The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: Passing Out by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday March 10, 2011

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MPM2Nite: Passing Out

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday March 10, 2011


In the sport of stock car racing it’s incredibly difficult to predict anything yet to happen accurately. It’s that “anything can happen” nature of the sport that makes it so appealing to a lot of us. Look no further than last Saturday’s Nationwide race when it seemed Brad Keselowski had the win in the bag coming to the white flag only to blow a tire. Mark Martin looked absolutely stunned to have won the race.

But I have a forecast for this weekend and I will bet the rent money, my Harley, the screaming chicken Pontiac and my Jerry Garcia autographed copy of American Beauty I am right. This weekend there will be exactly one less legitimate pass for the lead in the Cup series than there was last week at the Las Vegas Cup race.

And here’s the problem, there is no Cup race this weekend!

That’s right. There was only one pass for the lead I consider legitimate at Las Vegas on Sunday. For those of you who missed my Sunday night column it occurred on Lap 13 when Tony Stewart passed Jeff Gordon. Stewart had pitted for fresh tires while Gordon had stayed on track, virtually by himself, to gain track position after a substandard qualifying effort. Naturally, Stewart made quick work of the No. 24 car moments after the restart. Some readers who commented on the column dismissed that pass as “competitive” due to the lopsided nature of the battle. But my definition of a “legitimate” pass remains the same. It’s when one driver in a faster car overtakes the car leading the race whether it be by hook or crook. Passes for the lead on the last lap are the best sort, and the stuff of legends like the 1976 and 1979 Daytona 500s.

Of course the “official” statistic on passes for the lead is much higher than my count. NASCAR’s latest technique is to lull fans into a coma with a boring race then batter them over the head with meaningless statistics until they believe what they just saw was exciting. In any race where there are extended green flag runs the leader is eventually forced to the pits to refuel handing the lead to another driver. That new leader in his turn must also pit eventually producing yet another new leader. Eventually we’re usually left with one car and driver that still hasn’t pitted, some hapless sap well off the pace who stays out just to get the point for leading a lap. In other cases when a caution flies some drivers and teams play it conservative and go with four new tires while others may choose to go with two new tires or even fuel only. Or in Greg Biffle’s case a team might choose to add fuel to the car with a medicine dropper because they can’t figure out the new re-fueling rig.

Strategy is part and parcel of the stock car racing game and bully for the crew chief who figures out a way to get his driver from 12th to first in the pits, then has his gamble pay off with a caution 20 laps later that brings everyone to the pits cementing his driver’s track position. But that’s not what most fans are paying to see. Strategy is great in the game of chess but how many people watch chess tournaments? It’s balls to the wall passes for the lead that sell tickets in the NASCAR grandstands. Strategy will always have its place in our sport, and the more you understand the sport the more you appreciate it, but to me a fuel mileage race is like finding out you just won a Harley Davidson….only it’s a 1973 AMF era 100 Baja enduro bike.

Daytona and Phoenix may have provided interesting races, but the first race at the track type that makes up the majority of the Cup schedule should be a concern.

I’m not only a big boy, I’m an old guy. I know in racing this sort of thing happens time to time. I’ve seen races where there were no passes for the lead. I’m thinking Jeff Burton led every lap at New Hampshire in the fall of 2001 and Cale Yarborough once led every lap at Bristol in 1973. The most infamous case of a rout I can recall is the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington where Ned Jarrett won by a mere 14 laps. Of course that afternoon the big name Mopar drivers were on the sidelines thanks to the Chrysler boycott of that season, and the factory Ford boys were having a field day until they blew up or in the case of Cale Yarborough actually exited the race track into the parking lot at the wheel of an airborne Ford.

A lot of the young-uns who aren’t quite sure who Jarrett or Yarborough are (and think Cale had a brother named LeeRoy) like to throw that stat in my face. Yes, there were many races “back in the good old days” where only one or two drivers finished on the lead lap. That’s mostly because in that era the machinery was far less reliable and drivers actually ran wide open all day dicing for the lead until their mounts failed or they wrecked. For those interested in the norms of that era watch a few episodes of “Back in the Day.” Looking at the final scorecard some of those races might seem to have been blowouts, but they were actually quite competitive events. If you look at the final rundown for the 1979 Daytona 500 there were only three cars on the lead lap when the race ended but we’re STILL talking about that race over three decades later.

