Did Jeff Gordon Really Start NASCAR’s “Youth Movement”?

Admit it. You (like me) have sat in front of the television watching pre-race interviews for a Camping World Truck Series race and asked yourself “Is that kid even old enough to drive?”

I thought maybe it was just me getting old, but the numbers bear me out. NASCAR drivers are getting younger. In the Sprint Cup Series, you have Eric Jones (19 and currently the youngest NASCAR main-series champion ever) and Chase Elliott (19). Kyle Larson, at 23, is in his second year as a full-time Cup driver.

All this age-related thinking was spurred, of course, by Jeff Gordon’s last race as a full-time NASCAR driver. Many of the tributes we saw last weekend credit Gordon with starting a “NASCAR Youth Movement”. He ran his first race at the age of 21 and won his first championship at 23, making him the youngest Cup champion in the modern era.

But is Gordon actually responsible for the “Youth Movement”? To answer that question, we go to the numbers.

TECHNICAL NOTE:  The official records appear to use a slightly different age convention. Example: Jeff Gordon was born on August 4, 1971. His first championship was in 1995.  As of August 1995, he was 24.

All the records say 23, so I’m assuming they use either the age at the start of the season or the age during the majority of the station or something. To make my life a little easier (so I only had to deal with years and not full dates), the ages I’m using are the current year minus the birth year. In other words, I’m using the biggest age the person was in that year.

Ages of Champions

Let’s start with how the overall ages of Champions have changed over time.

BSPEED_AverageDriverAgesOvertimeHorizontalSlides_BareGraph

I know – it looks like random dots scattered over the page, doesn’t it? But here’s where what you should have learned in math and science class becomes useful. Look for trends. For example…

BSPEED_AverageDriverAgesOvertimeHorizontalSlides_Bounded2

If we bound the data by showing how the extremes have changed over time, you notice that the bounding lines slope downward, toward younger ages with increasing time. In science, we call these “lines to guide the eye”, which is code for “I have no mathematical justification for drawing this line, but you see it, too, right?

See how two lines can make a trend stand out? But there’s a trend within a trend, too.

Look closely. There are groups of points that form lines going up and to the right. And they look like really, really straight lines. When something like that happens, you know there’s got to be a reason because points don’t line up like that by coincidence. If you look into the data, you’ll find it’s not coincidence at all.

BSPEED_AverageDriverAgesOvertimeHorizontalSlides_Trends2

Even Sprint Cup champions age. The straight lines represent drivers who have won multiple championships. Since they age one year every year just like us regular humans), their points form a consistent line with slope (rise over run) equal to one.

Notice something else, though.  Richard Petty won his last championship at age 42. The very next championship was won by an upstart 29-year-old (named Dale Earnhardt).

The trend repeats itself. When Earnhardt won what was to be his last championship at age 43, the very next year, the championship was won by a 24-year-old Jeff Gordon.

Aha! you say – the young buck comes in and unseats the veteran. So after Gordon won his last championship in 2001, he was unseated by… Tony Stewart, who was born the same year as Gordon and is, in fact, only two months and a couple of weeks younger than Gordon.

Continuing to buck the trend, the next “dynastical” champion (I made up that word, thank you.) was Jimmie Johnson — and he was older than Gordon was when Gordon won his last championship.

It’s true that Gordon started his run five years younger than Earnhardt, but if you look at the data going back to 1970, he’s merely continuing a trend, not starting it. And the trend didn’t even continue after him.

What About the Whole Field?

You can argue that the younger drivers are present, just not represented as Champions (yet). So I did the following: I took the top 30 drivers for seven years: 2015, 2010, 2005, 2000, 1995, 1990, 1985, and 1980. That’s the year Gordon won his first Championship, the four years after and the three years before.

I chose the top 30 drivers because (at least in later years) those are the drivers who tend to be full-time. They either run or attempt all 36 races. And since that’s the cutoff for The Chase, I thought it was fitting. I also chose the top 30 because I didn’t have time to look up birth years for all 125 drivers who ran at least one race in 1980. (The huge number of people who drove in 1980 actually becomes relevant later.)

