I’ll offer some quick thoughts this week as the mercury flirts with triple digits here at Eyesore Acres and the “real-feel” number is a balmy 115. If this keeps up I just might have to rethink that air-conditioning thing.
How many times have you heard the Cup drivers who compete weekly referred to as “The 43 Greatest Drivers on Earth?” Yep, I think all but a few of us could add more than a handful of drivers who compete outside of NASCAR racing to the “Greatest Drivers List”. But if we do, in fact, have the 43 greatest drivers on earth, how come two of them can’t avoid running into each other in the garage area 24 hours before the race?
You thought that NASCAR’s 2:45 a.m. finishing time for the Firecracker 400 this year was late? Saturday night’s King’s Royal at Eldora Speedway concluded at 4:33 a.m. local time. (Sunrise in the area was slated for 6:24.) The race, arguably the biggest on that circuit, was won by Shane Stewart (no relation to Tony Stewart who owns the track). Stewart’s team is co-owned by NASCAR driver Kyle Larson.
Speaking of Eldora, for those of you who don’t routinely watch the Truck Series, it makes its mid-week summer visit to the Eldora dirt track on Wednesday night. I predict it will be one of the most entertaining races run under the NASCAR banner this season, so don’t miss it. Check your listings… yada, yada, yada. I’ve long been a proponent of running Cup races mid-week during the summer to free up some weekends for race fans during NASCAR’s 10-month Magical Mystery Tour, and the Eldora race has proven that fans will indeed buy tickets and tune in on a weeknight. While we’re at it, there’s nothing so wrong with NHMS that it couldn’t be fixed by tearing up the asphalt and converting it to a 1-mile dirt track. Meanwhile, I’d urge the Truck Series planners to keep thinking outside the box and consider adding the Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, Vermont, a quarter-mile, high-banked short track, to the schedule. Not enough seats you say? Did you see the size of the “crowd” at the Kentucky truck race last week?
What’s more irritating; a driver throwing a water bottle out the window of his race car to draw a caution or NASCAR deciding that an empty water bottle is worth throwing a caution flag for? During Sunday’s telecast, Jeff Burton called for the water bottles to be marked as to what car they were placed in during the event so the tosser could be penalized. Now wouldn’t that just invite the nefarious sorts to write someone else’s car number on their water bottle? I can’t even believe I’m suggesting such a thing because I’m as honest as any man can be, and it grieves me to the heart to think someone else might not be.
This whole issue actually dates back over a decade when a ne’er-do-well (never officially identified, but it was Jimmy Spencer) tossed a section of roll-bar padding out onto to the track to draw a caution. That’s been going on in auto racing since time immemorial, but in Spencer’s case, the roll-bar padding had been carefully rolled in duct tape to make it look like a metallic object certain to draw the caution. And since Spencer could not have duct-taped that piece of padding in the car during the race, clearly it was placed in the car prior to the event as an insurance policy in the event it was needed. The team’s pre-race strategy might even have been based on causing that caution just when they needed it.
So back then, NASCAR told the drivers “Now you cut that crap out or we’ll… we’ll… we’ll be severely annoyed with you.” Given the number of water-bottles (Gatorade bottles, whatever) given to a driver during pit stops in the course of a race, marking them all and hoping everyone will play by the rules isn’t a workable solution. If punishment can’t be swift or certain, at least it should be severe. NASCAR should let it be known if we catch you tossing something out of the car you will be black flagged and your race for the day is over. If we catch you a second time, you’ll miss the next race too, and no, we won’t give you a Busch Brothers exemption to get in the Chase if you miss a race. We’re NASCAR after all. We orchestrate the races with unnecessary cautions not you guys.
If they’d use the same sort of Orwellian cameras they use on pit road around the entire track (yeah, I know NBC is supposed to be doing that but they missed this one) it would make it easy to decide who tossed the Gatorade bottle. And maybe NASCAR could even use them on restarts to decide if either driver in the front row had jumped the restart zone. That was pitiful to watch during Saturday’s NXS race and somewhere Carl Edwards, the last leader I can recall penalized for jumping a restart, just had to be shaking his head.
You’ve got to love NASCAR’s information services. Sunday’s NHMS race was rescheduled to start at 1:35:30. Yep, and 30 seconds. They missed by a wide margin. What is this, the Italian Railroad? According to the schedule NASCAR allotted 25 seconds for the Invocation and one minute and 40 seconds for the National Anthem. I’ve heard singers at the race mangling the Star Spangled Banner stretch the word “Free” longer than that.