So yeah, every year, this year and in every year the sport is still alive some stock car races are going to be real snoozers. What’s got me and other long time fans I know upset is the ratio of classics to clinkers which seems to dwindle every year. After two memorable if not great races to start the 2011 season, Sunday’s alleged race stunk to high heavens. More bothersome still is the fact the reason the race was no good was the same old “dreaded” aero push. (With the NMPA cracking down on writers who break their archaic rules I am now inserting the required “dreaded” before “aero-push.” It makes me sound like I should be on TV, right?)

Most of you know what an aero-push is all about because you’ve been following the sport since back in the old days when there was a Cup champion besides Jimmie Johnson. Give me a minute here to talk to the kids. Go check the mailbox. Grab a brew. Take the dog outside and toss a tennis ball for him. We’ll be right back a few paragraphs from now. (Like Tom Petty once said on his CD, we’ll wait just a moment while those listening on LP flip to the other side.)

OK, campers. What is an aero-push? All of you have seen a markedly faster car closing in on the car ahead of him suddenly seem to slow down when it gets within four or five lengths of the car ahead. You might have noticed Sunday that after the penultimate pit stop Tony Stewart on two fresh tires was able to drive away from drivers who’d taken four fresh tires which would seem counterintuitive. Stewart had “clean” air on the front of his car. Here’s what happens. When a car has “clean” (not broken up by another race car…think of a wake behind a boat only with air not water) the front spoiler works as designed and provides down force on the nose of the car, which increases weight on the front tires, which in turn allows the car to turn at high speeds. But when the car ahead begins disturbing that air there’s less front down force. With less weight on the front wheels they don’t grip as well and the car pushes or plows depending on your favorite term.

It’s symptomatic of a race being hampered by the “dreaded” aero-push that the leader is two or three seconds ahead of the second place who is in turn three or four seconds ahead of third place and by the time you get back to tenth place that driver is a half lap behind the leader. Everybody has clean air on their nose and their cars are handling well. When they go into the corners at 200 MPH the car turns rather than plowing into the wall and reducing itself to scrap while threatening to break every bone in the driver’s body. Driver’s prefer this.

How can I illustrate the concept to those of you who tend to drive about ten miles per hour over the posted limit? Let’s do an experiment. Hop in your pickup. (You’re stock car racing fans so I just assume you have one. If you don’t or yours is a Toyota, shame on you.) Head out to the interstate and get her running about 70. Roll down a window. (Real pickups have window cranks. Sissies can use the power window button but be aware it will be harder to hear your Michael Bolton or Kenny G CD with the windows lowered). Stick a hand out the window, above the rearview mirror fingertips forward. Hold your hand horizontal to the highway. Now dip your fingertips slightly downward. Feel how the wind tries to force your hand downward? Now stick your fingertips just behind the rearview mirror. Dip them downwards again with the mirror blocking most of the air stream. Feel how much less pressure there is forcing your hand downwards? Your hand, in this instance is the trailing car trying to pass the mirror which is the leader.

Aero-push is a plague this sport has been fighting over a decade. It began when GM, so frustrated by the more aerodynamic Ford Thunderbirds, petitioned and got permission from NASCAR to run their “funny cars”, front wheel drive production car named as rear wheel drive race cars that bore little to no resemblance to their street counterparts. Prior to this, GM had had to develop street versions of Monte SS Aerocoupe and the Pontiac 2+2 to race the T-Birds and they were the second most ugly GM A bodies ever produced. They were surpassed in hideousness only by the short lived hatchbacks of the mid-70s which were so brutally ugly, aesthetes threw rocks at them in parking lots.

Ford finally threw in the towel and began racing the Taurus funny cars. This, my friends, is when “stock car” racing ceased to exist. In the glory days of “the boxcar” era (when NASCAR race cars actually looked like their street counterparts which all had driveshafts) the last place a driver wanted to be on a super-speedway was leading into Turn 1 on the white flag lap. They’d actually hit the brakes to allow the second place driver to pass them down the backstraight. A driver wanted to be right on the leader’s tail exiting Turn 4 at which point they’d use the “draft” or “slingshot” to pass their rival. (Again, see the 1976 and 1979 Daytona 500s. Sometimes it got ugly.)

Jeff Gordon has been the poster boy for the “dreaded” aero-push. How many times have you seen the No. 24 car upfront seemingly on pace to lap the field while Darrell Waltrip recited love sonnets and was apparently spanking his monkey? But let that same driver-car combination fall back to fifth or sixth due to pit strategy or a slow stop and all of a sudden Gordon was dropping like a rock, his irritation evident in the rising inflection in each sentence he whined over the radio. Much of Gordon’s success was from the days when the Rainbow Warriors always found a way to get him off pit road in the lead. Yes, Gordon snapped a 66 race winless drought at Phoenix, but keep in mind prior to that last win at Texas in the spring of 2009, Gordon hadn’t won since Charlotte in the fall of 2007. This from a guy who used to win races in bunches of three and four with such regularity it caused the ABG folks to grind their teeth to calcium powder.

