Thomas Bowles · Monday May 23, 2005
Postscript: After this week’s article, the Coca-Cola 600 unfolded with a track-record 22 cautions for 103 laps. The track sealer also began coming up off the track, and several drivers complained about the lack of grip and inability to pass.
Saturday night, millions of NASCAR fans tuned in to watch an All-Star race. Instead, what they got was an All-Star parade: a lot of pomp and circumstance, followed up by a lot of single-file racing, with one major wreck to boot, all at a track that in years past has provided us with some of the best races in NASCAR history. Even the most diehard fans, after witnessing a race like that, are in shock over what’s become of one of NASCAR’s great traditions. Who do we have to thank for the parade this year, you ask? Well, I think I have the answer; it’s one giant steamroller, and a whole bunch of money being thrown at another grinding or paving job that simply doesn’t work.
Now, before we get into that, let’s touch on the fact that increasing numbers of people want the All-Star race moved out of Charlotte (Lowe’s). In fact, some rumors have gone so far as to say there’s a conspiracy among NASCAR’s upper brass to join together and manhandle the race out of Lowe’s hands and onto a France family, ISC-owned track such as Richmond (Charlotte is owned by Bruton Smith, and is NOT an ISC track).
But I’m one of those diehards who think it should stay. After all, the first decade of NASCAR’s All-Star Race provided some of the best finishes of any race in the sport’s history. Who can forget Kyle Petty spinning Davey Allison as they crossed the finish line back in 1992? Or Dale Earnhardt’s "pass in the grass" just five years before that? Or, for newer fans, Jeff Gordon’s first All-Star race win in 1995, a race that saw legends Darrell Waltrip and Earnhardt take each other out while battling side-by-side for the lead in the final segment? In my opinion, any track on NASCAR’s 36-race schedule should be capable of holding an All-Star race, as the quality of racing should be high enough already for the track to be included on the regular season slate. And since Charlotte has invested so much time and money in getting the All-Star race to grow and develop, why should it be moved anywhere else? You wonder if any other track would be able to take care of the fans and the competitors on an All-Star weekend the way Charlotte has through the years.
Trust me, the track was not to blame…until this year’s race. Forgive me, Lowe’s, but I knew deep inside this upcoming event would be the worst Nextel All-Star Challenge yet. How could I judge the excitement level of the night’s racing before track festivities even began? One word, ladies and gentlemen: "resurfacing."
Now, the track surface of Lowe’s Motor Speedway, like Richmond before her, was in no need of any type of fixing whatsoever. Sure, there’s always been a noticeable bump in the pavement exiting turn four, one that’s caused a headache and a torn up race car for many a driver and team through the years. Still, most drivers have learned to maneuver around the bump with ease, and the uniqueness of the turn gave the track character, much the same as Darlington’s narrow turns, or the Tunnel Turn at Pocono Raceway. Even with NASCAR’s increasingly aerodynamic race cars, Lowe’s was still one of those places where side-by-side racing could be seen all around the track on a regular basis. The Coca-Cola 600 would spread out the field, but you’d never see a race with all the cars running single-file. In fact, the 1998 fall race at the track featured over 45 lead changes, during a year in which both the aerodynamic package and the domination of Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin turned most of the races into giant snoozefests.
But, believe it or not, Lowe’s was “smoothed out,” and the new track worked to increase speeds immediately. Mike Bliss’ pole run of 189.208 mph for the Nextel Open was a new track record for the facility, continuing a trend of borderline-dangerous speeds at NASCAR’s intermediate tracks. At NASCAR’s two other races at 1.5-milers this year, the pole speed was 194.690 mph at Atlanta, and 192.582 mph at Texas. To compare, Kevin Harvick’s pole-winning run at Talladega was 189.804 mph at what SHOULD be the fastest track on the NASCAR schedule, even with restrictor plates to slow the engine down.
Instead, we’ve got two out of three 1.5-mile tracks breaking the speeds set at Daytona and Talladega, with a third track coming tantalizingly close (and by Coca-Cola 600 qualifying next week, that number likely becomes a perfect 3-for-3). And that’s not even counting qualifying at 2-milers California and Michigan, with cars likely to break the 190 mph barrier when NASCAR comes to the Great Lakes region in June.
All this speed poses a problem: simply put, some of these tracks weren’t designed for these cars to streak around the track so fast. Don’t get me wrong; the goal of racing is to go fast, and as technology evolves speeds will always increase. But there IS such a thing as going too fast for your own good. Take open-wheel racing at Indianapolis, for example; at one point, the cars there were approaching 240 mph in qualifying. But dangerous wrecks, driver injuries, and lack of competition caused CART, and later, the IRL to rethink letting the cars run at so high a speed. Besides safety concerns, the cars were simply running on the edge of control: this led to a lot of wrecks, and limited the competition on the track. Think about it; how can you pass a car entering the turn when all your focus is on trying to keep the car from spinning out?
As we transition back into the NASCAR world, that "edge of control" is exactly what’s begun to happen on some of these “fixed up” tracks. NASCAR’s 2005 aero package, designed to make the cars loose to begin with, combined with the high speeds caused by the repaving, have made races at tracks like Lowe’s a single-file parade. Charlotte wasn’t meant for stock cars to go 190 mph on it. Sure, cars’ll do it, but don’t expect any two-wide racing for an extended period of time. If you’re already pushed to your limit running single-file, you’re certainly not going to take it one step further and try to pass a car, unless the car in front of you is significantly slower.
Even on smaller tracks where speeds aren’t quite so fast, “fixing up” the track has caused the same type of problem. Richmond International Raceway was long known as one of the best racetracks on the circuit, where side-by-side racing was a given no matter what aerodynamic package was used. But, after being purchased by ISC, Richmond added a sealer to resurface their race track following the 2001 season. Until that point, the pole speed had held steady between 122 and 126 mph since the early 1990s, without much in the way of dramatic increases. However, since 2002 the pole speed has shot up to almost 130 mph, with Kasey Kahne winning the pole with a speed of 129.964 mph in May 2005.
As a result, Richmond is not the track it used to be, either. The cars are running much faster than ever before, and going way too fast into the corners, leaving them unable to race side-by-side as effectively as before. Despite the positive PR spin given after this May’s race, several drivers were heard on the scanners at Richmond complaining about the track surface, remarking that the racing there has begun to resemble a single-file parade, rather than the short-track excitement it’s given us in years past.
The answer to these problems, of course, is simple to say and complicated to solve; dirty the air of these cars and slow them down on the race track. Supposedly, the bigger and bulkier car of the future is designed to address that problem. Judging by Saturday’s All-Star race, it can’t get here soon enough. Despite promising TV ratings, fans will only have so much patience for single-file wreck-fests, even if it’s only an All-Star race.
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