The Frontstretch: This Is (Not) Only a Test... by Mark Howell -- Thursday October 4, 2012

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This Is (Not) Only a Test...

Professor Of Speed · Mark Howell · Thursday October 4, 2012

 

It’s that exciting time of year again, and no, I don’t mean the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship…. It’s that time when the NASCAR administration announces its revised procedures for the upcoming season. Even with seven events remaining in 2012, there’s no time like the present to begin talking about the new-and-improved future.

And the changes for 2013 go far beyond simply rolling out stylish new versions of existing popular models. NASCAR sees next year as an appropriate time to loosen up its current constraints on testing, qualifying, and practice so as to provide teams more track time and fans more access. Given the “mutual gains” philosophy of NASCAR, we should probably consider these upcoming changes a “win-win” proposition.

But these forthcoming changes can also be considered another example of “back to the future”. Maybe I’m showing my age here, but aren’t NASCAR’s innovations for 2013 taking a page out of the NASCAR rulebook circa 2003? Why do these new-fangled approaches to testing and qualifying seem so old-fashioned?

Maybe it’s because they are. During the more economically-stable heyday of ten years ago, NASCAR teams enjoyed looser testing options and Friday qualifying sessions. Both of these processes seemed positive for the sport.

Testing on tracks used in regular competition brought increased attention to both the teams running laps and to the facility itself. There was something exciting about watching race teams test at a speedway where they actually raced for points and prestige. I know that testing never provides an accurate assessment of how a team is really doing in competition, but there was always a sense of curiosity regarding who was testing and how they were running. Was a particular team looking to repeat past success, or was the test session an attempt at solving previous problems in order to score a future upset?

My guess is that any independent tests held at tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule will receive plenty of advance publicity. Think back to earlier this season when both Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway held open test days in order to let teams try out new pavement. Both test sessions were promoted in the media by multiple parties, and both test sessions drew a fair number of spectators.

Since meat-in-the-seats tends to increase overall cash flow, it’s not surprising that NASCAR decided to lift test restrictions at tracks hosting races during the season and make a shift back to Friday qualifying. Any chance (especially one promoted through social media) to watch the cars and stars of NASCAR has the potential to draw a crowd, especially if it means getting to watch racing without having to sit in traffic.

Again, it’s a “win-win”.

Testing, in-and-of-itself, ranks right up there with what used to be recognized as “barnstorming” during automobile racing’s early years. The cars used were often anything but competition legal, and course conditions were typically far from what you’d see on race day. In the show business of motorsports, barnstorming – like testing – was more “show” than “business” (although the “show” often resulted in added “business” – a notion that has to be at the center of Brian France’s financial radar).

Regular readers of my columns will know that I’ve spent the better part of the past two decades documenting the life and times of Barney Oldfield, the Ohio farm boy who grew up to become America’s first professional race car driver. A large part of what made Oldfield the international sports celebrity he was came from his love of testing the limits of race cars he was hired to drive. Such test sessions would be held in closed settings that were open to the public. Certainly, much of Oldfield’s success was built through sanctioned competition, but much of his legend was built through testing race cars on both dirt tracks and beaches.

Here again, the similarities between barnstorming then and test sessions now are obvious. Just like a NASCAR team can “run what they brung” in a test, Oldfield could pull out the stops and drive whatever and however he saw fit when wringing speed out a race car. Quite often, his fast laps were meant to establish new records for a particular distance.

For example, during an exhibition at Maxwelton Race Track near St. Louis in 1917, Barney Oldfield drove his one-of-a-kind “Golden Submarine” and broke national speed records on dirt over increments of five, ten, twenty-five, and fifty miles. Despite setting speed records – which were sometimes established with the help of a twitchy stopwatch finger – Barney Oldfield’s overall competitive success in the Golden Sub was lackluster at best. I guess the cars you test and the cars you race are two different animals altogether.

Barney Oldfield was America’s first true racing personality. Born of a day where safety equipment was some goggles, a leather helmet, and a wool suit, the barriers of speed and safety were not mutually exclusive.

And this has always been a central complaint about the nature of testing. When a car is unloaded for a test session, the vehicle immediately gets loaded down with all kinds of diagnostic equipment. Laptops are as common as lap belts when cars hit the track for test runs. Granted, this is the only time (according to the rulebook) when a team can collect such quantitative data, but the machines are typically a far cry from the Fords, Chevys, or Toyotas that line up on race day. The experience that comes from testing, however, does more than just get a team into Victory Lane.

