Tuesday, July 21, 2015

NASCAR And Drivers On What Constitutes Good Racing

The 2010 Winston 500 set the motorsports record for lead changes at 88, and is a great illustration of the issue of what constitutes great racing

NASCAR will use two different downforce packages for the Brickyard 400 this weekend as the Xfinity Series will run a larger spoiler and gear rule for additional drag, with the hope of creating a drafting effect for more passing. A similar package for the Cup side will run at Michigan in August. Crew chief Eric Phillips of JGR for one has spoken in favor of the change.

It also brings to the fore a recent piece by Jim Utter interviewing Dale Earnhardt Jr. about recent talks within the NASCAR driver council where the question was asked, "What makes a good race?" Junior noted that "NASCAR I think wants pack racing and drafting and passing, tons and tons of passing." He also noted "I think the drivers' opinion....is a bit old school. Something from the 1980s and '90s.....off-throttle time, guys sliding around, tires wearing out, tires not making a fuel run, having to really take care of it. That's the kind of thing we want to encourage."

In all the 40-plus years I've followed and studied racing I've had disagreements with a lot of people, and the best races we've historically seen have been the races with the packs, where the draft kicks in to very strong effect, and the drivers fight for the lead hard.   In NASCAR history some 80 races have broken 40 official lead changes and multiple others - such as Ontario Motor Speedway in 1972, 1974, 1977, and 1979 - hit 35 or more (Ontario in 1978 hit 30) official lead changes and numerous unofficial ones;  twenty years ago Pocono saw one of its best races and it hit 35 official lead changes and multiple unofficial ones.

But Dale Junior's view of good racing and NASCAR's aren't necessarily that far apart - though NASCAR meddling has thwarted the goal of more passing between trying to stifle push-drafting and absurd out-of-bounds rules for the plate tracks - and the Pocono race linked above showcases at least some of what Junior mentions; it also showcases the draft kicking in to great effect.   Overvaluing technique as opposed to actually making something happen doesn't work, but if technique makes something happen - Tim Richmond noted during his 1986 victory binge how he mastered Pocono by compromising on his driving style - then clearly it matters.

It brings to mind the low-downforce package used at Kentucky for the Cup cars and the positive feedback provided even though history has long told us low downforce is not a sustainably effective racecar package, as shown in 1998 and the second two-thirds of the 2000-9 decade, the John Darby era of the NASCAR garage area.

And the caveat that is often overlooked is tires - drivers want a softer tire with the low-downforce package as Junior noted above, though studying the sport's history it seems the sport needs not a softer tire as much as a bias-ply tire, a tire that is forgiving to the driver, does not require the driver to "catch" the car but instead all but requires the driver to race hard.   Certainly the era of bias-ply tires in NASCAR saw an enormity of passing and the best illustration of bias-plies remains the June 1991 Michigan 400 when the first half saw over 30 lead changes, official and otherwise, with Earnhardt Sr. and Davey Allison waging a ferocious fight for first often throwing their cars five lengths deeper and deeper.   The 1995-6 period saw several such races where the tires raced more like bias-plies, as did one of the forgotten races of the last fifteen years, the 2000 National 500 at Charlotte.

Getting back to downforce, it brings to mind a question I know I never thought of and doubt anyone would have thought of before - could NASCAR be evolving toward multiple downforce packages for different tracks?  That drivers use different racecars has long been true, despite the myth John Darby pushed of "twenty different cars for twenty different tracks" that NASCAR wanted to eliminate.   The varied downforce packages NASCAR is racing would seem to indicate they're thinking along those lines.  

And if it works out it will be a major evolution in the sport, where both sides involved - the drivers and the sanctioning body - have worked together to an extent we haven't seen before.

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