OK, everybody back now?

Cool. Just ignore all the newbies with sprained left wrists. What is worrisome about the Las Vegas race is a great majority of races this season will be run on similar 1.5-mile tracks. Thus we’re likely to see a lot more of the “dreaded” aero-push with multi-second gaps between cars and your having enough time to go to the kitchen and make a sandwich before the tenth place car crosses the line after the finish of the race. The new front ends of the Cup cars, while more aesthetically pleasing, is apparently not the solution to what ails stock car racing and produces cranky old guys like me. This problem has been bedeviling the sport for decades now and the solution is so simple it’s a wonder the powers that be still don’t get it.

Make the factories race the same body styles they build, cars available in rear wheel drive, V8 street versions. If your car isn’t as fast as the other makes, redesign the car and sell it to the public. And if you don’t make a V8 rear wheel drive performance street car, go the Hell back to Japan and build some more Priuses (Prii?) for eco-weenies, tree-huggers and Birkenstock wearers. Or race a Lexus. I for one would be tremendously amused to watch a Lexus stock car use it’s “auto-park” function to enter it’s pit stall in reverse. C’mon people. If you can’t parallel park a car at 2 mph without electronic assistance what the hell are you doing running at 70 mph on the Interstate dodging semis? Have you at least signed an organ donor card? (And for God sakes, watch for motorcycles even if it means briefly putting down your cell phone).

Yes, I am cracking wise in the paragraph above, but I am deadly serious about how the “dreaded” aero-push is at the heart of the problem NASCAR has providing entertaining racing. NASCAR got off to a good start this year with two feel good stories at Daytona and Phoenix. Then it was back to reality at Las Vegas. And I have my doubts about the rest of the season.

There’s an old joke about a man who dies and unfortunately finds himself condemned to Hell. He’s met by Satan and told, “You were pretty bad, but not awful. No fire and brimstone for you. You have three options behind these three doors. Let’s have a look.” So Satan opens the first door and inside the room there’s about fifty people standing on their heads on a rough concrete floor. The guy replies, “That’s not for me. I get sick to the stomach being upside down. What else do you have?” So Satan opens the second door and there’s about fifty people standing on their heads but on a thick shag carpet. “No, that won’t work either.” The man says. “What’s behind door number three?” So Satan opens the door and there’s about five hundred people standing in manure up to their chests but eating doughnuts, drinking coffee and laughing. “Well I guess I’ll get used to the smell because this is better,” the fellow says. So Satan sends him into the third room. At which point the demon in charge calls out “Coffee break is over. Everybody back on their heads.”

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Racing to the Point: NASCAR Has Its Own Heartbreak Kid
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Couch Potato Tuesday: Picking The Best IndyCar On-Air Personalities


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John S.
03/10/2011 06:24 AM

Matt, are you sure Tony pitted after that first caution? That’s not how I remember it. I thought he stayed out also. So him and Jeff were on equal tires. Maybe you can go back and review that.

Bad Wolf
03/10/2011 07:22 AM

As I recall the T-Birds of the mid ’80s got an exemption from Nascar to raise the hight of the hood so a V8 would fit. Chevy used this to get their Lumina (I think it was the Lumina) turned into a RWD V8 racecar. Then along comes Ford with their 4 door FWD Taurus and suddenly it transforms into a 2 door RWD V8 Stock Car. This all actually started in the ’70s when ground effects were allowed on the cars, and it has turned into one long strange trip to todays “Funny Cars”.

Another good read Matt, and right on.

I now relinquish the rest of my time to the ever dreaded Randy and his colorful cast of characters.

Bill B
03/10/2011 07:37 AM

It’s a shame that NASCAR has opted to make the 1.5+ mile tracks the bulk of the schedule. When there were more races on smaller tracks it made those larger tracks more bearable because it was a change of pace. As race fans (or fans of any sport) we recognize that not every race can be exciting from the first to the last lap but at least with short tracks there was always some close racing going on (if for no other reason than there isn’t enough room for 43 cars to get strung out).

Kevin from PA
03/10/2011 08:26 AM

(Like Tom Petty once said on his CD, we’ll wait just a moment while those listening on LP flip to the other side.) I had “Full Moon Fever” for years on tape (which of course had to be flipped over as well). When I converted over to CD, I never laughed so hard when I heard Mr. Petty’s announcement.

