Thursday, February 20, 2014

Race Car Drivers are Made, not Born

Malcom Gladwell, in his 2008 book Outliers, tried to explain why most elite hockey players in Canada were born in the first half of the year. While growing up through the levels of youth hockey, the slightly older children were bigger, faster, and stronger – and as a result were deemed “more talented.” From there things snowballed, as these “more talented” players were singled out for additional development: better coaching, access, encouragement, and confidence. When they grew up to reach the pros, the slightly older players were represented in much higher proportions. Because of the way that system worked, being born later in the year hurt a player's chances of reaching an elite level.

In 2006, the Freakonomics guys also found a similar birth-month effect in World Cup soccer players. It’s also been looked at for corporate CEOs. Birth months also seem to affect issues around learning and health.
What about in racing? Does a birth month effect hold true? Are elite drivers born in a certain part of the year? Do drivers in the first half of the year have the same accumulation of development that happened with Canadian hockey players? Or is racing different enough, both in terms of the skills needed to compete and in how youth racing is organized, that birth month will be irrelevant?

Using Racing Reference’s birthday data on over 850 active drivers, we can see whether elite drivers are more likely to be born in specific months. We split the drivers into three sets, to see if there is a difference in America’s highest level of competition compared to lower levels or other countries:

1) Americans in Sprint Cup
2) Americans in every other series
3) Foreign drivers

Here is what we found:

In all three charts, there is no meaningful difference in births the first half of the year versus the second half. A breakdown by quarters of the year also shows no specific advantage in one time period. The charts suggest drivers from any month of the year have an equal chance to show and develop their talent. What are some reasons for this? For one, youth racing is not a nationally organized league with the same rules in every region, and it's not as stubborn in dividing kids by specific birth years. Unlike other sports, there is not a different racing level just for 6-year-olds, and just for 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, etc. Racing divisions may have drivers of many ages competing against each other. The difference of a few months would not matter as much to development, as it might in a sport like hockey, where physical size and strength makes more of a distinction between competitors.

The good news for aspiring drivers is: it doesn't matter when you’re born; everybody has an equal chance.