Warning: The next graph is a little scary because it’s BIG. Bear with me. I’ll explain everything.

I made histograms for each year. A histogram tells you how many people were in a certain age range. Let’s start with the histogram for 2015, because it’s at the top. The information you should get out of this graph is that there were:

  • no drivers ages 16-20
  • 4 drivers ages 21-25
  • 4 drivers ages 26-30
  • 8 drivers aged 31-35
  • 9 drivers aged36-40
  • 4 drivers aged 41-45 and…
  • 1 driver aged 46-50 (Greg Biffle!)
  • no drivers 51-55.

Also that the perspective function in Excel graphs makes it hard to see the actual numbers. You’ll have to trust me.

Most of the histograms peak somewhere around 30-45. So much for the “youth movement”, huh? There may be the occasional young ‘un, but the vast majority of drivers are in the mid-range of ages. My calculation doesn’t include drivers like Chase Elliott, who will go full time next year and only ran a couple of races this year. But it also doesn’t include drivers like Michael Waltrip (on the other end of the age spectrum from Chase) who ran only the restrictor plate races this year.

Scroll down and see how the age ranges change over the years. You don’t actually have to think too hard because I’ll meet you at the bottom and explain.

BSPED_AverageDriverAgesOverTime_EightV2

Whew. Is there a trend to lower ages after Jeff Gordon appeared on the scene? Let’s see by comparing the average driver age over time.

BSPEED_AverageDriverAgesOvertimeHorizontalSlides_AverageAge

The first thing to notice is that the average varies from a low of 33.1 to a high of 38.2, so we’re looking at a 5 year difference. So we do see the average age of competitors going down soon after Gordon entered the Sprint (then Winston) Cup. It looks like it’s starting up this year – but more on that in a moment.

One more look at this data, this time in the form of a high-average-low graph. The top green mark is the oldest driver, the blue box is the average and the red mark at the bottom is the youngest driver.  You clearly see that, to within a few years, there isn’t a big different between 1980 and 2010. In fact, we have older drivers running in 2010 than we had in 1980. And there was a 20-year old running in 1980 – Kyle Petty just like there was a 20-year-old (Joey Logano) running in 2010.

BSPEED_AverageDriverAgesOvertimeHorizontalSlides_HighAvLow

Overall, there is a decrease in average age since Jeff Gordon joined the series.  So there is definitely a correlation between Gordon entering the series and the average age of drivers shifting to lower numbers.

BUT…

You knew there was a BUT, right? A correlation doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a causation. There are alternative explanations and factors that could also be responsible for the decrease.  To make a definite statement, we’d have to eliminate all those other possibilities. Which means we have to know what they are first. A couple thoughts.

  • The average age trend seems to be returning to higher ages in 2015. Did the Jeff Gordon Effect (JGE) wear off when he got older? Or maybe that’s just a fluctuation and it will continue down.  Or maybe, the large number of aging drivers taking up seats is preventing young drivers from joining up. These are all alternate theories and you can’t refute them (or the existence of the Jeff Gordon Effect) from the data here.
  • Look at the 2005 histogram – it’s different from the others. The other histograms show a nice peaky (“normal”) distribution, but in 2005, there were a lot of drivers in the 30-50 range. What happened to them? From 2005 to 2009, Rusty Wallace (48), Ricky Craven (40), Jimmy Spencer (48), Darrell Waltrip (53), Ricky Rudd (50), Dale Jarrett (51), Kyle Petty (48),  and Sterling Marlin (52) all retired. That’s a couple hundred cumulative years removed from the series. The drivers who replace these veterans are usually newer, younger drivers. So it’s possible you could have a decrease in average age without bringing in new, younger, drivers – just retiring out the older ones.
  • Finally, the nature of the Sprint Cup Series has changed profoundly.
    • In the old days, the team found the sponsorship and the driver. A new driver often has to bring his/her own sponsorship and companies are always looking for bright, smiling, young people to represent them well
    • The advent of the multi-car team changed a lot. All of a sudden, teams started having development programs, especially after 1982 when the XFINITY series started. You can’t deny that after Jeff Gordon was successful, a lot of owners started looking for young standouts.
    • What it takes to compete in terms of money and infrastructure has changed. Teams have to run a whole season to be competitive and there are far fewer drivers who drive one or a few races. Sorry. I just had to graph this.

