NASCAR made a good call – maybe.
The changes our sanctioning body made over this offseason were designed to improve the quality of racing, and that was a great move for a sport taking heavy criticism from all sides, battling slumping television ratings and suffering from dwindling numbers of fans at the track. After all, the bottom line in any of NASCAR’s philosophies should be that racing – quality racing – attracts and keeps fans. Poor racing does not. To that end, the sport made changes to the rules at both Daytona and Talladega that will allow drivers to bump draft wherever they like, and in essence, to reap what they sow if they use bump drafting too aggressively. The Cup cars will also scrap the wing on the rear decklid in favor of a more traditional blade spoiler later this season.
The sport is entering a new decade, looking for a fresh start while leaving behind the 2000s – the era that many will point to as the worst 10-year span in its history. It was 10 years that began with the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt and ended with the alienation of many core fans and even once-thriving race teams. During that time, the sport became increasingly the playground of the elite and wealthy and less the grassroots sport it once was. But despite all that, the positive thread woven through much of the decade – made necessary by the string of tragedies that began it – was improved safety. Full-face helmets and neck restraints became the norm instead of the exception, and rules designed to reduce overaggressive driving were instituted. SAFER barriers were installed at tracks, making true Ricky Craven’s prediction that one day drivers would look back in amazement at the days in which they hit concrete barriers. A new racecar was designed to give drivers more room and larger crush zones to keep them safe in a crash. And the car has proven to be a safe one, as driver after driver has walked away from a horrific looking wreck, unhurt. Whatever else went wrong in racing over those ten years, it has been nine years since NASCAR had to hold a press conference to announce the loss of a driver – and a husband, father, son and friend to one of the world’s most dangerous sports.
Now, it’s up to NASCAR to take the correct steps to improve the racing, without doing anything to compromise the safety of the drivers. It’s a combination which, right now, hangs over the new rules as a question mark. These changes may well improve the competition; but, in the process, will the sport take a step backwards on safety?
By allowing drivers free rein on the plate tracks, there is automatically an increased risk of injury as there is an increased risk of wrecks. In this case, risk is a part of the game, and self-policing drivers at this level know that to win, you have to finish. Because of that, I don’t really foresee a huge change in their game plan through most of the race. Plus, the new car has an advantage over the old one in this area when it comes to drafting. The bumpers line up rather easily, and drivers should be able to bump draft in groups of multiple cars while still remaining stable on the track. But any rule that promotes more aggression is going to increase the gamble for these drivers – one which could result in serious injury if they lose.
The bigger safety issue could be the implementation of a major change to the racecars themselves without allowing teams adequate time to test. As it stands, NASCAR will have one two-day open test at Charlotte Motor Speedway before the spoiler is mandated on the racetrack, with the possibility of adding a test at Talladega. To me, that begs a very basic question: Is that really enough from both safety and competition standpoints, given that the CoT was never tested with a spoiler in the first place?
After all, Charlotte and Talladega represent a portion of NASCAR’s tracks – a high-banked intermediate and the baddest superspeedway of them all – but they don’t represent the mile tracks or the short tracks, or even the flat intermediates. Is it really safe not to allow teams to test the new package on these tracks? And how good will the racing be if teams have to spend a large chunk of practice and races trying to figure out the handling of the car?
Drivers and crew chiefs have differing opinions, but many are in agreement that more time and on-track testing would, in the long run, benefit everyone. Stewart-Haas Racing owner/driver Tony Stewart, who has never been afraid to voice his opinion on safety or mechanical issues, says simply, “It will take more time than that” for teams to be ready to run with the new setup.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Joey Logano also stated that while wind-tunnel testing is important and will give teams plenty of information, there is still a need for them to test the setups themselves. “I think they’re going to spend enough time in the wind tunnel that we won’t be way off when we get out there, but I don’t think we know which way it’s going to go. They aren’t done working on it yet,“ commented Logano. “We’ll have to go to some of the racetracks around here. There aren’t many that we can test at to just try and get used to the thing and see what we can do.”
