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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: Can Someone Let the Air Out of the Cookies?

The first two races of the Chase are in the books and we have seen two “short tracks” so far. Although 1-mile isn’t exactly a short track, it is in the world of NASCAR. Now we head to the first of the tracks whose style dominates the remainder of the schedule. With eight races to go on the docket, five of them take place on 1.5-mile D-shaped oval tracks. These are the places that have been given the name “cookie-cutter” tracks just because the last four tracks to be added to the Cup schedule are all of the same shape and nearly the same size. They simply look as if they were stamped from one giant cookie cutter and placed around the country.

Mind you, a 1.5-mile D-shaped oval is a great place to see a race. It is a big track that lets the 800 horsepower engines really stretch their legs and hit some high speeds. It doesn’t make you dizzy watching short laps from high above. It allows the sounds to escape so that the fans aren’t deafened by the end of the race. These are the majority of the reasons that these new tracks were all built in the same size and style.

Unfortunately, the high speeds mean one very bad thing and that is high dependency on aerodynamics. The cars go so quickly that, during practice, the teams set the cars up to be dependent on a good flow of air over the nose of the car. That air flow produces downforce on the front of the car that pushes the valence below the bumper all of the way down to the track. Once that valence gets down to the track, an area of low air pressure develops under the car which holds it even tighter to the track. That is what allows the cars to go so quickly around the corners. The problem starts when they have another car in front of them. That first car pokes a big hole in the air when traveling nearly 200 mph. This results in much less air flowing to the nose of the second car. The second car doesn’t get pushed down as hard into the track and therefore the front end slides up the racetrack. This situation is known as the dreaded aero push.

NASCAR is trying very hard to minimize the aero push dilemma with the Car of Tomorrow. The diffuser which is going to be located below the front bumper is supposed to provide a more consistent amount of force to the front end of the car. The hope is that the dependence on air will be reduced and cars will be able to run more closely without losing control of the front of the car. If that can be achieved then we could possibly see the art of the slingshot pass come back into Cup racing. A car can close up quickly through the hole being made in the air by the car in front. The increased speed will then allow the trailing car to swing out when it gets to the leading car and carry that increased speed all the way past the car and ultimately ahead of it.

It is a great idea, but it doesn’t seem that it will be as successful as NASCAR hopes. Since the CoT is bigger in the greenhouse area, it is going to punch a bigger hole in the air. It would seem as though that would result in less air being left behind for the next car to take advantage of. There are a couple of other possible changes that could offer a better solution to the problem.

The first would be quite expensive for the track owners. Everyone admits that Richmond International Raceway affords some of the best racing in the Cup Series. The track owners could reconfigure their tracks and make them 5/8- or 3/4-mile tracks. Richmond has already proven that their track configuration reduces the reliance on aerodynamics while still providing exceptionally close, fast racing. The problem is that not only would the track have to be changed, but the grandstands would have to be reconfigured. Reducing a track by half of its size would mean that existing grandstands in the corners would end up too far from the track to afford a decent view. The stands would have to be moved closer which would not be a cheap process for the track owners.

The other option is one that would be relatively easy at this point in time to introduce. Simply remove the valence/diffuser from the cars. A standard car that comes off of the line at most major automotive plants does not have a valence below the front bumper. The cars that so many fans wax philosophic about in the old days of NASCAR racing looked much more like the cars that came off of the assembly lines. Removing the valence would give the cars a much more stock appearance. The lack of a valence would also allow more air to pass below the cars and get through to the cars behind them. Certainly it would be a difficult proposition for the teams to set up the new car. It would make a major difference in the downforce numbers that the teams are so used to running with now. However, it would make the racing much closer and much more in the hands of the drivers.

With so many tracks on the circuit being cookie-cutter tracks, including half of the tracks in the Chase, NASCAR needs to do something to remove the aerodynamic dependency that the cars currently have. The fans constantly complain that the racing on the intermediate tracks is boring. The car’s dependence on aerodynamics has removed much of the racing from the driver’s hands. The time has come to make a major change in the rules. There has not been a major change in the car configuration in three years and many of the crew chiefs attribute the current equality between cars to the fact that the rules have not changed. The majority of the teams have discovered most of the tweaks that can be made in the current dimensions. NASCAR would be well served to take the air out of the cookies and get rid of the front valence.