Funny how despite how many changes NASCAR has made, there is still an aeropush issue. Maybe they really should make these guys drive real cars off the lot. My parents drove a Taurus for years. Trust me – if a driver can win driving a real Taurus, then that driver is getting my respect!

Carl D.
03/10/2011 09:27 AM

Fantastic column, Matt. However… for the record, I don’t own a pickup, I own a Mustang. With power windows. And also for the record, Michael Bolton should have been burned at the stake for ruining a perfectly good Otis Redding classic with that constipated-sounding wail of his. But you can bet your signed copy of American Beauty that I’m a long-time stock car racing fan.

03/10/2011 09:48 AM

Nice article, but it will never happen. We should just take the upcoming design change for 2013 and be happy. Unfortunately, the cars will never be anything close to street stock again. I personally don’t want them to look too close to production cars because the average sedan that the cars are based on today are sad to say ugly. I think people long for the 60s and 70s when passenger cars looked a lot cooler. When I see an Impala, Camry or Fusion I don’t get any chills. The Charger looks good, but it’s just a rehash of the original Charger. NASCAR should focus more on giving us competitive racing with as much brand identity as possible.

Doug in Washington (State)
03/10/2011 10:23 AM

What I find odd is the very same cars that have “aero push” issues have absolutely no problem catching and passing on the restrictor plate tracks. You would think that with less horsepower and no throttle response the opposite would be true.

The reason, I think, is because the plate tracks don’t require much handling. The banking is so severe that the cars don’t get squirrley as easily as on the low-banked intermediates. But that doesn’t explain why they can’t draft on the straightaway, where being behind would still be an advantage.

As far as running actual street models, I don’t have a problem with that. I’d love to see that instead of these purpose-built race cars that they call “stock” cars. I don’t have a problem with Toyota racing in NASCAR either, as long as they are building cars here in the US. I mean, c’mon, the model Ford uses as its cup car isn’t even built in the US. It’s built in Sonora, Mexico. The Impala and Charger are built in Ontario, Canada. At least the Camry is built HERE. In Kentucky.

03/10/2011 10:48 AM

You have a Jerry signed American Beauty? There’s a whole column right there!

03/10/2011 10:59 AM

Part of the problem is they have too much grip. They used to slide in the corners a lot more. Downforce wasn’t nearly as important when the tires couldn’t hang on anyways. Look at the small spoilers they used to use. I think skinny tires would fix a lot of the problems. It would also mean they had to lift at restrictor plate tracks. They could keep the plates and force them to lift, breaking up packs and keeping speeds down, but what do I know?

Joe D.
03/10/2011 11:02 AM

Matt, it was the 2000 race in New Hampshire where Burton led every lap – the infamous “restrictor plate at New Hampshire” race mandated after the Petty and Irwin tragedies earlier that summer.

Kevin from PA
03/10/2011 11:37 AM

Not to be confused with the Thanksgiving 2001 race at NH where Jeff Gordon led amost every lap until Robbie Gordon spun him out near the end (which was the only real pass of the race).

Mr Bill
03/10/2011 12:30 PM

Wind tunnel testing to me is the problem. Cars are built from the wind tunnel testing. When they get on the track to race the enviroment is anything but a wind tunnel except for the front running car, or the two car hook up with the front car in clean air. Does any one know when the first wind tunnels became common use by the teams? You can not make a dog hunt and a driver can not make a car perform acts it was not built to perform. Call it cookie cutter tracks, or plate racing it all means less real racing with drivers and crews making a difference on the track where we are all watching.

03/10/2011 01:11 PM

Make the factories race the same body styles they build

Agreed. The Lumina was designed to compete in NASCAR against the T-Bird. Hey – if GM was willing to put the car on the street, more power to them. I don’t even care if they use FWD platforms – as long as the silhouette is essentially the same as the street version.

Cars don’t need to go 200 when 180 is plenty adequate, so maybe smaller engines? This would be a good reason to shorten the race distance slightly – to offset the slightly lower speeds, and not make the race last 6 hours. Slower speeds will also reduce the aero considerations exponentially, so should yield more passes and side by side racing.

IMO, it would be good for the sport on a number of fronts… So, I’m sure none of it will happen; well, except maybe the race shortening part!