BSPEED_AverageDriverAgesOvertimeHorizontalSlides_NumberofDriversV3

Over the period from 1980 to 1995, there is a steep decline in the total number of drivers (blue squares). I also plotted how many drivers drove one race (orange diamonds) and how many drivers drove 5 or fewer races (blue triangles). It looks like most of the lost drivers come from those who were driving only a few races. Those drivers were often the older drivers. So this might be entirely responsible for the phenomenon we saw above, partially responsible, or just a correlation with no causation.

It’s a complicated question, so we resort to the statement all scientists use when they just don’t know: We need more data.

But it doesn’t really matter in the end if Gordon was responsible for the “Youth Movement”, right? Because Jeff Gordon has made such significant and lasting contributions to the sport, not just in terms of on-track, but also as a respected voice in the garage, especially in matters of safety. We were cheering for him Sunday, but as you all know…

DarwinGordonFan

Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my readers. I am thankful you’ve put up with me this long. I hope I’m becoming a better writing and just wish I could find more time to do it. Be safe on the road and in the kitchen. I’m also thankful to racing-reference.info for being such a wonderful repository of data. I couldn’t do this kind of blog without them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR Drivers’ Risky Behavior and the Peltzman Effect

The introduction of automotive safety innovations is usually accompanied by concern about the side-effects of those innovations. For example, when seat belts were introduced, people worried that the belts would keep them from getting out of a car quickly enough if they needed to. When HANS devices first became available, drivers also expressed worry that the protective devices would keep them from getting out of the car fast enough, especially if there were a fire.

On the race track, those worries were quickly put to rest when drivers wearing HANS devices were able to escape their cars just about as quickly as they could without the potentially life-saving devices on.

But there is another side-effect of safety innovations that has become known via a theory called risk compensation. This theory say that people typically adjust their behavior according to the perceived level of effect. For example, when it’s icy outside, people tend to walk more slowly and watch where they’re going more closely because the risk of falling is greater. When it rains or snows, you drive more slowly because you know it will take you more time to stop.

peltzmanThe opposite side of this effect is that when you make cars safer, people will drive more recklessly. This is embodied by the Peltzman Effect, which is named after University of Chicago Professor Sam Peltzman (shown at left). This gentleman’s research in business focuses on the interactions between the public sector (government) and the private economy. Professor Peltzman is a distinguished researcher, having served as senior staff economist for the President’s Council of Economic Advisors.

Peltzman was interested in whether mandatory seat belt laws actually had any impact on decreasing injuries or fatalities. Peltzman came to the conclusion that the increase in safety was essentially entirely offset by and increase in risky behavior by drivers (driving faster, not paying as much attention, etc.) Peltzman came to the conclusion that regulation was “at best useless, at worst, counterproductive”.

Not everyone buys Peltzman’s arguments.  There were a lot of technical criticisms about the data set he used and the particulars of the analysis. As I’ll mention in a moment, trying to get an appropriate data set for this is a lot trickier than you might think. You can find papers in the literature that both support and don’t support the Peltzman effect.

But the big sticking point is estimating the magnitude of the effect. I think about it this way:

BSPEED_PeltzmanEffect1a

 

When I make the car (or track, or personal protection equipment) safer, I decrease the probability that a driver is injured in an accident. But if my doing that increases the number of accidents in some way (for example, drivers try riskier passes, take more chances), then I could conceivably offset the improvements. Let’s consider three cases. I’ll make the same safety improvement each time, but we’ll look at how behavior changes vary.

