Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday March 8, 2013
The complaints are raining down fast and heavy about NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race cars—they can’t pass, they don’t draft well. Even the drivers have been in on the discussion; Denny Hamlin got a fine from NASCAR for his complaints about the car after the race at Phoenix last week. Everyone seems ready to jump on the “Gen Sux” bandwagon after two races this year.
Now hold on a minute. Wasn’t this the car that was supposed to save NASCAR and make all the races full of on-track action?
Well, yes. But there are two things going on here that are fueling the complaints. One, perhaps the expectation that a redesigned car could fix everything was a little unrealistic. Two, it’s still several months too early to make an accurate assessment of what this car can and cannot do. Let’s take a look at the Gen-6, why it’s simply impossible to give it a final grade of any kind, and what fans can—and can’t—expect from it, along with some of the more realistic ways to turn things around in the sport.
Why it’s too early to pass judgment
I’ve said all along that everyone, from drivers to media to fans, needs to wait until the second race at tracks to even begin to say with any kind of understanding whether or not the new cars are up to snuff. The reason is simple: you have to remember that the teams have had limited track time with these cars, and they don’t have a folder full of notes from previous races to compare them to. Plus, every track has some individual quirks and is raced under different conditions, so even applying, say, notes from Fontana to Michigan, will not give an accurate picture the first time or two.
Because teams are still trying to figure out how to make the cars handle, it’s not really fair to accuse them of not trying on track, either. Car inventory is not where it was for most teams with the old car yet, and they’re not going to risk a month’s setback racing for fifth on lap 100. It’s entertainment to fans, but to race teams, it’s their livelihood, and they’re going to do what’s best for them long term. That can be applied to racing in general. To fans in March, it’s frustrating that teams concentrate on the Chase, but the reality is, that’s where the money is, and that’s where they focus (along with the biggest reason that the Chase is bad for the sport, but I digress…).
Once teams are better adjusted to the car, then it will be time for NASCAR to take an objective look at the racing (and I sincerely hope they will do so), and make tweaks as necessary. Expect them to take a look at things like spoiler height and angle and other things that affect handling and downforce. Hand it to NASCAR, they have already made one change to help reduce the huge benefit of clean air by eliminating the camera pods on the car’s roof once it was discovered that they gave the leader a significant advantage (80-90 pounds of downforce, which translates into quite a bit of speed) but not the cars behind him. If they can continue to do that without worrying about what the manufacturers and teams say, the cars can and will improve.
All of that means that it’s just way too early to call the Gen-6 car a success or a failure. Everyone needs to take a deep breath, be patient, and remember that good things come to those who wait for them. Once the teams and NASCAR learn more, it’s likely that fans will see the benefits of making changes the right way—based on knowledge and forward thinking, not a knee-jerk reaction to what happened during one or two weeks.
What fans should be able to expect from the Gen-6 down the road
While a lot of people talked about the Gen-6 car as if it would be the one savior that racing has been looking for, that’s simply not true. Fans can and should expect some things from this car, but perhaps not on the grand scale that they had hoped for.
First, the car goes back to one thing fans have been clamoring for since the Car of Tomorrow made its debut and probably even before that: brand identity. The SS looks like an SS, the Fusion looks like a Fusion, and the Camry looks like a Camry. Hopefully that will bring back a bit of the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” attitude that was a part of the sport for so long before the COT and the later incarnations of its predecessor. That’s good for the sport because it’s good for the industry. Simply put, if Chevy, Ford, and Toyota are making more money because people like what they see in the cars, they can put more money back into improving their racing programs, which produces a better product on the racetrack. While it may seem like a small thing, in the larger picture of the sport, what the cars look like is very important.
The Gen-6 design changes also mean that teams shouldn’t be able to skew them to the right the way that they did with the fourth-generation cars and even, to a smaller extent, to the COT. While that may have helped handling, it looked grotesque and prompted cries of foul among teams. This car can’t be as easily manipulated, so teams won’t gain an advantage by altering the geometry. Plus, the more the cars got skewed in the past, the worse they looked to the observer. While people thought the COT was ugly, the car before that, the fourth-generation, was even worse by the end of its era; if you looked at one from the front, it was apparent just how out-of-shape they really were.
