One thing I’ve learned from almost a lifetime in-and-around the sport of NASCAR is that people are quick to use four-letter words. Of the numerous four-letter words I’ve heard tossed about in race shops and at race tracks, there’s one in particular that I’ve heard much more than the others. The word-in-question begins with an “F,” and its meaning is all-too-clear, regardless of the audience within hearing (or shouting) distance. A problem, however, is that the word being considered tends to change, depending on the situation. In NASCAR, there are many four-letter “F” words to consider… more than the obvious answer you might think.
The four-letter “F” word of the moment is “fuel.” This connection is no surprise given the number of Cup races this year that have been decided by who had enough fuel to make it to the checkered flag first. When historians record the pivotal moments from the 2011 NASCAR season, they’ll need a separate document for the races where teams went on “conservation” mode in hopes of making it to the finish line. Perhaps this strategy has something to do with the new, vented dry break fueling system in use this year? Maybe it has something to do with a lack of late-race cautions? It might be related to the level of competition seen within a series where the “new” generation of stock car has leveled the playing field and forced everyone to run as hard as they can for as long as they can? Maybe it’s just the inherent nature of motorsports?
The thing is – and it’s taken awhile for this observation to go public – is that every NASCAR race (or go-kart race, or unlimited hydroplane race, or F-1 race, or drag race, or lawnmower race) is essentially affected by fuel mileage. Anytime you run an engine that requires some form of consumable agent/energy source in order to create combustion, you’re dealing with fuel mileage concerns. The possibility of running short or running out is always there, as is the demand for fuel management to try and insure that such a situation is avoided, but is that not already part of the motorsports challenge? Automobile racing has been plagued by fuel consumption issues since the very first event was held back in the late-19th century; why should NASCAR 2011 be any different?
First off, let’s clear the air and admit that it’s difficult – if not entirely impossible – to determine with any certainty when the first automobile race was ever held. The first competitive automobile event ever undertaken is typically regarded to be the Paris-Rouen Trial of 1894. This contest was more of a test of safety and practicality, though since this new-fangled technology of “cars” was anything but proven. The first “car” to complete the course was a De Dion – Bouton steam-powered tractor, although first prize was shared by two gasoline-powered “cars” built by both Panhard and Peugeot. Want to talk fuel mileage circa 1894? The De Dion – Bouton’s steel water tank held 40 gallons, which gave it a full “fuel run” of around 20 miles. This amount of water, once converted to steam by a coal-fired boiler, enabled the De Dion – Bouton to reach straightaway speeds of 37 mph. A “pit stop” to refuel took nearly an hour (boiling the water into steam took about 45 minutes, in-and-of itself). Needless to say, managing your speed in order to save “fuel” was not only a good idea, but a necessary one.
By the time the first “true” automobile race was held in June of 1895 – a 732-mile run from Paris to Bordeaux and back – it was obvious that gasoline-powered, internal combustion engines were the most efficient way to go. When Emile Levassor, the winner of that first race, covered the distance in just two days and 48 minutes, it showed the advantages of the gasoline-fueled motor. While other competitors struggled to make the distance without costly stops, the Panhard was able to turn boiling water into steam and ease its way across the line. Emile Levassor and his Panhard proved that winning automobile races, once again, was more about resource management and overall conservation than flat-out, pedal-to-the-metal speed. Winning meant being a presence (and under power) at the finish.
The first “official” automobile race in the United States was held in November (on Thanksgiving) of that same year. Six cars competed in a 50-mile run over wintery roads between Chicago and Evanston in an event sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald newspaper, a race that saw only two of the entrants (the first-place Duryea and the second-place Benz) complete the route. Frank Duryea, from Springfield, Ma., drove to the win in a car built by him and his brother, Charles – a success that led the Duryeas to become the first American car builders to compete on foreign soil in international competition (they raced in the London-to-Brighton Rally in 1896). Frank Duryea’s winning speed in Chicago might have only been 5 mph, but at least his car was running at the finish, which could not be said of two-thirds of the field. Once again, it was the conservation of resources that paved the way to victory.
So what does this have to do with the “F-word” being muttered along pit road in NASCAR this year? Plenty. People tend to forget that automobile racing is more a test of reliability and durability than it is about sheer horsepower and speed. You can run fast all day, but if you’re not running at the end, you’re probably not in the best position to win. Winning, as the early days of racing taught us, was all about managing variables like tires, brakes, moving engine parts, and the “consumables” (like gasoline, oil, water, air, and electricity) responsible for making them work. Early events like the Vanderbilt Cup (high-performance automobile races) or the Glidden Tour (reliability tests featuring showroom-quality, “stock” vehicles) were recognized and revered because of what it took to win them: it took a well-built automobile driven and maintained by skilled competitors who could effectively manage their resources. Sound familiar? The last time I checked, this notion applied to Sprint Cup races, as well.
