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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: For Michael Waltrip, Due Respect

NASCAR’s resident funny-man, corporate promoter extraordinaire and one of three owner/drivers in the Sprint Cup Series is geared-up and offering his opinions on most anything NASCAR, although that is not so unusual. Topping the list of issues that the 45-year old Waltrip, now in his third season as a team owner, expounded upon this week was the current ban on testing at NASCAR sanctioned tracks for competitors in its top five divisions. The testing prohibition, in place for the time being at least through the 2009 season, is in Michael Waltrip’s estimation “…a colossal waste of time and money.”

The 45-year-old Owensboro, Ky. native, who first strapped into a Cup car in 1985 and has competed in 725 points-earning events since that time, would just as soon see the testing ban become permanent. In his opinion, computer technology has made the need to test obsolete. Said Waltrip, “We can go to the wind tunnel. These guys will tell you, the cars are set up so precisely when they leave the shop. The guys go to the seven-post rig, and they shake them. They do simulation. They understand what the cars are going to do when they go into the corner in the wind tunnel. So everything about the setup, it can be done virtually or through wind tunnel and seven-post testing. So when you go to a racetrack to test, you’re just basically burning up tires, burning up gas and taking people’s time, taking employees’ time at home away, which is a negative, because the schedule is so intense.”

Keep in mind that this is not the same Waltrip that for years was routinely referred to as Mikey, more recognized for his goofiness and the fact that he was the not-so-accomplished younger brother of stock car racing legend Darrell Waltrip. In recent years, Michael Waltrip has become his own man. Though arguably still a little goofy, he is a person who is fully committed to the sport hook, line and sinker. Waltrip’s longtime involvement and his sizable investment in the sport through Michael Waltrip Racing has earned him the right to voice his opinion… and for it to be considered.

In short, Michael Waltrip is putting his money where his mouth is. He has signed the checks for Sprint Cup teams to go testing and he has realized the savings from the testing prohibition this offseason. On a purely financial level it is impossible to argue his point that not testing saves time and aids in giving personnel more time at home before entering another race season – the longest season of any professional sport.

Where Waltrip’s argument seems to come apart at the seams is when he states, “We used to didn’t know how to set up a car on the computer. We would blow a car in the wind tunnel, then couldn’t wait to get it to the track to see how it runs. Now they blow a car in the wind tunnel, they know exactly what it will do. It’s gotten that precise.”

Perhaps MWR has beat the competition in recruiting the right computer geeks and has now advanced his computer simulation testing procedures to true virtual reality. However, that is doubtful. If in fact Waltrip’s assertion that computer simulation and analytical interpretations has negated the need to put rubber on the track, then it would only seem logical that if and when NASCAR once again permits on-track testing the MWR stable of cars will forgo those test dates and save the money and time. What the heck, let Roush Fenway, JGR and HMS chase their tails.

Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 HMS bunch conducted more than 20 testing sessions during his successful championship effort in ’08. And this is a team that seemingly has had it all figured out for the previous two championship years! If Michael Waltrip is to be believed – shame on Chad Knaus and crew for wasting millions of Rick Hendrick’s dollars!

You won’t find a winning Sprint Cup crew chief on pit road that will proclaim that the only information he needs to dial in his hotrod to victory is a $3.5 million seven-post shaker rig and some really good proprietary software. Conversely, no crew chief intent on winning would not want that equipment and information available to him.

They’ll all tell you that the computer age has allowed them to “get it close” before loading the racecars onto the hauler, but there are things a computer just can’t precisely simulate. Such as the variations of tire wear that occur depending on a variety of different factors, including driving styles and weather conditions. Or for that matter, how a driver adjusts to tire wear or fuel loads at any given time. You might be able to tune a car with a computer, but there hasn’t been a computer chip developed yet that can be inserted into a driver’s modem that will allow him or her to interface flawlessly and in parallel with the predetermined computer model that is assumed to be best on race day.

And of course, thankfully such a futuristic day hasn’t arrived. We’ve all seen it many times when a car finally loses its superior handling during a run and then it is up to the driver to race by the seat of his pants. It is inevitable at some point during a long run that the handling will go away, and only through on-track testing can that point be determined and what adjustments should be made by mechanics and the driver to allow the car to still turn acceptable lap speeds.

There is little doubt that on-track testing does provide valuable information to the crew and driver. After all… isn’t the information that can be shared by multi-car teams in testing the biggest argument owners have used for wanting to expand, if at all possible, to the four-team limit?

Again, Michael Waltrip has every right to his opinion, and probably more so than anyone besides a handful of his fellow team owners. Besides, even if his justification for the argument does not entirely mesh with his opinion, perhaps saving money, equipment and wear and tear on crew members is justification enough to put an ending to extra testing separate from that afforded teams during the normal course of a race weekend.

Since Waltrip’s statements appeared Monday on Scene Daily, the anti-Waltrip crowd has used his statements as an opportunity to post venomous attacks on Waltrip as a person, driver, owner and most everything in between. Such comments that are, in my estimation, nothing more than silliness and ignorance on the part of those that entertain themselves in such a manner. However, one comment on a website did get my attention. A simply stated, “Who cares what Michael Waltrip thinks.”

Well, as a team owner and veteran of almost 25-years in the series, I would think anyone interested in the sport would respect Waltrip’s opinion, even if they didn’t agree with it. NASCAR certainly has considered his thoughts on improving the sport. Let’s not forget that it was the 6’ 5” Waltrip that championed the need for a roof exit on Cup cars. And Waltrip that observed the inequity of the go-or-go home cars qualifying at different times during qualifying, leaving some at a disadvantage to others depending on track condition changes during the session. NASCAR’s answer: a midseason change in qualifying procedure dictating that those outside the Top 35 in points and needing to qualify into a race on speed are all grouped together and qualify one immediately after another.

Though it may be that Waltrip did not entirely hit the mark on his recent musings concerning extra-curricular testing, he might not have missed it by much either – at least in theory.

Either way… give the guy his due.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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