Don Mei
03/10/2011 01:45 PM

I’m with Mike. Slow them down a bit and make them less susceptible to aero effects. Stock body panels, minimal aero aides and a 5 liter (305 cubic inch ) limit. Maybe that will get rid of the damn restrictors. I dont know much about NASCAR motor dimensions but I do know a fair amount about small block Chevrolets. 4×3.5 is a 350, change the crank to a 3” stroke and you get a 302. In fact when the Trans Am series mandated a 5 litre limit, all it took was a 283 crank in a 327 block. Instant classic…Z28.

03/10/2011 01:47 PM

This is the finest (and easiest to understand!) explanation of “aero push” that I have ever heard, read, or seen.

Robert McIntire
03/10/2011 03:26 PM

Didn’t they add some weight to these cars a couple of years ago which would also hurt the handling

Pointing out the obvious
03/10/2011 04:55 PM

Why sacrifice safety to run actual stock cars?

Once again, Matt’s jaded point of view rears it’s ugly head.

03/10/2011 10:05 PM

Stock appearing (as in what is currently being sold) on the outside…. Obviously

Safety does not need to be sacrificed.

03/10/2011 10:44 PM

Bad Wolf—-Careful when you speak of four door racers. Don’t forget that for the last 2 or 3 years the Pontiac Grand Prix was, in effect based on a four door car because GM dropped the two door coupe when it was outsold by the four door version something like 2 or 3 to 1.
Another curious example was the fact the the revived Monte Carlo of the 1990s was born with a trunk lid that was too narrow for the regulation rear spoiler. NO PROBLEM said NASCAR, we’ll just widen the lid until it fits. Where the factory MC had a thin crease at the point where the C pillar met the quarter panel, the racer version had what resembled a bookshelf wide enough to swallow a row of World book encyclopedias!

Old Farmer
03/11/2011 12:22 AM

Hey, Matt:

The supposed “brothers” Cale & Leroy didn’t even have the same last name—check their spellings.

03/11/2011 01:17 AM

Tyler, you almost had it. Matt you’re looking at the wrong end of the car. The “aero push” comes from too tall a spoiler. Let me explain, remember back in the ’90s when the funny cars started they kept making the spoiler taller, well that puts more down force on the rear of the car. You loose the front downforce when you’re behind someone, all that rear downforce makes the “Aero push” worse by pushing down the back and lifting the front. The solution is a shorter spoiler. Go back to the 3” spoiler and it will fix the problem in two ways. Downforce will equal out front to back when you are the second car, and if you’re the front car, you’ll have to lift going into the corner or risk loosing the rear and spining out. Also get rid of the manditory spoiler angle. Let them run what ever angle they want like they used to. Too slow? lay it back and gain speed. Too loose, stand it up and gain rear downforce. problem solved!

Also Matt just a little correction on this one:
“GM had had to develop street versions of Monte SS Aerocoupe and the Pontiac 2+2 to race the T-Birds and they were the second most ugly GM A bodies ever produced”

As a proud ower of a 1984 Monte SS I bought new they are “G” bodies, and the SS and Pontiac race versions were known inside GM as “G Specials” since they were different from a normal “G” body.

Keep up the good work Matt, I’ve read you for years and many many web sites. Aces and Aces….


Marshall G
03/11/2011 03:30 AM

Yep….Cale Yarborough and LeeRoy Yarbrough

03/11/2011 12:37 PM

Exactly the point, only those who know little about the history of the sport would think that two drivers with different last names were brothers.

03/11/2011 01:30 PM

If you go back and examine the 70’s race cars, what you don’t see is a front valance (splitter in today’s terminology) going all the way down to the asphalt.

This is the key – if you allow air under the vehicle, you do not get the aero push.

The airflow is radically changed, so that the trailing car still gets airflow over it’s nose and spoiler.

It was the introduction of the valance, as well as the other “ground effects” that created the racing we have today.

Nascar thinks that you must have a valance or splitter to keep the car from flying off the track, but all you have to do is put a smaller engine in it.

I can guarantee you better racing if you get rid of the front valance.

old gal from socal
03/11/2011 08:50 PM

Does anyone recall the history of the ’75 Laguna front end? My very foggy recollection is that NASCAR disallowed it because of its aero advantage. I remember it being pretty radical at the time; maybe a forerunner of ground effects and the like?

03/14/2011 01:06 PM

If you look at the final rundown for the 1979 Daytona 500 there were only three cars on the lead lap when the race ended but we’re STILL talking about that race over three decades later.

The ’79 Daytona race is talked about because of the aftermath, not the finish as well as being the first live flag to flag covered race.

One thing I would have liked to see you discuss was whether bias ply tires would make for better racing.