Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: NASCAR’s Future is Now

It’s a brave new world.

The announcement this week that Microsoft is beginning a long-term relationship with both NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports came as excitingly-ominous news.

Maybe the “good ol’ days” of tobacco, beer and motor oil sponsorships are shorter lived than we think?

Technology has always enjoyed an intimate relationship with motorsports. Computers and smartphones have become as familiar as jackstands and wrenches in the garage area. Test sessions look more like computer workshops as engineers assume a greater role within racing organizations.

This is not a new development, but it’s certainly one that’s becoming more and more apparent.

Notice the lack of NASCAR inspectors standing along pit road. Humans have been replaced by cameras in search for greater control over teams and more regulation over competition.

I’m not sure this has been the smartest of innovations, however. We are seeing an increase in the number of Sprint Cup drivers who complain of wheel vibrations and need additional pit stops to correct the problem. Back when carbon-based inspectors roamed pit road, missed lugnuts were often caught and corrected before they turned into potential accidents.

This new era of Big Brother in racing has been accelerated by advances in technology, much as it has in our everyday lives. My iPhone allows me to be tracked, traced and followed as if I had a personal bodyguard or internal microchip. Am I OK with such transparency? I guess so, given the benefits of access to life-changing technology.

And now those benefits come – in even larger amounts than we currently see – to NASCAR.

Microsoft’s new agreement with NASCAR involves a significant relationship with the sanctioning body, as well as a two-race primary sponsorship (at Sonoma and Pocono) of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet. Sonoma is a relevant location for the start of this deal given its proximity to both Microsoft and Apple headquarters.

Should we be surprised by such an arrangement? Probably not.

Serious computer technology has been part of Formula 1 and IndyCar racing for years. Recent Microsoft advertisements celebrating cloud computing tout the fact that the Lotus F1 team uses such innovation to streamline their operation. NASCAR uses Microsoft technology in an ongoing effort to improve the inspection process, so signing with Sprint Cup’s most popular driver seems like a natural next step.

According to Microsoft’s official statement, as published on Jayski.com:

“NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports are perpetual innovators in motorsports,” said Steve Guggenheimer, Corporate Vice President, Developer Experience and Evangelism at Microsoft. “This sport demands constant innovation, to have its boundaries pushed, so that the sport delivers the exciting experiences expected by fans…. We’re looking forward to the next solutions that we can deploy with both NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports to push each of our organizations forward.”

Is it just me, or does the title of “Developer Experience and Evangelism” sound a tad unsettling?

Will Junior’s next win come with him thanking Bill Gates for a safe race?

Let’s get back to semantics here. Microsoft’s new agreement calls for the company to become an “Official Technology Partner” with NASCAR. The company will also be a “major technology partner” with Hendrick Motorsports.

If I was affiliated with a non-HMS operation, I think I’d be, in the famed parlance of Elmer Fudd: “Vewwwwwy afraid.”

Does Microsoft’s explicit deal with Hendrick reduce other teams to “minor” partner status? I know from experience this has long been a suspicion regarding race engines.

From 2001 through 2003, I was affiliated with a Sprint Cup team that leased motors from both Robert Yates Racing and Roush Racing. Even though the tuners who came with the engines (to help oversee their performance) swore that the power plants were exactly the same as those used by the builder’s flagship teams, there were weeks when it seemed otherwise. A balky engine under our hood would struggle in comparison to one that carried the builder’s own “in-house” car to victory lane.

So will Microsoft better NASCAR while also helping to better the particular fortunes of Hendrick Motorsports? Given the success of HMS, I don’t see how that kind of improvement is possible.

What seems most possible is that the“blessing” bestowed on stock car racing by Microsoft will lead to additional technology-based relationships within our sport. Computer culture is such a common part of NASCAR Nation that the new Daytona Rising complex at Daytona International Speedway will feature Wi-Fi-enhanced “neighborhoods” dedicated to the accepted use of social media. Going to the 2016 Daytona 500 will be a heavily connected experience.

Gone are the days when being connected meant knowing someone who could get you a pit pass.

So is Microsoft’s newly-signed agreement with NASCAR (and HMS) truly a great development? It can be as long as the relationship benefits all parties involved, from the engineers at the track to the fans in the stands. If money buys speed, NASCAR should look to make more direct connections with the high-tech sector.

By the grace of Bill Gates, it should be an improvement.

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