CASE 1: The safety innovation prompts much riskier behavior and the number of accidents increases a lot. Even though you’re safer in the car, if there are more accidents, more people get injured. Think about everyone you know who thinks anti-lock brakes make them invincible in a snowstorm.

CASE 2: The safety innovation prompts riskier behavior, but the magnitude of the riskier behavior exactly offsets the safety innovation. There’s no change.

CASE 3: The safety innovation prompts riskier behavior, but not a large increase – so the net effect is that the number of injuries decreases, even though there is some riskier behavior happening as a result of the safety innovation.

 

BSPEED_PeltzmanEffect2

As usual, I’ve oversimplified this terribly. It’s not that easy a thing to measure. Let’s say that I want to look at the effects of wearing seat belts in Charlotte and compare before  mandatory seat belt laws and after mandatory seat belt laws. There are records of accidents I can access and I can follow up on who was injured and how badly.

BUT… (there’s always a but)

  • What about weather?
  • What if people weren’t actually wearing their seat belts?
  • What if people were drunk when they had their accidents?
  • What about injuries in little sports cars vs. injuries in pick up trucks?
  • What about the world’s stupidest animal and accident causer – the deer?

We call these confounding variables and they make trying to get sense out of your data really difficult. The world is just not well-enough controlled for some analyses.

But you know what is?

NASCAR.

Think about it. The cars are similar. Safety equipment is mandated. You’re not going to have to worry about Dale, Jr. unhooking his safety harness in the middle of a race because he needs to stretch. We don’t race when it’s wet (mostly). The drivers are of comparable quality (I know some of you would argue this, but if you look on the grand scale of all the drivers in the country, these guys are all in the top echelon compared to us.) And mostly, the animals stay off the track.

In a paper entitled “Automobile Safety Regulation and the Incentive to Drive Recklessly: Evidence from NASCAR” in the Souther Economic Journal, Russel S. Sobel and Todd M. Nesbit analyze publicly available NASCAR race and accident data from 1972-1993 with the goal of quantifying how much more riskier driver behavior has gotten as major advances in safety were implemented in NASCAR.

Racing is all about knowing when to take risks. If you’re going to chance wrecking your own car, that’s a high penalty for risky behavior. Injury is also a consequence. But if you know that you’re likely to walk away from an accident without injury, you’re going to be much more likely to take that risk that there’s just enough room for you to squeeze up into the next lane between two other cars.

I won’t go into the data analysis because there’s a lot of math things like differential equations and matrices and regressions. I will tell you that I learned a new fancy Latin phrase from reading this paper:  ceteris parabus, which means “all other things equal”. Sure, you can say ‘all other things equal’, but doesn’t it sound so much smarter in Latin?

Anyway, Sobel and Nesbit’s conclusion is that, for NASCAR drivers

“… a 10% improvement in NASCAR automobile safety results in approximately a 2% increase in reckless driving”

Then go on to point out that the increase in reckless driving isn’t enough to produce a larger number of injuries, but is large enough to prove that there is a negative driver response to safety innovations in the form of riskier driving.

They analyzed five drivers who drove from 1972 to 1998 (Yarborough, Parsons, Bobby Allison, Dave Marcis and Richard Petty) in an attempt to get away from some confounding variables, like people who only ran a few races. Even at this micro-level, they found that this group of drivers did get into more accidents as the car got safer, again confirming the authors’ earlier finding that safety innovations encourage risky behavior.

They point out something interesting, based on the idea that there are a group of race fans who want to see crashes, but don’t want to see people hurt. The riskier behavior produced by the safety improvements should actually help NASCAR attract those fans. More accidents, but fewer injuries.

This paper was from well before the Chase, but the current Chase format incentivizes drivers toward even riskier behavior. Even with higher speed and more at stake, remember that the last deaths in one of NASCAR’s top three series was in 2001.

