NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: A Trojan Horse?

NASCAR officials are like brown recluse spiders in the basement. You can normally live with them… but you need to keep a wary eye on them. Those folks down on Speedway Boulevard in Daytona seem constantly up to some sort of mischief that starts out as innocent trial balloon, but rapidly inflates to their “Next Worst Idea Ever.” Over the last few years, NASCAR has rapidly built themselves a flock of zeppelins that could be called “The Next Worst Idea Ever Flotilla.” Oh, they won’t admit it. If the Chase were the Hindenburg, NASCAR would still be trying to sell tickets to board it while it burnt.

Oh, the lack of humanity.

In the meantime, NASCAR’s Truck Series sort of floats out there in the ether like your next door neighbor’s dog. It’s an affable enough beast, but you haven’t paid much attention to it since it was a puppy unless you caught it crapping on your lawn. The Detroit Big Three have pretty much written off the Truck Series, leaving Toyota to dominate, and I’ve lost interest in the series as a result.

Now, I dig pickup trucks. My lifestyle demands I own one. I think it’s been about 30 years since I haven’t had a pickup parked in the driveway. Almost all were Fords in the appropriate shade of Henry Ford black (well, one was yellow, but the less said about that the better.) They’ve ranged from Rangers to F-350s, and even in the ones that had air conditioning it never worked. The whole rest of the trucks did. Hard. The key to truck ownership is you keep what you got until it takes more work to keep it going then it does for you. Currently, I’ve got a GMC I got cheap that’s flirting with 200,000 miles. It’s a good truck, one that hauled home both this season’s wood pellets and the new dirt bike. The A/C works… I just never use it.

So whatever chromosome dictates truck ownership, I’ve got it. I used to watch the Truck races religiously cheering for the Fords. When the Toyotas first started racing, I watched hoping to see them lose. Now that they’re winning, well, I take comfort in the fact when I drive to the local hardware store on Saturday morning or past job sites in these parts it’s still Fords, Chevys, GMCs and Dodges I’m seeing actually being used as trucks. The Japanese are never going to get the concept of what an American wants a pickup truck for. It’s so ingrained in our culture and foreign to theirs they might as well try to rewrite the Star-Spangled Banner using focus groups. Buddy, when I die, throw my coffin in the back of the GMC and haul it to my final resting place. I don’t stand much on ceremony.

I did take note of some changes that NASCAR is making to the Truck Series next year. It appears this whole experiment with not being able to change tires and add fuel on the same stop, originally devised as a cost-cutting measure, is over with because the fans hated it. They’re going to try out a new self-venting gas can, which means the teams will be able to have six guys go over the wall rather than seven by eliminating the catch can guy. OK, fair enough. I don’t know what a good catch can guy gets paid, but I imagine if it he’s at the top of his catch can game, it’s more than an Internet NASCAR writer. Also fair enough. I’ve never been run over sitting at this keyboard….

Teams also aren’t going to be allowed to run more than two straight races without using what’s called a “sealed engine.” (An engine that NASCAR places strategic seals on to ensure that it hasn’t been rebuilt since it was used in a previous race.) That’s said to be a cost-cutting measure. That’s a good thing, I suppose. With most of the big players out or on their way out, the Truck Series is struggling to fill their fields. There’s usually anywhere from 7-9 start-and-park teams that vacate the track before the first pit stop, and that’s in fields that never exceed 36 vehicles.

But sort of tucked in near the bottom of the PR memo was a note that starting next year teams will have the “option” of running a spec engine at all events held on tracks a mile and a quarter or less in length. A quick review of the 2010 truck schedule in its current form indicates that tracks of that length encompass 10 of 25 races. If, down the road, the rule were changed to allow spec engines at tracks of a mile and a half or less in length, that would swell the number to 19 of 25 races – or a clear majority of the schedule. That’s the thing about these trial balloons. While they seem to swell slowly, once they’ve got a foot in the door, they use the other to kick it in.

I mean, holds it right there, Bubba-louie. Spec engines? That’s unprecedented in NASCAR’s top-three touring divisions. What, exactly, are the specifics here before we go dashing out onto thin ice covering uncharted waters? Who is going to build these spec engines? What are they going to cost? Is there going to be one Ford, one Dodge, one Chevy and one Toyota spec engine, or will one size fit all? I tuned into the SPEED TV pre-race show to get a little insight. They were having a really bad costume party, so they didn’t say much. In fact, other than pantomiming making fists and trying to move my hands like a handcuffed midget driving a go-kart, I didn’t get a whole lot of insight into much Saturday. So I took off my superhero pajamas and did a little digging.

The new spec engine is a one size fits all design based on the (work it, work it, now) Toyota design, which is sort of unique in NASCAR racing engines as it has absolutely no relation to any engine ever designed to run on the street now or in the past. It was a clean sheet of paper design that NASCAR sort of rubber-stamped to get the once seemingly infallible Japanese automaker into the fold and writing the big checks. Presumably, if the teams choosing to run a spec engine already have an inventory of Rams, F-150s or Silverados they’ll be allowed to run appropriate valve cover decals. Or I hope so. The first time I see a shot of an F-150 race truck with a Toyota emblem on its valve cover, I will officially quit being a race fan. Even the thought of a Silverado with a Toyota engine is troubling. (As an aside, does it seem since 1967 every new generation of Chevy truck is uglier than the last? But I’m cool with that. Trucks aren’t like women. They’re just supposed to work hard and get the job done, not look good in a Batgirl costume.)

As for price, nobody could offer me a clue. More than I’ve spent on my last four pickups combined, but less than I’d pay for a cherry GS455 Stage One convertible if I won the Powerball lottery was the range of guesses I got. Will teams own and rebuild the engines? Probably not. It will be a lease sort of arrangement. Who is going to build these spec engines and make sure they’re all equal? According to my Magic 8-ball, “Check back later… answer cloudy.”

Let me go on record without mincing words. I hate the idea of a “one size fits all” spec engine. NASCAR is famous for what we called “Mission Creep” starting back in the Vietnam era. Oh, sure, right now it’s an “option” for just 10 races in the Truck Series next year. Then, the year after that, it will be those 19 races I mentioned. Then it will be mandatory in the Truck Series and in the planning stages for the Nationwide and Cup series. NASCAR has already standardized the bodies on the Cup cars, and a spec engine is their next step in controlling competition. Down the road, if the car manufacturers decide to pull out of NASCAR racing, spec cars with spec bodies, spec chassis and spec engines mean that NASCAR can at long last race what the clueless sorts at papers like the New York Times call “NAS-CARs.”

The fans haven’t reacted well to the McCars (CoTs), McTracks (the cookie cutters) and the McPoints system (the Chase.) I think they’re going to hate a one size fits all spec engine almost as much. This trial balloon is just barely off the ground, so if you hate the idea as much as I do, now is the time to break out the darts. Like they used to say at weddings, “speak now, or forever hold your peace.” Or in this case, forever hold your piece.

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