(Photo: CIA Stock Photo, Inc. ©2015)

Beside the Rising Tide: Tired of All This

There’s an increasing number of media pundits and plain old race fans who are calling for Dover to lose one or both of its race dates, having decided that racing at the track has become single file and even, perhaps, boring. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised to have this site’s owner and editor-in-chief, Tom Bowles, suggest as much in one of the questions for last week’s Friday Faceoff column. The odd part is Tom’s the only member of the site’s staff that actually lives closer to Dover than I do. I can’t recall off the top of my head (where the hair used to be) if I’ve been to more races at Pocono or Dover, either as part of my employment or for merely for enjoyment, but I’ve been down to the white cliffs of Dover plenty of times. And say what you will about Dover (and Pocono for that matter), but I’ve never heard them referred to as “cookie-cutters,” those bland 1.5 mile tri-ovals that are a pox upon our sport.

Having said that, I’ll have to admit I thought Sunday’s race was tepid, to be kind. OK, it was downright boring and by the midpoint I was using my cell phone to listen to old Juice Newton songs. (Yeah, I’m in the minority here but I’ll put Ms. Newton’s impassioned “Baaaay-hey-beeee” at the three-minute mark of Angel of the Morning right up there with anything Grace Slick ever sang with Jefferson Airplane. But I digress.) Call it a case of “ugly puppy” syndrome, but I couldn’t find fault with the track itself on Sunday; it was simply another case of the new cars and their aerodynamic deficiencies with the tires used for the event indicted as co-conspirators, yet another example of a bad afternoon caused by a Goodyear.

Late in the race a caution flew but eventual race winner Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick elected to stay out on worn tires. Kasey Kahne and his No. 5 team and Martin Truex, Jr. and the No. 78 bunch elected to go with two fresh tires while the majority of the rest of the pack went with fresh rubber on all four corners. Yep, my fellow old-timers and I have seen a similar scenario play out numerous times towards the end of races, especially with so few cars left on the lead lap. Only this time it was a matter of “the same but different.” Usually in the days of yore, a couple guys running at the tail end of the lead lap would have stayed out, hoping to steal a victory if a couple more cautions flew to slow the proceedings and the cars on two fresh tires served as blockers for those drivers on four new tires. That was considered a high-risk strategy that normally didn’t work. Almost invariably, the guys on fresh tires would run down the gamblers and make mincemeat of them in a few laps, particularly at Dover.  It made for some spirited slicing and dicing at the front of the pack (the sort of action that used to sell tickets to races) but advantage of fresh rubber (a.k.a. mechanical grip) was normally too much to overcome given the falloff of lap times on worn tires.

(Photographer Unknown)
Juice Newton or NASCAR?  You decide. (Photographer Unknown)

But that’s not how things played out Sunday at Dover. In fact, it was the two leaders who decided to stay out because the advantages of clean air (a.k.a. aerodynamic grip) at the front of the pack greatly outweighed the advantage of fresh tires. Yep, we’ve seen this Loony-Tune before, especially this season.Whichever driver leads the race on the final restart almost inevitably wins the race, as Johnson did Sunday, leading the final 23 laps virtually uncontested. Once or twice Harvick mounted a credible challenge on the No. 48 but once he got too close to that car’s rear bumper and lost the air off the nose of his Chevy, he lost the handle on the car. This year watching the second place driver close on the leader is like watching a bulldog trying to run down the UPS truck. Even if he does catch up he’s not going to be able to do anything with it.

How to eliminate or reduce the aerodynamic advantage the leader now enjoys is a question for engineer aerodynamicists who’ve been to wind tunnels more times than I’ve been to Sonic. I’d suggest they start with taxi-cab strips on the roof and getting those cursed front splitters up off the track, but what do I know?

As far as the tires I have my own solution, and while on the surface it seems radical, it’s simply a matter of going back to what used to work. I’d like to see NASCAR and Goodyear dump the radial tires and go back to the bias ply tires used in the days of yore. I realize there’s more than a few folks reading this column who have probably never driven a street car not shod with radials. Folks my age have logged countless miles flogging our Laramie Equalizer 60s and Belted TAs mercilessly. There’s a decided difference when it comes to driving techniques for the two types of tires. Radials have higher limits of adhesion, all things being equal, but when they break loose they do so unpredictably and with little warning. Bias ply tires have lower levels of grip, but when you push them towards the limit, you can feel it and run them right up to the jagged edge without losing it. Watch some old tapes of Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond racing one another. Both of them were masters of bias ply tires and they were sideways constantly in the corners but still able to race side by side lap after lap and not wreck. I’m willing to listen to contrary opinions, but in my mind Tim Richmond’s victory in the 1986 Southern500, run on a race-slick race track, is still the finest example of car control by a NASCAR driver I’ve ever witnessed.