Logano’s crew chief, Greg Zipadelli thinks that the change is positive, but from his standpoint as a crew chief, he would like to see the opportunity to test the spoiler more. “I’m glad they are doing something,” Zipadelli says. “I don’t really see a downside to it, unless for some reason they drive completely different. If the drivers can see better, it’s a positive. I think the intention is that the downforce is going to stay the same – they’re just taking the wing off and putting the spoiler on in its place. When they make rule changes, they bring everybody in the garage closer, so that makes it harder.”
“But I want to test more. I can’t honestly answer [if it’s a safety or competition issue] until after that test. None of our teams [were] at the tire test (held in January at Texas Motor Speedway, where the spoiler was also tested), and that’s another issue.”
Some in the garage have faith that NASCAR will make the right decisions, though.
Travis Geisler, crew chief for Sam Hornish Jr., believes that the progression of tracks that teams will run the spoiler on, combined with simulator and wind tunnel data, should give teams enough to work with. “Obviously, you’d like to have more time… it’s racing,” Geisler stated. “But, they’re looking at running Martinsville first, maybe Phoenix after that [with the spoiler.] It’s a natural progression where you start out at a short track, so it’s not as much of an impact, and then at Phoenix, where it’s more of an impact. Then you go to Texas, and the race after that is Talladega, so if you were to draw a line through the progression of how it’s going to affect you, it’s kind of increasing from the race they’re talking about bringing it out at. With all the simulations we do, with all the wind tunnel time, I think if they told us we were going to run them at Daytona, we could be ready for it. A spoiler is something that none of us have run without. We’re more used to running spoilers than wings. [Of course,] there are a few areas that will need to be revisited from square one. Setups we developed will be different with that package. That’s part of being in the sport… it’s dynamic, it’s changing, and it’s fun. It’s job security for me.”
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Ryan Newman, a mechanical engineer, judges that NASCAR needs to look at the new package with an emphasis on safety first, racing second. “I just want to know that whatever it is [that they put on the cars], it has to be capable of keeping the cars on the ground going forwards or backwards,” Newman said, whose winged car got airborne at Talladega last fall, resulting in a nasty-looking crash in which he was trapped (albeit unhurt) in an upside-down car. However, Newman doesn’t think that more on-track test time is necessary from a safety standpoint, and that compared to safety, drivability is of little consequence. “I’m not 100% sure that the testing is needed at a racetrack. I think 99% of that work can be done in a wind tunnel or on a computer simulation model. I’m talking about the safety aspects. The driving characteristics of a blade versus a wing at Talladega… [testing out the differences is] more a matter of safety in regards to keeping the cars on the ground.”
So, who’s correct? That’s not a simple answer, and the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. While the safety of the blade spoiler can be tested in the wind tunnel or on simulators, where does drivability come into play? After all, if the car doesn’t handle well, isn’t there a higher probability that someone will lose control and crash? A high-speed wreck is still a serious risk in racing, increasing the possibility of an injury.
NASCAR has worked hard over the last decade to make the sport safer, and there can be little doubt that they have succeeded. The next step is to make the racing better, whether through rules changes, setup packages on the car, the schedule, or the points system. Fans want quick fixes, but the challenge is to do that without jeopardizing the safety that the sanctioning body has carefully improved. And to do that, NASCAR will need to proceed with caution. Sure, racing by nature has an inherent risk, and nobody who loves the sport should become so complacent as to forget that. But it is also the duty of the sanctioning body to make sure that they make every effort possible to ensure that days like February 18th, 2001 don’t happen again.
The 2010’s should be looked forward to as the decade that brought the good racing back, and not as the decade where the sport takes a giant step backwards in the safety of the drivers. If NASCAR can successfully balance the two, then there will be something to look forward to in the next chapter of this ride.