The biggest racing weekend of the year has come and gone; thankfully, most of us had a day off to digest it all. From Monaco to Mansfield, the Queen City to the Brickyard, after absorbing over 1,500 miles of racing, more than a few opinions have been formulated over the last 24 hours about the state of the sport.
Although this may call into question my fendered sensibilities, for the first time in a long time the open-wheel programs, both on this side of the pond and abroad, were a better show than the stock car bunch could muster on Memorial Day weekend. There was more focus and excitement surrounding the Indianapolis 500 this year than in recent memory, and not all of it was Danica-related. With the IndyCar Series and Champ Car organizations reuniting and becoming one again, NASCAR suddenly has some competition to challenge it as the premier racing series in North America. And while NASCAR is undeniably still the 400-pound gorilla when it comes to racing in the United States, it has had its pedestal shaken a bit over the last year and a half.
The reasons for that are numerous, but the two reoccurring themes that continue to perpetuate themselves – leading to poor racing on NASCAR’s bread and butter tracks – are a dumb car and tire failures.
It’s a good thing that the CoT is safe, since the rash of right-front tire failures and loose wheels experienced this season will ensure that plenty of crash test data is compiled in the months to come. Take a look at all of the leaders who were enjoying comfortable margins, but were by no means driving over their heads Sunday: Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the most cruel cut of all, Tony Stewart’s right-front tire with two laps to go. While the tire issues were not exactly of the IED quality experienced back in October of 2005, it was nonetheless a disturbing trend… tire failures experienced at a high-speed tri-oval with little to no warning. I could only imagine what Stewart’s post-race Goodyear comments were going to be, but apparently, someone thought better of rolling Smoke out in front of the cameras and jamming a microphone in his face. At this point you’d be hard pressed to question whatever he or teammate Denny Hamlin had to say, for Hamlin also suffered a blown right-front tire in the waning moments of the Coca-Cola 600. And let’s not forget, a flat tire cost him a win at Richmond three weeks earlier.
After watching the other two major races from this past weekend, the Grand Prix of Monaco and the Indianapolis 500, I was amazed at the lack of tire issues compared to NASCAR standards. The Formula 1 race was ran in a mixture of wet, dry and drizzly conditions, while the Indy 500 was largely tire issue free. In that one, the leader seemingly inoculated from worries of whether or not the right front tire would survive while entering a corner at 230 mph.
In this day and age of technology, following decades of racing research and development data, is it too much to ask for a tire that doesn’t arbitrarily deflate?
While NASCAR remains the only major series that seems to accept tire failures (when a car is leading no less) as part of the business of racing, they have instead turned their attention to the rear ends of the cars. It has been intimated that NASCAR has instructed the teams to reign in the toed-out rear ends that have become en vogue in recent weeks before things get too out of hand. While NASCAR has probably done the right thing in preventing half the field from driving sideways in a straight line, there have not been any other concessions made in an effort to improve handling and, therefore, there has been no improvement in what we see on the track. It has been more or less proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, that on tracks larger than one mile, these cars are garbage. Early on in the CoT process, we were told that the car would bring about a return to “old-school racing” and that “the real drivers would rise to the top.” This all sounded well and good in theory; but in practice, the results have been undeniable.
The CoT is a sled. So much so that to make it turn, you have to make it drive sideways while going straight.
Short of Michael McDowell’s Texas tumble (which, according to Ryan Newman, may have been in part due to the high center of gravity of the new car), the positives of this new piece are few and far between – and also hard to articulate. There are two culprits here conspiring to make racing painful, both for the fan and for the drivers, as their cars impact the wall: a machine that is ill-designed for competition in its current state, and a tire that does not make up for the near 50% reduction in downforce from the previous car. The tires have been a concern for some time now; this probably helps explain why the cars are fitted with 18-gallon fuel cells now rather than the 22-gallon unit used since the dawn of time. After all, the less fuel you have the less laps on your tires – and the less chance there is for catastrophic failure. That’s important, for presupposing failure is probably not a comforting thought at the speeds being run today.
But while teams are breathing a sigh of relief, fans are simply breathing down NASCAR’s neck due to the lack of competition. But as bad as things have been this season on intermediate tracks, just wait for two of the next three races: Pocono and Michigan. Pocono may just prove this car’s undoing. Entering a flat turn at over 200 mph is a dicey situation, even more so in a car that has half the downforce as before, especially when the tires you are on have recently shown a propensity to have the wind taken out of it more often than a Hillary Clinton campaign manager.
The whole concept is simple, really: faster straight-line speed with less grip in the corners means using more brakes. Using more brakes means more heat. More heat means more tire failures, as the intense heat generated from the front brakes will literally melt the beads of the tires. Melting tires is a bad thing, be it an ill-conceived burnout contest or hustling down the Long Pond Straight with nearly 900 horsepower on tap. At MIS, the speeds are just as high, and with as many lanes to run as you’d ever need, the field can get a bit strung out making for an afternoon that is nearly as long as the lines of traffic funneled through the tiny burg of downtown Brooklyn, Michigan. Not many people had to endure California earlier this year since it was ran on a Monday; mercifully, the race at its sister track in the Irish Hills is 100 miles shorter, so if things do get spread out, it’ll be over faster.
As the season progresses and more races are run on the big high-banked ovals that are the calling card of NASCAR, I can only hope that something is done to improve not only the quality of racing, but also the quality of equipment the teams are allowed to run. Be it a rules change that allows some adjustability or leeway in the cars in an effort to gain some much needed grip and aerodynamic balance, or tires that account for the lack thereof, that teams have been suffering through for over a year now.
The fact of the matter is that the most compelling race this weekend was not in Charlotte, N.C.; and during the last 12 years, that wasn’t always the case. With a reunified and rejuvenated IndyCar Series promoting personalities and a product on the track that is at least the equal to, if not better than, what the stock car ranks have to offer, NASCAR needs to make a move to return to the series that offered the best racing and competition on such a grand scale; otherwise, it runs the risk of degenerating into the series known for blown tires and smashed racecars. And if that ever happens, it won’t take long for NASCAR to take a backseat to the IndyCar Series on weekends other than just Memorial Day.