And that got me thinking.

When they switched driving from the left side of the road to the right in Sweden in 1967, there was a drop in crashes and fatalities. For six weeks after the change, the number of car insurance claims were down by 40%. But after those six weeks, the insurance claims returned to normal. And after two years, the fatalities returned to where they had been.

I started wondering how many drivers on the track today were there at the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died? Then I broadened that a little to look at who of that era was still active on track.

I took a pretty deep data dive and managed to confused myself a couple times, so let me explain exactly what I did.

BSPEED_PeltzmanEffect_Driversin2001ByYear_v3

The blue (taller) bars represent the total number of drivers who drove each season. If you look at 2006, you’ll see that out of the original 70 drivers who drove in 2001, only 36 of those drivers were still driving in 2006. The problem with that number is that it includes the road course ringers, the one-offs for people who only drive the Daytona 500, the retired drivers who do a few races a year and the like.

So I went ahead and looked at how many of those drivers were full time drivers – the ones who are the backbone of the series. That’s what the orange bars represent. In 2006, out of the 36 drivers who had been driving in the Series in 2001, 17 of those were driving full time in 2001.  You can also compare the full-time drivers from 2001 (24) with the 17 in 2006. That’s how many drivers who ran full time retired (or ran reduced schedules) between 2001 and 2006.

You can see a pretty clear and steady decrease (as you’d expect) as time goes on. In 2015, there were only fifteen drivers who had been driving (at all) in 2001 and are still around. Six of those were full-season drivers in 2001.

  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  • Jeff Gordon
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Tony Stewart
  • Bobby Labonte
  • Michael Waltrip

Note that of the last two of these drivers, Waltrip has run 3 races and Bobby Labonte 4 races.

A couple other familiar full time in 2015 names and how many races they ran in 2001:

  • Kevin Harvick (35)
  • Kurt Busch (35)
  • Ryan Newman (7)
  • Jimmie Johnson (3)

So there are 8 current full time drivers in the Sprint Cup Garage today (out of 43+) who were racing in the era where drivers lost their lives on the track.  Out of those 8, only four (Stewart, Gordon, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. if I counted right) were on track when Dale Earnhardt, Sr. lost his life in the 2001 Daytona 500.

If I had a little more time, I’d go look at how the accidents for the next couple races compared to those from the year before in which there hadn’t been a fatal crash at the Daytona 500.

All this data is confusing, I know. So I thought about how to make it a little more accessible and came up with this interactive infographic! I looked at only the 43 drivers who competed in the most number of races each year in an attempt to get rid of the road course ringers and the one-offs. For each of the gauge charts, the blue bar tells you who ran full time in 2001 and ran most of the races in each year indicated. The yellow bar gives you the number of drivers running part-time in 2001.

There’s no orange bar in 2001, which is because the orange bar tells you how many drivers were not driving in the Sprint Cup Series in 2001.

What I’d like you to take away from this is that, as time goes on, the collective memory of the days when drivers lost their lives on a racetrack disappears. I’ve said over and over here, on the radio, everywhere, that there is no way to make racing 100% safe. Despite the best attempts of racing sanctioning bodies, there will be deaths on the racetrack. It’s a matter of the odds and the inherent danger of racing.

That’s why the current trend of ‘I’m mad at someone, I’ll crash him out’ is so disturbing. The probability of a freak accident is independent of intent. How many stories have you heard of people goofing off and something unexpected and tragic happens? It doesn’t matter it’s Martinsville and a slow track. Something in the car breaks and safety measures fail and we have a serious injury or maybe a death.

For my money, here’s the best commentary on the incident.

Tony DiZinno, who consistently provides smart, well-thought out and well-written commentary on motorsports of all types.

Ricky Craven is always on target. He’s got the driver’s perspective, he’s always measured in his thoughts and balances the practical with the ideal.

Nate Ryan and Bob Pockrass react to the Kenseth suspension. Two of the smartest guys on the NASCAR beat.

 

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