Color me confused. When did New Hampshire become a “short track” as it was called on NBC all week? By the definition I learned decades ago in NASCAR racing a “short track” is one that’s less than a mile in length. A speedway is longer than a mile and a superspeedway is two miles or more in length. NHMS is officially listed as 1.058 miles in length. Well, I suppose that’s one way to add more short tracks to the schedule. Is Dover a short track now, too?
While the topic of NHMS is open, the kindest word I can come up with to describe Sunday’s race is tepid. Back when SMI and Bruton Smith bought the track from the Bahre family, he announced plans to dig the whole thing up and created a clone of his track in Thunder Valley, a sort of Bristol North. (Of course, this is back when Bristol was still Bristol, not the new Bristol or the New Old Bristol.) Then apparently he saw that the track’s two races sold out every season and it made no economic sense to rebuild a track when fans were already waiting in line for tickets as things were. While there was still a decent crowd at NHMS Sunday, there were also vast swaths of empty seats and still more seats under those huge advertising banners that about the equivalent of Oz’s curtain. We all know what’s behind them. Mr. Smith, start your bulldozers. A dirt track, a high-banked concrete ¾-mile like Bristol, it doesn’t matter. It’s just time to reconfigure what’s become a 301-mile “No Passing” zone.
Yeah, so OK, now I’m piling on, but it occurs to me as much as a lot (I’ll venture most) of us would like to see the Chase concept hauled to the curb as garbage, it’s going to happen one way or another for at least another couple years before NBC hits the big red button. (And trust me, when they’re paying $44 million a race under the new TV deal, they do have a big red button.) If The Chase is designed (poorly) to be NASCAR’s playoffs, wouldn’t they want to put their best foot forward when the mess jumps off given their hope of attracting new fans? But the Chase starts off at Chicagoland and then heads back to NHMS, two of the blander events on the schedule. My guess is that if they actually attract any new viewers, after those two races the newcomers are going to be thinking, “This is what the buzz is all about? Well, it’s just not to my liking. What channel is the football game on? (Trick question… apparently all of them.)
This weekend’s new rules package at Indy gives fans a first glimpse at NASCAR’s new “High Drag” aero package (as opposed to the “Low Downforce” package used at Kentucky and slated for the upcoming Southern 500.) It’s hoped that the huge spoilers on the rears of the cars and the taxi-cab strips on the roof (last used in the tragic 2001 Daytona 500) will reintroduce “the draft” to stock car racing. It occurs to me that a goodly portion of the newer stock car racers think “the draft” is either involuntary military conscription or that annoying leak around the back door in the winter. They probably have never seen a “slingshot pass.” I can only describe how the new package is supposed to work not guarantee if will, but here’s what NASCAR is hoping for. With the 2015 aero package (and over the past decade in fact) the a driver running behind another attempting to pass is at a decided disadvantage. The lead car has fresh undisturbed air on its nose while the trailing car has little to no air on its front splitter and the car gets tight as a result.
With the “high-drag” downforce package, it’s hoped the lead car will do the work punching a massive hole in the air slowing it down a little. The car behind the leader rides along behind at reduced throttle. It’s an imperfect analogy, but if you’ve ever water-skied you know the water in the boats wake is nice and smooth and you just glide along on mirror smooth water even while the boat is in choppy water ahead. The concept of the draft was first discovered in the first couple Daytona 500s. Junior Johnson discovered that his underpowered Chevy could keep up with the fleeter Pontiacs and Plymouths if he just tucked in behind them and rode. In fact, back in that era and up into the mid-’80s at a lot of tracks a driver didn’t want to be the leader on the final lap. It was better to ride second then choose a moment to pull out of line, use that untapped acceleration and scoot right on by the guy who had been leading. It was often a matter of timing when to pull out of line. You wanted to get ahead of that other driver without leaving him time to return the favor. In some instances the leader would even slam on the brakes to force the guy drafting him to go around so he could set up the final lap slingshot pass to retake the lead. (Leading once to ABC’s Scottish-born color commentator and former Formula 1 star to hysterically announce “He’s out of petrol!” as David Pearson slowed dramatically to let Richard Petty by, a move that won Pearson the race.)
Will it work this weekend? We’ll see. If it does, newer fans are in for a treat. If it doesn’t, Indy always has a fall back; at least it wasn’t as bad as the 2008 Brickyard.
About the author
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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