Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why is Luck A Bad Thing?

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway posted a great video of the 1961 duel between Eddie Sachs and A.J. Foyt. Great stuff:

Apologies for the formatting issues. I promise I'll do better next time!

Anyway, I watched the video and couple of times and here is what got me thinking...A.J. Foyt is one of (if not the) best race drivers who ever lived. But do you know that three of his record four wins came as the direct result of another driver's misfortune very late in the race?

1961--Sachs leads by close to 30 seconds and pits with a tire issue. Foyt leads the last three laps to win his first 500.

1967--Parnelli Jones has a bearing go bad in his revolutionary turbine engine. Foyt takes the lead with four laps to go to win for the third time, driving through the mayhem of a multi-car wreck to take the checkered flag.

1977--Gordon Johncock loses a crankshaft with just over 30 miles to go, and Foyt rolls to his fourth and final win.

Mind you, none of this takes away what Foyt accomplished at the Speedway. All of that stands alone, and more than likely always will. But the point I'm trying to make is that any (or all) of those races, had Foyt won them today, would be considered "lucky" instead of great.

I consider the classic definition of luck -- when preparation meets opportunity -- to be the right one. A.J. earned all of those wins because he was in the proper time and place, his incredible skill put him in the position to win, and in the end was the first driver to complete the 500 miles. How that came about, to me, matters little.

About the only thing where pure, unadulterated blind fortune exists is winning the lottery and getting a hole-in-one in golf. The former because the odds are so astronomical, and the latter because I have played for 35 years and don't have one, while a 95-year-old woman who has played for six months aces a 120-yard hole with a driver. The sun shines on you, that's all there is to it. Yes I'm bitter.

Tangent aside, our sports culture now is based so much on style points that how you win is just as important as the fact you won. For example, had this year's 500 finished under green, would winner Dario Franchitti have run out of fuel? It is a possibility, and had that happened, Dan Wheldon may have snuck in and picked up his second career win.

If we had seen that scenario unfold, the guess is here that Wheldon's win would have been downplayed, a product of luck more than anything else.

Wait a a guy driving hard for 495-plus miles to get to second place takes advantage of an opponent's mistake, and he should be criticized for it? In the world we live in, yes.

I've heard so many "if this had (or hadn't) have happened, so-and-so would have won..." excuses I'm sick of them. Sure, had those things happened the outcome may have been different, but that's sports and it sure as heck is life.

Sports is about injuries, bad calls, weather, schedules, and people's mistakes and misfortunes. Like an EA Sports commercial once said, it all started when someone said "I'm better than you and I can prove it." And for however long that has gone on, getting a break that leads to a win has been part of it. Because to win, no matter what, you still have to execute when the time comes.

This is another interesting list:

In the history of the race, a driver who has led with 20 or fewer laps to go has failed to win the race 35 times. Let me say that again...thirty-five times! Nine of those times a driver gave up the lead for whatever reason with less than five laps to go. So are those wins any less in significance than dominant performances from guys like Billy Arnold (led a record 198 laps in 1930), Bill Vukovich (195 laps, 1953) or Al Unser Sr. (190, 1970)? Not a chance.

A win is a win is a win. How it happened is sometimes fun to talk about, but it should never take away from the accomplishment itself. With few exceptions, every driver who has ever won the race has had something go their way over the course of the 500 miles to have made it possible.

It used to be they were just called winners. But I guess now that isn't always enough.


  1. Sure, there was luck involved, but they put themselves in a position to win. The great ones seize opportunity when it calls. Great post, Mike. I wish Sachs had got his, but still an epic fight.

  2. I think is goes to show that at Indy as long as you qualify for the race you have a chance to win it. 500 miles is such a long distance that is gives such a ample opportunity for so many things to happen. God I love this race!

  3. I agree memkin. One thing you mentioned...qualifying! I think that sets the 500 apart from any other race in the world. Then once you get in you have to go 500 miles, if everything goes your way and you win, it's certainly earned.