NASCAR also makes a point of promoting a driver's top-5 and top-10 finishes which shows both consistency and competitiveness and tends to diminish the notion that winning is the only thing and everyone else is a bunch of losers.

I've always felt NASCAR ought to give a bit more strength to winning. With the bonuses, the top two drivers sometimes both earn 180 for the race if second place was the most-laps leader. I always felt the winner should get the most points regardless, and a better system would be 190-175-165-160-155. That way the winner cannot get less than 195, and would get a nice even 200 if he was the most-laps leader.

But NASCAR is not listening to me. It likes it just the way it is, and has for more than 20 years. It can reply with unassailable logic that there is no need to mess with success. Not that its points system doesn't vary somewhat in its several series. The Busch Grand National series, for example, does not give bonus points and the winner gets 180 instead of 175.

Some NASCAR series also score non-qualifiers, so if the race has 43 cars in it, the guy who qualified 44th gets 44th place points even though he never raced. The Craftsman Truck Series, the Slim Jim All-Pro Series, the Featherlite Modified Tour are among these. Also the Winston West.

Often a Winston Cup driver may run one of the other series' races, taking points away they won't really use themselves (they don't run enough races to figure in the standings) but denying them to the series regulars. The regulars don't complain. The Busch guys, for example, know going in they have to place high to max their points and it does not matter who is on the track: the challenge is to beat them all. Besides, they also know having a Mark Martin or a Terry Labonte on the track with them helps bring crowds out and also gives them a benchmark against which they can measure their own prowess.

A reader recently wrote On Track magazine pointing out that if Winston Cup scored points the way CART did, Jeff Gordon would have been champ instead of Terry Labonte last year. But Winston Cup ain't CART and vice versa.

CART, scoring on a 20-16-14-12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale for only the top 12 drivers, plus a bonus point for the pole and another for the most-laps leader, puts more emphasis on winning or at least placing high. In a series in which a brush with the wall means the day is done, racing clean and finishing become a higher priority and the knowledge that a DNF means zero encourages staying out of trouble. Not that CART's drivers don't sometimes get into trouble, and spectacularly so, but for those in the championship hunt they know the consequences are greater.

It is even greater yet in Formula One, which only scores the top six drivers out of two dozen or so. 10-6-4-3-2-1 is the system there. No bonuses. Winning is paramount.

Formula One bumped the winner's points from 9 to 10 in 1991. Since then the champion has always been the driver who won the most races. In the previous decade (1981-90), it happened seven times that the runner-up won more races than the champion and the great Alain Prost, four times a champ, would have eclipsed Juan Fangio's record with six (he lost three championships by a combined 5.5 points and under the new system would have won two of those, missing the other by just one point).

Compare now, the philosophy and prominence given to winning. In Formula One, second place gets 60 percent of the winner's points. In CART, second gets 80 percent. In NASCAR (not counting bonuses) second gets 97 percent of the winners points; with bonuses the worst the runner-up can do is 94 percent and he could do as well as 100 percent if both score 180.

Some other series give points on a graduated scale like NASCAR (ASA starts at 175 with 5-point drops, but by 31st place it is down to 2-point drops), or on a rigid scale (ARCA starts at 225 to win and drops by 5 all the way to 40th). Some give bonuses for top-5 qualifying positions, laps led, most laps, places in heat races, even for showing up on the grid on time and being nice and shiny -- I call these "stupid points" ... you are stupid if you don't do what is necessary to earn them. The reason for these, of course, is to encourage drivers to present themselves well for "the show" in full realization that pro racing is entertainment and the competitors must conduct themselves accordingly.

How'd you like to have an extra point every time you showed up to register before 8 a.m. rather than later? Or just because you made it to the false grid half an hour early? Or because your crew had snazzy uniforms?

SCCA Pro Racing used to conduct itself on a more European pattern, but recently has adopted the NASCAR philosophy. Back in the '70s, SCCA's Can-Am championship scored 20-15-12-10-8-6-4-3-2-1 to the top 10 drivers, second place got 75 percent of the winner. Hey, these were road racers, not a bunch of roundy-rounders.

Today SCCA sees the success of the roundy-rounders and are adopting something closer to those systems. The modern Trans-Am scores 30-27-25-23-21- 20-19-etc. down to 25th place, plus qualifying, lap leader and most laps bonuses. Second place gets 90 percent of the winner's points, not counting bonuses. With bonuses, the runner-up could tie the winner's points. So even the driver who slips to 17th knows that getting up to 14th means more points and the theory is he'll try to do just that. That equals good racing, which is what puts fans in the seats.

It could be one reason the Trans-Am enjoyed the greatest attendance gain -- 75.9 percent -- of any pro racing series in the nation last year according to the annual Goodyear attendance survey.

It can hardly be said there is any "right" way to score points. There is rather the question, beyond determining a champion, what is the organization trying to accomplish? What's important? Winning? Finishing? Fan appeal?

The expected debate on any points setup is that a different setup would have resulted in a different outcome. The question that must then be asked is, is the different outcome an improvement? Or is it just different?

But once the season is under way, the drivers in any series must accept this: What is, is. The best approach therefore is to figure out the most efficient strategy to compete under it to your best advantage.

Of course, winning is always a good tactic.

This article copyright 1997 by Rocky Entriken. All Rights Reserved.


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