But Matt, old son, some will chime in, Goodyear is never going to agree to go back to bias ply tires. That’s dated technology and they don’t even make them anymore. Haven’t you been listening every week when Mike Joy reminds us that everything that goes into making tires work in stock car racing goes into the ones we drive on the street? Balderdash. I don’t know anyone who buys tires for the Family-Truckster that need to be replaced every 50 miles and can’t be used in the rain. Back when radials were introduced to stock car racing (and numerous big name drivers were injured as a result), Goodyear wasn’t looking to improve racing by switching to radials. They were looking to drive upstart Hoosier racing tires back off their turf, thinking Bob Newton’s (No relation to Juice) tiny tire company couldn’t afford to develop radials.(Whoops.) The tire wars weren’t pretty, but now that Goodyear has exclusive rights to NASCAR racing, it behooves them to bring some raceable rubber to the tracks. The boys from Akron seem a bit gun-shy to do so since some ugly afternoons, most notably the ’08 Brickyard 400 debacle. (The caution flag had to be displayed every 15 to 20 laps because that’s about all the teams could get out of a set of tires without them falling apart. That race earns my vote for the worst Cup race ever.) Just remember campers, there are no bad Goodyear tires. There’s just bad teams that do bad things to good tires. Larry McReynolds says so, so it must be true.

If I’m understanding the static correctly, the sport has reached an impasse. NASCAR knows they have a problem, even if they won’t admit to it publicly. They know they have to make changes to the cars and the oft-rumored but seldom seen 2016 rules package cars that were supposed to debut at the All-Star race did not. NASCAR can’t test the gen-next cars until Goodyear provides suitable rubber for them. Goodyear doesn’t want to commit their resources towards building those tires until NASCAR finalizes plans for the new cars. Team owners obviously don’t want to spend money building those new cars knowing that they might have to be radically overhauled before they ever turn a wheel in anger on a track. Meanwhile, while those three parties work out their differences, fans are left with lousy racing, leading one to wonder if by the time the next-gen cars hit the track if there’s going to be anyone left watching.

How bad was the racing at Dover Sunday? This is what Jimmie Johnson had to say after the race. (Keep in mind he won the SOB!)

“The top 5 cars were so equal that it was just – you couldn’t pass. You really just could not get by somebody. If they made a bobble or a mistake you could close up, but then the next set of corners, they would get back to the bottom and run a line and kind of hold you up and you couldn’t get anywhere.”

Some Parting Shots:

My vote for the most awkward sponsorship deal of the season goes to the No. 32 team this weekend for Sunday’s race. Mike Bliss finished 35thin the Corvetteparts.net FORD. I know a lot of Corvette guys. Corvette guys hate Fords. I recall seeing a fellow at an all Corvette show wearing a T-shirt that read “Better a Sister in a Brothel than a Brother in a Cobra.”

Conspiracy theorists on the open-wheel side of the sport ran amok after Saturday’s first race at Belle Island as part of this weekend’s double-header. Indy-car called the race prematurely citing lightning in the area. That “gave” the win to Carlos Munoz while Marco Andretti finished second, both of them in Honda-powered entries out of the Andretti stables. Had the race gone green again, allegedly the Chevrolet contingent was ready to eat the Honda’s lunch. Some felt the win was handed to Honda  as a sop after the terrible drubbing they took at Indy last weekend. I don’t know about that. In Sunday’s second race, Honda-powered cars took eight of the top 10 finishing positions. It just seems that rain at the race track negates the huge advantage that the Penske and Ganassi teams have in the dry. As far as stopping or ending a race because of lightning in the area, I’d say it’s always better to err on the side of caution. If you disagree I welcome you to Google “Brian Zimmerman Pocono.”

Admit it. How many of you tuned into FOX at 1 o’clock on Sunday and were confused as to why you were seeing an infomercial rather than a race? For the record, the rest of NASCAR on Fox’s slate of races (Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma) are all on Fox Sports One. In brighter news, there’s an off-weekend this month as well.

