This past weekend the fifth race of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup was held at Charlotte Motor Speedway. While there was some excitement at the end of the race, quite a bit of the event was marked by single file racing where cars were unable to pass. Even when the leaders of the race caught up to the back of the pack they were unable to pass cars that were slower than they were simply because of the aerodynamics of the modern race car. Most of the blame is laid at the feet of the aero push that develops when a car approaches another from behind and the airflow over the front of the car is reduced, causing the front tires to slide across the track. While push has always been a problem, it has been exacerbated since 1984, when the front valence of the car was dramatically extended from the front bumper down to the ground and the reliance on aerodynamics to make downforce became a crutch for making race cars work.
Millions of dollars have been spent over the years–many of them on time in wind tunnels–to try and make race cars slide through the air as efficiently as possible. The latest version of the Sprint Cup race car has a splitter at the bottom of the valence and the race teams spend inordinate amounts of time getting that splitter as close to the ground as possible, without hitting it, in order to minimize the air flowing under the car which will slow it down. Because most of that effort is expended when cars are running by themselves on a race track or in a wind tunnel, the minute they get behind another car and the air flow is reduced, and as a result, the downforce is also reduced. The tires then slide across the track instead of digging into it, the car won’t turn as easily and the driver has to slow down or hit the wall. It’s a great situation for a team if they can have their car in front of the pack for the entire race. Unfortunately there is only one car that can lead out of the 43 on the track and staying in that position can be hard to do through pit stops and restarts. Since drivers will ultimately find themselves behind other cars most of the time, they have to deal with the push, but attempting to set up to be in the back means that getting to the front will cause the front end to compress too much, the splitter will hit the ground, and then the front tires will not grip.
With the amount of money that is invested in this sport, by teams and by fans, the sport itself deserves to be treated better than it is by the current car configuration. Yes the front end of the car has had a valence for nearly 30 years, but there have been other changes in NASCAR to things that were in place for that long–or even longer. Next year the cars will have fuel injection for the first time after 62 years with a carburetor. While the cars would be intensely harder to drive and the tires would have to be completely revisited, the end product will be far more interesting because cars should handle the same–or virtually the same–behind other cars or out in front. Not only would the cars be more consistent, but the ability to make them go fast would be much more back into the hands of the drivers instead of the engineers and the computers behind the wall, on top of the pit box.
This past week, after the Bank of America 500, Carl Edwards made the comment in his post race interview that they should take the spoilers and splitters off and let the cars race. Several years ago, Ray Evernham made the same comment during a media discussion about spoilers and making the cars less aero dependent. The cars would handle more like dump trucks, but they’d be similar to dump trucks that would handle the same in traffic or in front. And as an added bonus, the cars would also look at least somewhat more like what the fans of the sport drive on the street. NASCAR is touting fuel injection as a step towards making the cars on the track more “stock” than they have been in years since there hasn’t been a carbureted car produced in the U.S. since 1994. Taking the valence off the front of the car will make them look like a street car and just might help bring some fans back to the sport, not to mention how many fans would return if the racing was put back in the hands of the drivers again.
Stock car racing is still at a crossroads, and the economy is recovering tremendously slowly. Fans have been forced to be far more discerning about spending their money, and while the racing is good, much of it seems to be manufactured. There are many cars on the lead lap at the end of races and there are quite a few cars capable of winning every week, but fans are still put off by the imperceptible differences between the manufacturers and by the seemingly manufactured race finishes. Taking the valence off the front of the cars will allow the best cars to rise to the top through driver ability and teamwork and the cars will be more recognizable for their nameplate than by just the decals on the front and back.
The cars in 1984 were at the forefront of aerodynamics coming into NASCAR and the valence was put on to exploit the ability to increase downforce on the front of the cars and make them turn better. While that still is the case with the valence and the splitter, the changes to the rest of the car have made it so dependent on the air hitting that deflector below the front bumper that a lack of air severely dampens a car’s ability to function at its peak performance. While taking the valence off of the car will make it far harder to handle and the drivers will most certainly complain vehemently, in the end it will make the final product, the racing, much better.
When it comes right down to it those of us involved in the sport, whether watching as fans, writing as media, or working as crew and drivers, are just the stewards of the sport for the future, and unless we bite the bullet now and make the change, there may not be a sport to steward before too much longer.
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