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Two days in Boston can change the way you think about sports. These particular two days are the Friday and Saturday nestled in the first weekend of March at an annual pilgrimmage for forward thinkers known as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. In its sixth year, the statistics-based bonanza is a must-attend for those in leadership positions in stick-and-ball sports, as well as aspiring game-changers (approximately 2,200 of them; a 50 percent increase on last year’s total) that are fast draws with a regression analysis.
Speaking of fast draws, here is a little ditty from ESPN’s Numbers Never Lie that offers a speedy background on the conference:
Some of the conference notables this year were billionaire/Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, baseball super agent Scott Boras and legendary baseball statistician Bill James. A panel on motorsports was a quiet addition to this year’s festivities.
As moderator for the “Motorsports Analytics” panel1 Gary Belsky pointed out, it has taken six iterations of the conference to produce a NASCAR-oriented panel. The panelists included former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular Geoff Bodine, Penske Racing Vice President of Operations Mike Nelson, NASCAR Chief Technology Officer Andy Schwalb and Sportvision CEO Hank Adams. The hour-long conversation skewed telemetry rather than driver evaluation analytics, but the talks were intriguing.
Adams, whose company invented the yellow first down line on football telecasts and currently partners with NASCAR to deliver the NASCAR.com RaceView feature to the fans, is sitting on a wealth of information with his new RACEf/x, a sister product to PITCHf/x, frequently used in baseball to analyze individual pitch types being hurled across home plate. Adams hinted that he knew the answer to whether Greg Biffle was dragging the brakes in the closing laps of this year’s Daytona 500, but this information is not yet available to the public. Also not available: measuring how hot an engine is running and how tight or loose a car is.
While perhaps out of his element, Bodine entertained with tales from behind the wheel of a racecar. When asked by Belsky if NASCAR would be different with 43 identical cars on the track, Bodine swiftly noted that he is a former International Race of Champions (IROC) titlist3. He also put on his owner’s cap and discussed the necessity of a driver taking care of equipment, insisting that there should be a huge value placed on the ability to do this.
In addition to the NASCAR panel, there were league and team representatives across other sports that discussed subjects that can be loosely translated to the racing world:
Adam Silver, Deputy Commissioner, NBA – Silver mentioned that when now-retired basketball player Yao Ming was five years old, his hands were X-rayed by Chinese doctors to project body growth and was removed from traditional school into a “basketball school.” Potential effect on racing: Is there a way to accurately predict who has the proper DNA to be an elite racecar driver? If scientists can predict growth, can they predict exceptional hand/eye coordination?
Jeff Luhnow, General Manager, MLB’s Houston Astros – Luhnow made an admirable jump this summer from being the No. 2 guy in the front office for the World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals to being plucked by the cellar-dwelling Astros to be their top guy. He says he has since hired five statisticians to build a solid information base in Houston, attempting to recreate the Astros in a form closely resembling the Cardinals. Potential effect on racing: If other teams are looking to improve, why not hire from other entities? We saw Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing pull crew chief Chris Heroy from Hendrick Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing hire Director of Competition Scott Miller away from Richard Childress Racing this past offseason, so perhaps the trend is just in its formative stages. Promotion from within is rampant in the sport – a good thing – but new ideas outside of the teams’ traditional lines of thinking seem not to be a commodity. How has Hendrick Motorsports been able to avoid being pilfered all these years?
Paraag Marathe, Chief Operating Officer, NFL’s San Francisco 49ers – Marathe discussed the strategy behind how the 49ers build a team, saying that “The draft is getting players for wholesale. Free agency is retail.” Potential effect on racing: Does the same sentiment not apply? At the current rate NASCAR is going, there will be one development deal consummated per year (there have only been three actual development deals awarded – Logan Ruffin with Turner Motorsports, Chase Elliott with Hendrick and Kyle Larson with Earnhardt-Ganassi – in the last three and a half years). Lack of a testing incentive aside, why not go after good young talent with the goal of selling sponsorships for less? Industry types quickly forget that Roush Fenway Racing built their program on the foundation of promoting homegrown driving talent. Yes, sponsors want a good, marketable driver associated with their brand but they also would like to be able to afford said driver.
With this year’s conference now in the books and with auto racing earning its first notch on the MIT panel belt, the future of analytics in our sport can only grow from this point forward. Its use, whether it is telling the narrative of the race with the aid of advanced statistics, driver and team evaluation or advanced telemetry, is the future landscape of all forms of racing.
1 The panel has no relation to this web site.
2 This is typical at the conference; individuals in the know discussing what they do without letting anyone know how they do it.
3 For anyone reading that is below the age of 16, there used to be a series called IROC that gathered elite drivers from different forms of racing into four races per year in 12 identically-prepared cars. It was awesome. It is easily one of the million reasons why I miss Les Richter.