Thomas Bowles · Monday June 13, 2005
In many ways, it was just another race at Pocono Sunday. Deer were caught on camera running through the infield, and various other animals abounded on a track that is nestled deep in the eastern mountains of Pennsylvania. Crews and drivers alike dealt with hot and humid weather that tested physical limits and sheer ability. And there was the one serious crash that seems to occur at Pocono once a year, when Jason Leffler’s car cut a tire and was slammed hard from behind by a spinning Kyle Petty, tapped from behind himself while trying to avoid Leffler (both drivers were OK after the crash).
Still, it was hard to ignore the fact that there was something very important missing from the speedway. And that something can be found in a lever to the right of the driver’s compartment in each and every race car. For the first time in years, no drivers at Pocono were shifting due to NASCAR’s new 2005 gear rule, which forces teams to use a predetermined gear ratio at each track on the circuit. The new ratio NASCAR gave at Pocono meant that everyone would have the same rate of acceleration, and also not require them to shift at several places around the race track, as you would no longer be able to gain an advantage on your competitors. So, a ritual which drivers had begun using several times in recent years to gain an advantage through Pocono’s unique track layout had now been taken away from them.
To be fair, the lack of shifting produced some positives. The wear and tear on engines and transmissions over 500 miles at Pocono, mechanical problems that usually can force up to half the field to the garage area during the race, was reduced to just one lonely driver on Sunday: Robby Gordon. And unfortunately for Robby, his stuff has broken so often this season the failure shouldn’t even be blamed on the track. So in terms of equipment, even though brake problems increased due to the lack of shifting, being able to drive in 4th gear all day long certainly gets your car to make it through the day.
But the whole change in the way drivers raced outweighed that positive. To me, the biggest thing that was lacking at Pocono Sunday wasn’t just the passing, it was the pageantry that usually surrounds a race on this unique course lovingly referred to as a “roval” – half road course, half oval. Restarts at this race track are usually unlike any other race you’ll ever see. The wide frontstretch is so long and so wide it’s bigger than your average airplane landing strip, and cars during the shifting era would fan out five or six wide down the front straightaway, trying to outshift and outaccelerate their racing opponents into turn one. But now, with everyone having the same acceleration, cars just barreled down the track single-file on almost every restart. It’s like taking a plane doing loop-di-loops near a mountain and putting it on autopilot at 30,000 feet. Where’s the challenge…and more importantly, the fun…in that?
So in this year’s race, we saw a much different strategy, as it was a lot harder to pass down the front straightaway when everyone has the same speed. People tried hard to outbrake others going into one of the three unique corners, but instead we saw a lot of “missed passes;” where a driver tried to pass the guy in front of him, failed, and instead lost enough momentum to lose spots to the driver behind him. Not exactly the best way to encourage side-by-side racing; if I’m running 5th and trying to make the Chase for the Championship, why would I jump out of line when doing so could force me back into the 8th or 9th spot on the track if my timing isn’t perfect?
Now, it should be pointed out NASCAR has actually done a good thing to bring about this rule for just about every other track. Although it reduces innovation and creativity among crew chiefs, predetermined gear ratios make one less thing an underfunded team needs to worry about in order to succeed at NASCAR’s top level, another racing part in which everyone supposedly will get to start with an even playing field no matter how much money the team has. But couldn’t we have a different set of rules for a track that’s treated more like a road course than an oval? On this type of track, when all the cars have the same acceleration and shifting is no longer required, the only way you’re going to make a pass is when a driver makes a mistake. And at the top level of racing in the U.S., these are not drivers who usually make mistakes.
Over the past decade, a sport that remains the fastest-growing has found one of its most exciting attributes—- passing—- increasingly depleted. Cars that fifteen years ago would be side-by-side on a regular basis, now find themselves side-by-side for about half a lap before turning back down into single-file racing due to such demons as the “aero push.” Pocono had, up until this point, found a way around those aerodynamic problems. Until this year. Hopefully NASCAR will come to their senses and change things back for 2006.
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