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The numbers game and a championship focus

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There was an interesting conversation on Twitter today about numbers.

It went off onto a couple of different tangents, but the two main topics concerned the use of the champion's #1 and the retirement of driver numbers.

The latter topic springs up every now and again, most often in concert with discussions about Greg Moore, the beloved Canadian CART driver who lost his life in Fontana, California. A sizable contingent of fans want Moore's #99 retired. I don't agree, even though I liked Greg as much as anyone else.

Beyond the brutal fact that Moore's career numbers simply don't warrant him being regarded as one of the great drivers in history, I tend to feel that numbers work differently in racing than they do in, say, football, baseball, or hockey. The team dynamics are different, as well as the context of who owns the numbers and dictates how they are used.

More than that, though, I have said in the past and reiterate now that I prefer to see "famous" numbers reused by others. Why? Because when someone else drives a #99 car, people will see it and remember Greg. A #14 car will inevitably raise discussion of A.J. Foyt. Someone driving a #5 car might invite recollections of Nigel Mansell's "Red Five." You see where I'm going; rather than walling off memories into a sacrosanct mental shrine, reusing numbers helps keep memories fresh.

As for the champion's #1, I'm a little more inclined to appreciate the theory behind this topic, if not the actual practice. I do believe that recognizing the reigning champion and, in fact, the current points leader, is a good way to build buzz around the series. I'm just not sure the number game is the proper method.

There is plenty of history and precedent in many series for awarding the reigning champion the #1 for the following season. However, swapping numbers tends to dilute the identification drivers have with a certain number - Greg Moore's #99, for instance, or Tony Kanaan's #11 (which he will lose for 2011, unfortunately).

Maybe what is called for is a cue from the world of cycling. The one cycling event everyone knows about is the Tour de France, and the one rule in cycling that everyone can identify at the drop of a hat is the leader's yellow jersey. So why not have some sort of non-numerical identifier on the reigning champion's car that indicates the reigning champion, as well as one that notes which driver is the current points leader? Perhaps a visible indicator like a Day-Glo wicker on the front and rear wings or a decal on the camera housing over the roll hoop would be sufficient. (Or, maybe, if TRON keeps zooming up in the pop culture rankings, IndyCar could contact Swift for a primer on their SwiftLights concept.)

Certainly, focusing attention on the reigning and current champions would increase the value of the season-long championship itself - something that needs to happen in a series that for too long has been tunnel-visioned on the Indianapolis 500. In the interest of promoting historical continuity, perhaps IndyCar can borrow a practice from NASCAR and allow past champions to wear special patches on their firesuits.

But as far as numbers go, I think the less we shuffle them, the better off the series will be. At the same time, we should encourage a living history where honoring the past does not mean sequestering it onto an untouchable, remote pedestal.