Fans can also, hopefully, expect to see the racing put more in the drivers’ hands and less in the hands of the engineers. While that might bring complaints from some drivers, it does showcase some of the talent that may have been overlooked with the older car. If you look at the results from Phoenix, for example, there were teams in the top 15 that you might not expect—because they figured it out first. That’s good for the sport (or at least it would be if those teams got the broadcast time they deserved) because it forces drivers to drive, and it puts the emphasis on what the fans see every week, the drivers behind the wheel, rather than on what happens behind closed doors back at the shop. Hopefully, if the car is difficult to drive, this will remain even after the teams with more resources get better at working with it.
What nobody should expect
Simply put, anyone who expects this race car to magically create 500 miles of non-stop action every week is going to be sorely disappointed. That’s just totally unrealistic at most tracks for many reasons. First and foremost, in the 65-year history of the sport, it has never been nonstop passing and vying for the lead on every lap of every race, or even most of them. When part of what the sport is testing is the endurance and flexibility of both driver and equipment as it is at the Cup level, racing every lap like it’s the last just isn’t part of any smart race team’s strategy. Any driver worth his salt will tell you that to finish first, you must first finish, and sometimes that means not taking every available risk. Winning is still what teams want most every week, and they will do what they can to make sure that the driver and car are capable of making the moves when it counts…and that’s just not every lap, and never has been in the longer Cup races.
The emphasis that’s put on the championship, however, has changed teams’ focus, especially in more recent years, and even more especially since the addition of the Chase. There is a ton of money at stake in the year-end point fund, and the top teams know that. They race for points when they can’t race for the win, and some teams do revert to a kind of test mode once they’re comfortable with their Chase status because they know that those ten races are more important in the scheme of things than a win at Pocono in August. That mentality is far more destructive to the on-track product than any race car ever has been or will be.
Simply put, if NASCAR wants teams to race for the win, the emphasis needs to be on winning races throughout the season rather than the championship. Perhaps they should put that year-end point money into the winners’ purses for the 36-race season and give a nice trophy and a trip to the banquet for the champion and that’s all. It would still be an honor to win the title, but it would put the actual races higher on the priority list. Most local short-track teams race for the win every week first and their title second because the title just isn’t that big a deal—and they all race every week like it’s a title battle. Perhaps NASCAR should be taking notes on that.
Also, if people want the race cars to look like the street cars, it’s time to accept that aerodynamic dependence isn’t something NASCAR can get rid of. They can tweak with downforce with spoilers, etc., but the reality is that if people want the cars to look like the street version, they’re going to be aero-dependent because the street version is aero dependent. As drivers, we want cars with better fuel mileage and that are fun and easy to drive. A more aerodynamic car gets better mileage and is, generally, easier and more fun to drive (If you disagree, try driving a box truck instead of your car for a couple of weeks and see if that’s really your definition of fun.). There is a reason that the cars of the 1970’s and 1980’s became obsolete-consumers wanted better gas mileage and more streamlined cars. And so, if a race car is to look like a street car as the word “stock” in stock car racing implies, it’s going to have superior aerodynamics to its predecessors…and be more dependent on that aspect for handling.
So, is there a fix?
There are a few fixes, actually, but making drastic changes to the Gen-6 have little to nothing to do with them. The cars are beautiful, but they aren’t the real answer.
If NASCAR really wants to combat aerodynamic dependence and make it easier for cars to pass, the solution is there, but it’s a little radical to most fans: slow the cars down. Somehow, we’ve been conditioned to think that faster is always better, but that’s not always true. Look at tracks like Martinsville—it’s the slowest track on the circuit in terms of miles per hour, but it consistently produces action. The fastest tracks, the mile-and-a-half and two-mile ovals, have much faster speeds but often far less passing than the shorter, slower tracks do. In a nutshell, racing at 200 miles per hour isn’t necessarily better than racing at 165 miles per hour.