It’s a sad reality. The high cost of obtaining broadcast rights to NASCAR races means that to recoup the costs, the broadcasting network is going to have to run so many commercials the race becomes all but unwatchable. (I timed it yesterday. Between the commercial break that preceded it, the mid-race report, which provided nothing of use, and the commercial break that followed that report, fans didn’t even get a glimpse of what was going on for 7 minutes and 20 seconds.) Most of you have been subjected to the same barrage of repetitive commercials week after week, so I’ll invite you to vote on which of two exceedingly annoying corporate spokespeople we vote off the island. Is it time to give Flo from the car insurance company the boot (hopefully before the new “dysfunctional family” ad airs during a race) or Jan from Toyota? Poor Jan is just doing her best to be as bland and boring as the Camrys she hawks, and she’s not too rough on the eyes, so how about we have her start running stock car races in a car sponsored by an internet start-up company running mid-pack? Who knows? Maybe lightning can strike twice.

Finally, perhaps NASCAR isn’t alone in displaying a high level of ineptitude in promoting the sport. I never thought I’d see the day when a major golf tournament used Easy Rider and Grand Funk Railroad tunes to promote an upcoming event.

 

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Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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19 comments

  1. Avatar

    Good article, and I am always reminded that the guys in the booth are much smarter than anyone else. Especially when talking about how hard those boys at Goodyear work to bring those ungrateful teams the best tyerssss they make anywhere in the universe. Bologna.

  2. Avatar

    I agree that it’s the cars, not the track, that has turned Dover into a snoozer. I’ve gotten tho the point that I record all the races and fast-forward through the pre-race, the commercials, and lately even a significant number of green flag laps. I’ve been a Nascar fan for most of my 56 years; it’s part of who I am and I don’t want to give it up, so I’ll hang in there and hope that the powers that be will do something about these dreadful cars that have reduced the racing to high-speed parades. However, I don’t know how much longer I can ride it out.

    Don’t trash Grace Slick too much. At least she had the integrity to admit that “We Built This City” was load of commercial crap. I’ve still got my 8X10 glossy of her that graced the walls of my dorm at Clemson back in the stone age.

    • Avatar

      I agree, i watch the events exactly the same way. I would have been gone long ago if not for the DVR. I wonder if it is too strong a statement to say that the Fan stampede away from NASCAR would be even more pronounced if the only choice was to watch the event live 10 laps of racing, 10 minutes of commercials. I also wonder what happens when advertisers finally figure out that they are paying a fortune for commercials that a fraction of the audience ever watches? Well, they still have Larry McCommercial. I suppose they could try to have him mention more brand names per fractured sentence, if that is even possible.

  3. Avatar

    I find myself in the same boat as Carl D. where the dvr is the only thing that enables me to watch nascar these days. no commercials, no pre-race, no asinine sponsor laden mid race or ride along bullshoot and best of all the single file macy’s day parade brought to you by the good ol boys at the nascar r&d center goes by amazingly fast. even still i wonder why i even bother.

    to think that i used to make the 7 or so hour drive from rhode island to dover in a vehicle packed with like minded friends for the busch race, second round qualifying, a quick trip to delmar for some dirt track action and then back to dover for some fun in the sun and now… pfft it’s all i can do to power through 40 or so minutes of dvr watching hoping against hope that an actual race worth my time might break out. one thing i can say… those cars sure look fast at 4x and that mute button… best thing since joey logano.

  4. Avatar

    NASCAR racing is so broken that I’ve given up thinking that any one thing will fix it. The cars, the tires, the rules, the prevalence of 1.5 mile tracks, there are just too many bad choices made along the way that have gotten us to this point.

    Man, Juice Newton looks good for her age.
    As for Grace Slick, in addition to her music in the 60’s and 70’s, I admire her for walking away from the business when she reached a certain age. She said no one should want to see a grandmother trying to rock and roll on a stage and she is correct,,,, Mick and Keith, I’m looking at you!

  5. Avatar

    Pleased to see someone writing that remembers the bias ply tires. To see the cars sliding around and not just wrecking was a sight to behold. Cars that were high enough off the ground you could see them bounce and slide around as the driver pushed it as hard as he could. Now, we have something that resembles slot car racing. Glued to the track until it flies off.

    Yes, it is the car that is the biggest problem. So many of those tracks produced exciting races until the front valence (spoiler) got longer and longer and closer to the track. Now, the cars jiggle as they practically scrape the ground. Add in the side skirts and the bodies that cover so much of the tires they resemble hovercraft more than something you’d encounter on the street.

    I really don’t see meaningful change until someone other than Silver Spoon Brain is at the helm. But, if they’d remove a huge amount of the down force that would help immensely.

