By David Smith
February 13, 2012
Note: This is a free article from MotorsportsAnalytics.com. For access to premium articles, subscribe here.
For those that do not know me, I suppose the decent thing to do is to just say, “Welcome.” The reason for this self-appreciating “don’t call it a comeback” open letter is because two years ago I jettisoned my original web site – DavidSmithMotorsports.com – after more or less being told to by a previous employer. Some of you reading today have expressed to me your disappointment in the site going dark.
That site was the catalyst for my career in racing. It was also a platform for emerging short track racers who I rated, ranked and discussed subjectively. Its contents were featured in a story about driver development on NASCAR.com as well as included in the NASCAR Home Tracks advance event press releases. I had (what I consider to be) a healthy reader base and a much appreciated amount of paying subscribers. I will be forever grateful to those that valued my opinion when I was merely an unknown, enthusiastic kid eager to entice others to think differently about aspiring young racecar drivers.
If you have logged on to MotorsportsAnalytics.com today looking for that site, I regret to inform you that it is no longer here. While the old site was finally earning mainstream notice and insider attention1 at the time of its closing, its scope – the short track racing world and its noteworthy young NASCAR prospects – was smaller than I needed to create the kind of dent I am keen on making.
Are you looking for rumors, breaking news or live coverage? Those are beat media benchmarks that I do not plan to offer. Motorsports Analytics will offer insight into short track racing and its budding superstars. There will also be plenty of reading material for you on drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series; however, this is not your typical racing web site.
Call me idealistic, but I think I can change the way that you watch racing. It can be more fun for you. It can be more factual for you. A jargon-filled world with vague milestones and ill-advised business decisions will soon become clearer for you by coupling our beloved sport with statistical analysis.
My transition from an old school “Mel Kiper” style scout to a “stat head” likely warrants an explanation. The old site went offline in February 2010. I have altered my life quite a bit in the last two years. I earned employment with Spire Sports + Entertainment, a sponsorship marketing and athlete representation firm led by agents Jeff Dickerson and Chris Newman, where I manage both established drivers and up-and-coming talent. I went back to school, finally earning a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Central Florida2. And I have learned that it is foolish to rely solely on my eyes and gut for talent evaluation.
I wear many hats at Spire, but I consider my bread and butter to be talent development. I still scout. I just scout smarter than I previously did. I have always dabbled with statistical analysis or analytics, but I never knew how far this discipline could take the sport until I spent two years offline. The free time has allowed me to study analytics used in both stick-and-ball sports and business, gather and research relevant data and invent formulas that will help better evaluate racecar drivers.
You may think that by burying myself in spreadsheets, I am wasting my time searching for a paper champion when real life races are decided on pavement every Sunday. You may be “old school” and want to trust your gut for your opinion, like my scouting counterparts before me. Well, whoever you are – fan, driver, race team GM, or journalist – you might want to consider analytical thinking as another weapon in your arsenal.
Racing has a big deficit to overcome in the world of sports analytics3. If this web site brings it a mere inch closer, then it has served its purpose. I attended the 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last March. There were zero representatives from the motorsports world on the speaking panels. I was the lone attendee.
To be frank, you have been done a disservice. You are missing out on a line of thinking that could enhance your love of auto racing. Prepare to have your eyes opened and your brainwaves accelerated.
Kevin Pritchard, former General Manager of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, was not a firm believer in the use of analytics, but a conference room conversation with Citizen Sports’ Jeff Ma changed that. Ma, as he explained in his book, The House Advantage, had just completed a presentation on which potential rookie players were likely to succeed in the NBA. The result – a list of college players that the Trail Blazers should consider drafting – went against what Pritchard’s scouts had suggested.
A frustrated Pritchard asked, “How do we get your rankings to look more like ours?”
“We don’t want our rankings to look like yours,” Ma explained. “By watching the player in person and talking to the player, your scouts will certainly be able to see things that we can’t. Likewise, numbers which take into account each game in an entire season will certainly uncover things your scouts can’t.
“We use analytics because they help make smart decisions. They aren’t supposed to mimic human observation; they are simply a tool to measure what human observation can’t.”
Allow me to reiterate that last point. Analytics are simply a tool to measure what human observation can’t.
What I present here on Motorsports Analytics are numbers that I consider to be very valuable. They are numbers that matter. But they are not the only factors that matter in a team selecting a future driver, understanding why a driver is struggling or determining whether or not a certain driver is on pace for an historic season. Numbers do not lie, but they also do not explain the whole truth. This is why the site will be more than just pure numbers. It will be the explanation of why those numbers matter and what they could possibly mean for the present and future. My hope is that I can properly explain the numbers to you, providing you with a better understanding and greater appreciation for the sport and its participants.
Kevin Pritchard quickly understood the use of analytics as a tool, going on to piece together a perennial playoff contender in Portland. There may not have been anyone from the NASCAR community on the speaking panels at MIT last March, but Pritchard sat front-and-center on its panel for basketball analytics. The one-time non-believer literally preached to the choir.
It is my goal to plant that same level of belief in you. Enjoy.
1 Every top-tier Cup Series team had at least one subscription. How they used that subscription in their decision-making processes, I do not – and will probably never – know.
2 I dropped out of college in 2006 to move to Charlotte and become a full-time worker in the sport. Remember, you can always go back to school.
David Smith is the Editor-in-Chief of Motorsports Analytics. He is also the Director of Talent Development at Spire Sports + Entertainment. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.