Slower speeds (which could probably be easily achieved by reducing horsepower through EFI programming), in general, mean less turbulent air, or at least less effect of turbulent air on the cars. It’s air turbulence that makes a race car “aero tight,” or “aero loose,” terms we’ve heard drivers use in describing their cars’ handling in close-quarters racing. If turbulence, or its effects, can be reduced by reducing speeds, it should follow that cars would be less likely to be influenced by the air around them, and in turn, it would be easier to pass. It flies in the face of what most people think about racing, but it’s the truth. And while NASCAR doesn’t want to look into that type of solution because it might be confusing to fans, the reality is that if fans saw a better product, they wouldn’t care if the physics behind it were confusing.
Another way to slow the cars down, of course, would be to race at more shorter tracks. You simply can’t go as fast at say, Dover, as you can at Atlanta.
Second of all, as I said above, the emphasis needs to be redirected from winning the championship to winning races. Whether that comes from eliminating the huge point bonuses drivers get for finishing near the top of the standings and making every race worth a huge amount for the win, or by changing the points system or how championships are won, it could have a big impact on what fans see every week. Heck, there used to be bonus money for leading at halfway—that money would still be valuable to many teams, and it might even encourage the mid-tier teams to step up their game to earn it over the big teams each week.
But the bottom line is, NASCAR and its sponsors have put too much emphasis on the season-long title and not enough on the individual races, and that has changed how teams approach each weekend. Racing is their business, and they have to do what they can to make money and please sponsors. If the emphasis was on the weekly product, they would race accordingly.
The third solution, though, has to come from race fans, especially those who have come to the sport more recently, because they seem to be the most vocal. Long-time fans remember races where it wasn’t uncommon to have one car finish on the lead lap because they were just that much better than the competition, and because of this, I think, aren’t as critical of the on-track product, for the most part (or their complaints stem from the championship structure and the resulting shift of focus rather than on the cars). And getting fans to change their expectations isn’t an easy thing.
When NASCAR was the popular thing to be into in the 2000’s, I think a lot of fans were attracted by the highlight reels that showed nonstop action—crashes, battles, and fender-to-fender battles for the win. And perhaps that’s what they expected from every race, every lap. That isn’t how it is, nor has it ever been for the most part. At the Sprint Cup level, it’s always been about speed and driver talent, but it’s also been about endurance and equipment. That means that teams have to strategize how to be in position to make a bid for the win after 400 or 500 miles. And that also means that they conserve their stuff, which, in turn, means they don’t take risks early on. This level of NASCAR isn’t like the local short track, where the feature race is 35 laps and you have to make every one count. It’s a different beast altogether, but that doesn’t make it less exciting.
Perhaps fans need to adjust their ideas a little to really enjoy Cup racing. Instead of looking for a pass a minute, maybe fans should look at teams’ long term strategies—pit stops, fuel mileage, tires—and follow those to see which teams emerge victorious. Watching the different strategies play out as a race unfolds is exciting, but in a different way than expecting the type of non-stop video-game action and a new twist at every turn like in a cartoon or movie. It’s unfair of fans to expect something that has never really been what the sport is at this level.
Is it too early to judge the Gen-6 racecar? Yes, much too early. But nobody should be expecting the race car and the race car alone to be the one thing that magically fixes everything in the sport. Rather, the focus should be on changing expectations—that more speed always means better racing, that a car that’s meant to look like an aerodynamically dependent street car should not be aerodynamically dependent, that a NASCAR race is going to be 500 miles of nothing but passing for the lead among several drivers and lots of beating and banging behind them every last lap. And to do that, everyone, form NASCAR, to race teams, media, and fans, need to look at the sport through a different window than perhaps they have been. One car can’t do it all. But it can be done.
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