  6. Avatar

    what can i say…..sport once loved so much, where life was scheduled around race weekend is dead. brain fart couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag with the opening held wide open.

    just imagine how horrible the brickyard will be.

    i remember bias ply tires. when i had them on my pinto use to have snow tires for wintertime. has it really been almost 40 yrs?! dang.

  7. Avatar

    “The top 5 cars were so equal that it was just – you couldn’t pass.” I may be a voice in the Wilderness, but that is a huge problem. A problem that is the result of Nascar’s quest for parity among manufacturers abetted by the fact that there are only three truly competitive teams and their satellites.

    What is proposed about tires only swaps the “clean air” advantage for a “freshest tires” advantage. It doesn’t solve the problem.

    Of course I don’t know how to solve the problem either.

    • Avatar

      I hear you. As long as identical cars with engines from a very few near equal providers are piloted by very, very talented drivers can there be a solution? It is depressing.

    • Avatar

      I wouldn’t say its necessarily parity among manufacturers…. Though they are all the same…
      I do remember when the different manufacturers had different front air dam heights and different
      spoiler heights, and drivers talking about how they draft better with a pontiac than a ford etc….

      I think the parity problem is… Everybody’s suspension is meant to lock the body work to the track..
      No more hard or soft for the short runs or the long runs.

      They can’t play with their front fenders or the rear spoiler angle… Drag/down force trade off.
      Do you want a higher corner speed? or a higher straight away speed? 2 cars may have identical
      lap times, but one is faster in the corner, and the other faster down the straight, that doesn’t
      happen now.

      They all have the same tranny gears and the same rear end gears… They used to be able to
      mess with this too. They all accelerate at exactly the same rate, they all top out at the same
      speed, they all accelerate off the corner at the same rate….

      So all the cars are pretty much identical, except for some stickers, and then toss in the
      down force aero garbage and its the perfect recipe for the exact kind of racing we are seeing..

      IROC died for a reason..

      • Avatar

        Yes indeed, IROC did die for a reason — funny how NASCAR doesn’t seem to recognize the correlations there, but then again, that’s probably too big a concept for BZF.

      • Avatar

        Remember each manufacturer had to submit bodywork that gave a specified drag coefficient. Thus parity.

        • Avatar

          Russ, I’m not saying you’re not right, and I’m not saying you are not WAY more knowledgeable than I am. But, what I am saying is that if I ever climb out on a ledge I really hope you are not the one sent to talk me back in!

        • Avatar

          Cynicism freely admitted to, and message received. Final comment is that there are no obvious simple answers the engineering genie cant be put back in the bottle. I’ll be quiet now.

      • Avatar

        Yes, the manufacturers did have different length (vertical length) front spoilers. If the Fords, for example, were at a disadvantage NASCAR would increase the length of the spoiler a half inch or so. Then, as time went on, maybe Pontiac would be at a disadvantage and so their front spoiler would get a half inch. This made more downforce, of course, but it also made the cars more aero-dependent a bit at a time. NASCAR should have removed a half inch from the other makes if one was at a disadvantage.

        Now, we have the ridiculous spectacle of splitters that pretty much drag the ground and NASCAR wonders why the guys can’t pass the guy with clean air. Well duh. :)

  8. Avatar

    Good column. I, too, think NASCAR has gone so far that it might as well drive OFF the white cliffs. If their management wants to fix anything, it would be news to me because they have supposedly been “making the racing better” for 10 plus years now with no success whatsoever, other than BZF being able to persuade various TV entities and other corporations to part with their $. Good for them, good for the guys in the booth who have become more than annoying but bad as far as the fans go. I have lost interest. Not even the fact that this is Gordon’s final season is enough to make me tune into every race. I’m certainly aware that if he was tearing up the track in the 2015 COT, more than likely I’d at least be happy about that for this season.

  9. Avatar

    Matt … forget the fact I’ve agreed with about 98.875% of everything you’ve ever written and that we are dang near the same age and our personalities and interests and hobbies are almost identical … … .. forget all that … … … … … … … I AM JUST DAMN GLAD TO READ **ANYTHING** YOU HAVE WRITTEN!!!

  10. Avatar

    Nothing like the sight of smoking bias plies and sideways cars coming out of the corners at Darlington…..Those were the days.

    I don’t have Fox Sports One and don’t even care. I actually wish it was still Speedvision, when they would show B grade Biker and Hot Rod movies which are more entertaining than NASCAR. I would probably upgrade Dish for if they brought it back.