Harder then, or now?

Harder to Win Big Bucks Graphic

In mid-August, the Spring Fling Bracket Races team made a post on their social media feeds asking a brilliant question (both in terms of a thought exercise and in terms of a surefire viral social media campaign). The question is straightforward: “Is it harder to win a big bucks race today than it was 5, 10, 20 years ago?”

Predictably, the vast majority of the comments were something along the lines of “Obviously, it’s harder today.” 

While I pride myself on staying out of social media debates, I felt compelled to zag on this topic, and I posted the following comment:

I’d like to think I’m fairly self-aware. While I feel extremely competitive in any event that I enter, I also fully realize that the bulk of my racing accomplishments and accolades more likely lie in my past than in my future. As a result, I’m consciously asking myself if I’m becoming the old man (perhaps in sandals and knee-high socks if you want a visual) yelling at these youngins to get the heck off my lawn.  I will admit that this fear was reinforced by the demographic that “liked” my comment: it was full of racers my age or older, many of whom enjoyed tremendous success in their day. So a part of me did wonder if we’re not all standing on the porch together, lecturing the next generation on how we did, in fact, walk uphill to school both ways (even in the snow). 

So take this with a grain of salt, my opinion here is subjective. Speaking objectively, however, well… I’m not wrong! Here’s why.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, I think we can all agree: packages are tighter today than they’ve ever been. While I don’t have data to confirm, I’d venture to guess that the typical winning package in an eighth mile, top bulb bracket race in 2003 was somewhere in the range of .025 (maybe more). Today, it feels like that’s shrunk to .015-.020 (maybe less). That discrepancy grows the further we go back in time.

The reasoning behind this is obvious. Technology is better today, and it’s also far more available. When I started racing, the racers that had the advantage were often true gear heads: the guys and gals that figured out what makes cars work (largely on their own). Since, an entire industry has been built around monetizing that technology and wisdom. As a result, more racers have access to it than ever before. Combinations can readily be purchased. Some argue that the drivers are better too; and top-to-bottom, I think I’d agree with that. 

Essentially EVERYTHING necessary to make quality runs consistently is better now than it was 20 years ago.Our cars are more efficient (and therefore, typically more consistent). Our cars are faster (and therefore, typically more efficient). Every aspect of racing technology has been improved: tires, shocks, fuel systems, fuel itself, torque converters, engine efficiency, etc.

Our understanding of these things has improved. It’s not just what’s bolted between the frame rails, either. Weather stations have improved. Prediction software has changed the game and is constantly improving. Resources like ThisIsBracketRacing.com not only help educate racers on the finer points of competition, but also provide motivation and accountability.

Think about something as simple as the practice tree. “In my day” when I was a kid, my practice tree was on a floppy disc that was inserted into this thing we used to call a personal computer. The amber “bulbs” were asterisk symbols on the screen. The “button” was the “Alt” key on my keyboard (I would sit in my chair, turn the keyboard on its end and set it in my lap, gripping the top and bottom like a steering wheel). There was NO start variance in when the tree fired: once I made 10 hits, I could literally close my eyes and be .00x (or, more accurately, .50x), because it fired at the exact same time after staging every single hit. Looking back, my hundreds of thousands of hits on that practice tree probably hurt me as much as they helped. I still believe that practicing in that form is the reason I sometimes “flinch” on the tree today: I literally hard-wired myself to set the button, and let go 1.050 seconds later! 

And we were doing that in a time before AutoStart. So we were training ourselves to react to a perfectly consistent tree (in terms of the timing from stage to top bulb), when in reality the tree we’d get at the track was anything but. At my hometrack, the tree was fired by the track manager, from the tower. His responsibilities included running the event, calling the classes to the lanes, dealing with racers coming to the tower with questions or complaints, and (oh by the way) announcing the event! Do you think he hit the switch at the same time with each pair that staged? With all due respect: he was considered a great starter at the time. That’s how much things have changed!  

AutoStart is just one example of how technology has made our job as drivers easier. LED bulbs made it easier to consistently react on the starting line, and diminished a lot of the discrepancy in reaction times from day to night. CrossTalk eliminated the need for us to stare at different bulbs upon staging: removing both the need for determining any “crossover compensation” in our delay settings, and also the chance of giving away a round by focusing on the wrong bulb in general. In addition to these specific enhancements, timing systems in general are better – more accurate, more dependable – than they were years ago. Traction compounds and track prep have improved.

All of these things make it EASIER to make good runs. So of course we make better runs than we did 20 years ago. On that much, we can all agree. The problem? EVERYONE else makes better runs than they (or the competition at the time) did 20 years ago!

I know, it sounds like I’m making the argument that competition is, in fact, tighter today than it was years ago. I’ve taken the long way to my counterpoint. Here it is: Good runs weren’t as plentiful 20 years ago. You didn’t have to have sub-.015 packages seemingly every round to win. But guess what? It wasn’t nearly as easy to make those runs back then either!

If we could go back twenty years, armed with the technology and wisdom that we have today, an average racer today would probably dominate. But that’s probably true of any twenty year period in the sports history.  It might be true of any twenty year period in ANY sport’s history. Call it evolution, call it technology, call it whatever you want. That idea applies when we look back twenty years ago, and it’ll be that way twenty years from now. 

The fact is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We didn’t know that twenty years ago either. If we could go back in time, it WOULD be easier. But we can’t. All we know is how difficult and competitive it is in the moment. In this moment, just as it was in that moment five, ten, twenty, or forty years ago!

So my argument is a simple one: I’m not arguing that it isn’t hard to win at the highest levels today. IT IS (in fact, it’s hard to win at ANY level). But to say that it’s harder now diminishes how difficult it was years ago. 

If the question is, “Is it harder to win today, or was it harder to win 20 years ago?” My answer is simply… “Yes.”


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