Much of testing is about turning laps before the media. Consider the attention paid to “Preseason Thunder” every January. Car after car rolls out at Daytona carrying numbers that often look slapped on because they’re…. well…. slapped on. A race car covered in primer with duct tape digits on the door is not meant to turn heads, but that’s precisely what they do. Sure, much of our interest in testing at Daytona is driven by the fact that a new season is just ahead, but it’s the numbers generated during such test sessions that mean more than the makeshift car numbers crafted out of tape.

It’s no wonder that preseason testing at Daytona often results in jaw-dropping lap times. Watching teams experiment with novel innovations and new developments at a place where they’ll be racing in about a month piques our interest. This kind of attention has been missing since 2008 when NASCAR instituted its testing ban. Sadly enough, the only test sessions to grab headlines are the ones that go poorly, such as last summer when Brad Keselowski wrecked while testing at Road Atlanta.

Even big numbers generated while testing at a not-on-the-schedule facility can go unrecognized when the track itself is unrecognized. Many NASCAR fans might still be unfamiliar with a place like Virginia International Raceway if it weren’t for someone at Richard Childress Racing putting a GoPro camera on Kevin Harvick’s helmet during a road course test earlier this year. The resulting You Tube video of Harvick’s hot laps provided added exposure for RCR, even if the test itself resulted (which sometimes happens) in irrelevant data.

This is an issue facing teams as the 2012 season winds down. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how Detroit automakers were behind on sheet metal for the new cars slated to compete in 2013. Despite this fact, several teams are testing their 2013 models this week at Talladega, and more tests are slated for later this fall at Texas and Phoenix. A lack of sheet metal means that these teams will be running their new cars with plastic bodies, but apparently this fact does not matter. What seems to matter most to teams (and fans, and the media, and the manufacturers, and NASCAR…) is the fact that we get to see next year’s Sprint Cup cars right now.

My guess is that the test data collected at Talladega will be of highly limited use, but then again, testing is not entirely about acquiring raw data. Much of testing is about building on the future of the sport.

Primered in cars with duct tape numbers, and more tubes and sensors than a Cold War-era ICBM, are one sign that we’re almost ready to go racing again in Daytona.

The changes for 2013 announced at Dover last weekend were conjured up with NASCAR Nation in mind. While independent testing at competition tracks may go relatively unnoticed by the average fan, having an extra day to mix-and-mingle with drivers, crew members, car owners, crew chiefs, and members of the media is huge. Much of NASCAR’s popularity over the years has come from the sport’s “open door” policy – a policy that’s suffered a bit with the loss of Friday afternoon qualifying.

Friday qualifying, over recent years, was seen as a waste of time and money, which are both valuable resources given the length and expense of the Sprint Cup season. The people who suffered most when Friday qualifying was dropped were race fans.

When I traveled regularly with NASCAR – during the era of Friday practice and qualifying – the crowds that gathered along pit road prior to first-round time trials were always impressive. It was an opportunity for fans to have close encounters of the NASCAR kind – a great chance to take photographs, get autographs, and meet a favorite name from the sport. To see drivers like Kyle Petty, Ward Burton, Dale Jarrett, or Bobby Labonte sharing time with fans before qualifying was seeing what helped make NASCAR a mainstream sport.

The same was true for drivers-turned-commentators like the late Neil Bonnett and Benny Parsons. Despite hectic schedules of chasing possible stories and shooting B-roll footage for Sunday’s broadcast, these men always seemed to find time on Fridays to visit with race fans. Fridays were originally intended for practice laps and qualifying, but they also served as a public relations opportunity for everyone connected to NASCAR.

And maybe it was the sport’s rapid growth and national popularity that brought on the changes to testing and qualifying. Growing pains can be difficult, even when that growth means increased profit margins and improved television ratings. One complaint I’ve heard from racing fans over the years is that NASCAR got too big too fast, and that it was the average spectator who got squeezed out of the picture. Maybe these changes for 2013 are an effort to open those doors once again.

As the economy oh-so-slowly regains some traction, and as people begin to get more relaxed with their personal spending, perhaps it’s the right time for NASCAR to institute the changes it announced last week. The good ol’ days weren’t really so bad, even though their overall effect on the Cup schedule became a financial hardship for everyone involved.

Some naysayers believe that NASCAR can never be either “new” or “improved”, and maybe that’s true. Then again, maybe 2013 is an ideal time to start shaking things up. New cars, new rules, and a new season will provide a new opportunity to attract new fans.

Maybe that will be the improvement the sport’s been seeking.

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