After a long winter layoff and with weather outside still not conducive to motorcycling or other such pursuits, I’ve been turning towards other forms of auto racing I don’t follow closely just to pass the time.
Given my limited knowledge of the modern form of both open-wheel racing series, Formula One and Indy Racing, it appears both have adopted a lot of new rules this season and those changes are universally embraced by either competitors or fans of those series. (Well, hey, that sounds familiar to a NASCAR fan). In just about all instances, the rules tinkering is meant to make the competition closer thus leading to more passing and lead changes, an admirable goal particularly in F1 where “overtaking” (their term for “passing”) has been all but MIA for a decade. But then the lead dude of that whole sorry mess, Bernie Eccelstone, was once quoted as saying he was quite content with the lack of passing because too much “overtaking” might confuse the fans. (That may help explain why in most U.S. markets, F1 is still a curiosity that ranks it right up there with curling and dodgeball.)
Well, the IndyCar folks stole a page from the NASCAR playbook and seeing how popular our “double file” restarts are with stock car racing fans adopted a similar strategy to their series for 2011. The results were not always pretty. What works pretty well on a big oval like Pocono or Vegas might not be suited to a road course, particularly a temporary street circuit like Saint Pete’s and especially with the explosive acceleration of the open-wheelers. Helio Castroneves gets the day’s big “Homer Simpson D’Oh!” award for proving all that, triggering a multi-car incident in the first corner when the new season was about five seconds old. Several drivers had less than kind things to say about the new rule (along with NASCAR and its race cars) after a messy, problematic day. My guess is none of them will be secretly fined 50 grand for speaking their minds, though; only in Stalinist Daytona Beach would such conduct be considered acceptable.
But the IndyCar race did feature a few unique concepts I think could be adapted to stock car racing and improve the quality of our competition. One I took note of was two different compound tires being used in the same race. The “red” (they have red raised letters on the tires) are faster, offer more grip but wear out much quicker. The “black” tires (which oddly enough have raised white letters) or “standards” offer less grip but more consistency over a fuel run. Each team is allotted a certain amount of each set of tires prior to the race, meaning strategy comes into play. When you done licked all the red off your candy, as Buddy Baker used to say, you’re left with the black (er, white) tires.
That introduces a whole new level of decision making to racing based on where you’re running: up front, trying to get a lap back or trying to make up track position after a slow pit stop. Ideally, in the event of a late-race caution the teams towards the front would wish to have a set of fresh reds ready to rock. On the flip side, a guy who used all his big grip tires early to get the lead and has been running away with the race doesn’t want to line up with a bunch of hungry competitors on red tires behind him for the final restart.
Can such a strategy work for NASCAR? Of course. But the biggest problem I see adopting such a concept is Goodyear usually has enough trouble bringing one acceptable compound tire to a given event, much less two.
Also of note in IndyCar racing, the cars are equipped with a “push to pass” or “overtake” button on their cars that briefly gives each one an extra boost of power and speed for a limited number of times through the race. Again, the trick is to limit the amount of times you use your little helper earlier in the event so on the final lap, you still have some extra boost up your sleeve to go for the win off of turn four.
The IndyCar system is said to be complex. When a driver hits “push to pass” it alters ignition timing, turbo boost, the fuel injection system, etc. Stock cars, by comparison don’t have the complex electronics of an open-wheel car. In fact, our boys are still driving rebodied versions of what amounts to a 1965 Ford Galaxie. But we can still adopt a hero button courtesy of my old best street racing buddy, nitrous oxide.
Nitrous oxide (N2O or NAWS, if you ever were unfortunate enough to see the first Fast and Furious movie) is two parts nitrogen to one part oxygen. Oddly enough, it is the same stuff your dentist might use to knock you silly before performing a root canal. For automotive applications, it is stored in a pressurized bottle and fed to the engine along with an extra supply of gas. It allows for temporary surges in horsepower in the range of 75 horses on up depending on how much of the stuff you inject into the engine and if the engine will survive that power boost without burning a piston or banging the bearings out of the bottom end. (It can be a tricky equation. I once sent a crankshaft through my oil pan experimenting with what I could get away with). In most forms of racing, nitrous is highly illegal; the NHRA will even ban you for life if you get caught running the stuff. (Fortunately, Front Street wasn’t an NHRA sanctioned track…)
If you don’t think nitrous oxide has ever been used in NASCAR you’re either a newbie or live in a fairy tale land. The stuff was once quite popular, particularly in qualifying. After an event, it wasn’t uncommon to see drivers chucking their expended nitrous bottles out on the back straight apron so they’d clear post-race inspection. Both front row qualifiers at Daytona in July were nabbed with nitrous systems back in the 1970s.
So let’s legitimize nitrous as part of stock car racing. Each car would start with a tank of a certain size, say a ten-pounder. That wouldn’t get you through five laps if you discharged the system continuously. Again, a driver would have to be savvy in when and where to deploy the system for the added boost and everybody in contention for the lead would want some N20 in reserve for that final lap run. We’d need some sort of on board technology, of course, so fans could keep track of how much laughing gas each competitor had left as the pay window started opening late in the race. But it could be done.
I don’t watch many F1 races anymore, though back when I first started writing about racing I covered both NASCAR and F1 and for awhile I was on the fence about which to devote my attention to. Those Canadian and European websites paid pretty well in that era and I once had an offer to travel Europe chasing that circuit. Ultimately, stock car racing was my passion and I stuck with that; but even during the dullest seasons of Grand Prix racing, there’s been two things about the circuit I admire. Firstly, there’s a hard and fast rule each team may have two, and only two teams. Sure a company like Ferrari might provide engines to another these days, but it’s not like the incestuous relationship between Hendrick Racing and Stewart-Haas. Secondly, their point system makes a lot more sense than ours, rewarding winning and excellence while excusing the occasional bad race everybody is going to have time to time without a huge penalty.
This year, the F1 cars also feature semi-active aerodynamics in that the driver can adjust the rear wing trim from inside the car. I’d be against computerized fully active aerodynamics, but adjusting that rear spoiler angle is up to the driver. Something like that would be neat to see in NASCAR at tracks like Michigan, Fontana and Vegas where a driver might lower the spoiler for the straights then set it back upright to make the corners. I like the concept that a driver who can handle a “loose” (tail happy) race car could gain an advantage, too. In my mind, the greatest stock car racers are the guys who grew up on dirt and knew how to steer a car with the throttle as well as the wheel.
The best NASCAR drivers I’ve ever seen, Tim Richmond, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and all knew how to deal with a loose race car. I miss the days of watching them get sideways in the corners to conserve momentum for the straights. When I hear modern day drivers complaining about how loose their car is, I wonder why they didn’t get a job operating a monorail at Disneyworld instead of racing. Front wheel drive, ABS, and radial tires have raised a generation of street drivers who will never know the thrills of pitching a 70 Boss 302 Mustang sideways through a series of esses. More the pity for them.
Hmm… other forms of racing are borrowing some of the better ideas NASCAR has developed over the years, so why not return the favor? While still minuscule, the TV rating for last weekend’s IndyCar race were actually up, not down like the ratings for Fontana and Bristol. It’s time NASCAR loses their “not invented here” phobia and thinks outside the envelope. Like the old saying goes: if you’re not living on the edge, you’re just taking up space.
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