So often in life, our ultimate pursuit is perfection. One parts failure on a car is one too many, one loss for our favorite sports team ruins the dream of a season unblemished, and one point off on a test simply makes us agonizingly short of a mythical 100%. Caught in the details of minor mistakes, we’re raised to believe better comes as a pill you can swallow only when the best is unavailable.
Yet, the search for the best is what’s threatening the future of NASCAR nowadays. It’s a quest for perfection that in one sense has actually been achieved; but in doing so, the sport has lost the true essence of what made it so great.
As the checkered flag flew Sunday at Loudon, 43 drivers crossed underneath the start/finish line, a simple act which in itself made history. It’s the first time ever in NASCAR’s modern era that all participants in a 43-car starting field have finished a race. Sure, the sport’s had other events where no cars have dropped out (a 37-car race in North Wilkesboro is one such example, from 1996) but nothing compared to this race, one that felt, well, different. With a limited number of mechanical problems, any hope of attrition was left wrecks on the track, of which there were several; but none where the cars emerged from the outside wall with significant damage, even when hitting it at New Hampshire-like speeds of close to 100 mph. Labeled one tough cookie, the Car of Tomorrow proved once again that it’s living up to its growing reputation as bulletproof.
Well, maybe it needs to take a few bullets.
In many ways, this science project has produced an experiment in parity, one that defeats the very purpose of racing at its core. NASCAR is a sport based around speed differential; it’s all about one car to be able to adjust something just enough that they can accelerate that much more into the corner, creating a situation in which they’re able to run side-by-side with someone else. Continual lapped traffic creates situations to navigate around, while being able to turn just that much more into a corner gives you the opportunity to pull aside a competitor and move up a spot. Without that simple concept in place, cars are unable to do anything more than operate as a single-file parade.
But apparently, “places to make adjustments” was a line item on a checklist of details that never quite seemed to get double checked. IROC in nature, the amount of parts and pieces teams can modify with this thing could probably fit on one of those little sticky notes people keep on their kitchen counter. It’s a racecar’s version of a generic prescription, creating a run-of-the-mill scenario at situations like New Hampshire where each car has so many of the same characteristics, it’s hard to tell them apart.
So, frustrations mount from drivers that increasingly struggle to break free from a car that seems to limit their ability to make the difference in the race’s final outcome. Add to that a crew’s frustration of being stripped of their means of innovation, and you have a long line of people that are ready to just throw their hands up in the air and say the heck with it.
“You can’t pass anybody because everybody is the same speed,” said a matter-of-fact Greg Biffle after the race Sunday, not the first time he’s been critical of a car that’s biggest supposed benefit is rapidly turning into its fault. “Everybody is the same, but that’s what NASCAR wants is for everybody to be the same. It’s so hard to fight for track position out there that it’s tough to gain spots.”
“I passed a few cars there at the beginning, and it seemed like after about the third stop everybody just kind of followed each other,” added Jamie McMurray. “I chased the No. 18 and Greg chased me for about 150 laps and we were all about 10 feet away from each other. I couldn’t get away from Greg and I couldn’t catch the No. 18, It certainly wasn’t very good racing today.”
And then, there’s the issue of durability. Throughout any fan’s love of racing, wrapped around its core is the appreciation of being able to expect the unexpected. As much as they hate mechanical failure to hit their favorite driver each week (sometimes more), it’s an accepted pitfall of the sport that it’s going to happen. At least, it used to be. While Kurt Busch‘s cylinder loss was a notable exception, the bottom line is hardly anyone was in the position of being hit by the Lightning Rod of parts and pieces breaking, what should be a natural occurrence for a sport in which you’re supposed to push the limits in order to break the records.
Instead, the event chugged along at a steady pace, within the limits of safety guidelines, Chase “points racing,” handling concerns, and penalties of aggressive driving ruling the day. That left things within a well-defined box through which NASCAR teams couldn’t fail; yet, isn’t the fear of unexpected failure what helps most fans tune in?
To be fair, there were other factors involved Sunday that helped make the race a stinker; Clint Bowyer‘s team found a way to make each improvement he needed, leaving Sunday an exercise in showing everyone else how to eat his dust. Also, New Hampshire isn’t historically known to produce jaw-dropping finishes; but even still, the amount of side-by-side racing (or lack thereof) proved there was more to the story.
In times like these, I’m reminded of a quote the Intimidator himself had many years ago, oft repeated and found in print courtesy of the Tennessean and Larry Woody. Back then, Woody asked a question about how Earnhardt felt about restrictor plates slowing the cars down, and the fears people would have if they were ever taken off.
“Well, get the hell home (if you’re afraid),” was Earnhardt’s response. “If you’re not a race driver, stay the hell home.”
In essence, that’s what we’re faced with now. In its obsession to make the cars as safe as possible and through its paranoia in ensuring everything’s legal, NASCAR has allowed fear to trump reason, throwing diversity out the window to create a car where they have total control. In a sport where the outcome was once about pure driving talent, now it’s about who can bring it to the wind tunnel and find that engineering boo boo the quickest. And while it’s fascinating for the crews, I’m sure, for the fans that’s hardly fun.
So, the answers aren’t easy, but the writing on the wall is clear. The sport has to make some changes to the CoT sooner rather than later.
Otherwise, the only people who are going to begin to stay the hell home are the fans.