Race cars today are more durable and more capable of lasting an entire event, so those late-race cautions we used to see for blown motors or blown tires are a thing of the past. Remember the old “gas ‘n’ go” pit stops? To attempt one in this day-and-age would put a team in worse shape than if its car simply ran out of fuel. When everyone in the field is running late in a race, maintaining track position is critical to any hope of scoring a good finish. It all comes down to resource management, and if that means feathering the throttle in order to have enough gasoline available to take the checkered flag, then so be it. Better to be slow from your own initiative than to be slow because your fuel pressure gauge is buried below zero with one lap to go…
And “fuel” is only one of the four-letter “F” words being heard around NASCAR this year. “Feud” is another, as we’ve seen with the ongoing disagreements that have attracted our collective attention in 2011. It’s been a plethora of fun-and-games we’ve watched take shape and evolve between Cup competitors: pairings like Montoya versus Newman, Harvick versus Busch, Johnson versus the other Busch, that same Busch versus his team, and Gordon versus Menard. As the 2011 NASCAR season winds down toward Homestead, will new names with new beefs be added to the roster? Since most of those at odds with other drivers are running for the championship, it’s safe to assume that we’ll see more fists than forgiveness before the end of the Chase.
Since we’re in the midst of the championship, with two races down and eight tension-filled ones to go, yet another four-letter “F” word comes to mind: “fade.” During 2011, we’ve watched as a number of Cup teams started well, only to dwindle to a crawl as the series hits the homestretch. I realize that terms like “success” and “strong performance” are subjective, but the overall struggles of the No. 88 team, or the No. 11 team, or the hot-then-cold No. 22 team have demonstrated that the only sure thing in NASCAR is that success is difficult to achieve and even more difficult to maintain. For every “good” surprise, like the accomplishments of Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 Dodge, there’s also been a “not-so-good” surprise, like the fact that a typically solid competitor like Greg Biffle and his No. 16 team (among others) has yet to visit Victory Lane this season. Nothing lasts forever, as the old adage goes, especially in NASCAR.
But the most significant four-letter “F” word in NASCAR this season might be “fans,” since it’s obvious that even an exciting and competitive season (like the one we’ve seen thus far) is not enough to draw the truly big crowds. Attendance numbers at events may be up a little, as are television ratings so far this year, but even a season of restructured points, historic wins, first-time victories, and a too-close-to-call run for the championship hasn’t been enough to turn things around at the ticket office.
Sure, the economy is still struggling to make slow gains. Sure, the unemployment numbers are starting to drop a bit. Sure, dropping gasoline prices might allow for some much-needed consumer spending in the form of tickets, lodging, hot dogs, and souvenirs. But the song remains the same: racetracks are struggling to draw fans, even after instituting creative discounts and innovative incentives meant to attract spectators and their hard-earned dollars. While race coverage expands to cover all manner of mediums, there are still empty seats in grandstands at tracks all across the country for these events. Attracting and keeping fans has been difficult over the past decade, hence this four-letter “F” word that we hear being uttered so often by NASCAR executives, even when they assess their relatively-successful efforts during 2011. They can only hope the momentum continues into the 2012 season.
For good measure, we can toss yet another four-letter “F” word into the mix here: “fool.” It wasn’t more than two weeks ago when Tony Stewart declared himself (and his team) “irrelevant” in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Here we are – two weeks later – and Smoke sits atop the point standings after two consecutive wins (and his first two wins of the season, at that). In this regard, the word “fool” takes on a double meaning. One way to consider the word “fool” is to treat it like a verb, as in Tony Stewart fooled his competition into thinking that the No. 14 Chevrolet was a non-entity for these last ten races. Another way to consider the word is to treat it like a noun, as in my saying “I was a fool to fall for Stewart’s smokescreen (pardon the pun) regarding his chances for a third NASCAR title.” As the old saying goes: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, I must be reading too many press releases.
I could respond with yet another, often-used, four-letter “F” word I’ve picked up from many years around race tracks, but I’ll mind my language and wait to see what happens at Dover this weekend. Maybe a few drivers come Sunday evening will have more need for it.
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