Editor’s Note: P. Huston Ladner is off this week. In his place steps our king of sarcastic wit, Matt McLaughlin, who puts a positive spin on some NASCAR news as of late.
Happiness Is… A New 2016 NASCAR Rules Package: Looking across the desolate landscape of modern day stock car racing through the thick black smoke of yet another wasted season, watching fellow refugees head for the nearest exit, there might be a few glimmers of sunlight to indicate a new dawn is breaking. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist (they tend to hang out at Florida’s Cape Canaveral, not Daytona Beach to the north) to see the quality of racing at Kentucky and Darlington was far better than most of the races this year. The drivers preferred the new rules package with the lower downforce numbers but more importantly, so did the fans. NASCAR is loath to admit that it made a mistake and that the 2015 rules package was a disaster, but faced with overwhelming evidence (not to mention plummeting TV ratings, attendance, and income), Tuesday they swallowed their pride and announced a new 2016 NASCAR rules package very similar to those two “experimental” events.
For those not familiar with the package, it involves a 3.5-inch rear spoiler and a quarter-inch front leading splitter edge intended to reduce downforce on the car. While the changes will be subtle to casual fans they’re intended to lessen grip for the cars on track. That means the driver out front in the lead with “clean air” on the nose of his mount will no longer have such a great advantage over trailing cars. A driver trying to pass will be able to get up on the rear bumper of his rival and at least, in theory find it easier to make a pass. Lower speeds into the corners will also increase the “passing zones” available to drivers trying to move forward.
NASCAR did increase the size of the radiator pan from the 28 inches used at Kentucky and Darlington to 33 inches due to some concerns about overheating when one car was on the tail of another. NACA ducts (think the hood scoops on a ’69 Shelby) have been added to the right-side “windows” to keep drivers cooler as well after some competitors complained in that regard. Goodyear will be working with the new package for each track in an attempt to find an ideal tire compound that will give up grip over the course of a fuel run.
At least Brian France got to keep his “glass dashboard.” No, you won’t be seeing medics picking shards of glass out of driver’s faces after a wreck. The “glass dashboard” is actually digital gauges rather than analog/mechanical ones. A lot of high-end cars have this sort of dash array these days, and some of them are reconfigurable to drivers’ preferences. It’s NASCAR’s hope you at home will be able to check in on your favorite driver’s dash display, because I know a lot of you spend all afternoon wondering how many amps Junior’s alternator is putting out. I actually get asked this question a lot but no, I don’t think they’ll give the drivers a fuel gauge as part of the new package. With the cars entering banked corners at high speeds it wouldn’t be very reliable anyway, and for whatever reason even Ford can’t even get their street cars from taking forever to go from a full tank… to a half tank… then dropping like a rock to empty. I doubt they’ll add a speedometer either. I think Harry Gant summed it best when it came to speedometers in stock cars; “If I knew how fast I was going,” he said, “I reckon I’d probably slow down.”
NASCAR also announced they are tweaking the rules package for Talladega and Daytona, letting the teams run roller camshafts rather than solid lifters. That would yield between 10-15 horsepower (and the 1985 and up Fox body Mustangs ran roller cams so this isn’t cutting edge) but NASCAR is also reducing the restrictor-plate openings 1/64th of an inch. I kid you not.
Will every race next year be an instant classic with the new rules package? I doubt it. Will there be some teething pains as teams make the switch? Almost certainly. But at least there’s a valid attempt to make the races better for the fans. Those of you ready to pack your bags might want to consider sticking around for a couple months next year to see how it plays out. Now, about this Chase mess….
Ever the negative Nancy, I’m still wondering if NASCAR is waiting until no one is paying attention before adding restrictor plates to some of the larger oval tracks like Michigan, Fontana, and Pocono while no one is watching. But like I said in this case I think I’ll live fearlessly…with all due caution. As it stands written in the Book of Bruce…
Leave behind your sorrows,
Let this day be the last,
We’ll take what we can carry,
And we’ll leave the past…
Happiness Is… Reset Priorities: Former Cup driver Marcos Ambrose announced this week he will no longer race full-time. Ambrose competed in the Cup Series for seven years, scoring just two victories at the winding road course of Watkins Glen. In what was then the Busch Series, he won four additional times at the Glen and added another victory at the road course in Montreal. No, Ambrose bubble gum cards probably aren’t drawing big bucks on eBay, but during his time with us he was always friendly and cooperative. The Tasmanian also possessed a good sense of humor, at least when you could make out what he was saying.
The adjustment from “Down Under” to the U.S. had to be huge. Ambrose’s internal clock was a full day ahead of ours and when he first jumped in a Cup car and he had to be thinking, “the steering wheel is on the wrong side, mate.” Still, Ambrose proclaimed himself pleased with his racing career, open to co-driving endurance events to scratch that itch and ready with the next chapter of his life focused on new priorities. On one level, you always hate to see a colorful character leaving the sport but I’ve been following racing long enough to know the downside. It’s great that Ambrose is able to leave the sport in good health and good spirits rather than be carried to his final resting place like so many before him.
Happiness Is… Social Media. Well, whomever came up with the term “social media” must not have spent a lot of time on our (or many other) message boards, comment sections and Twitter. The electronic village can be a rather hostile place. But as autumn makes me reflective I spent some time the other day remembering this time of year back in 1992 when Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki were engaged in an epic title bout. Sure, I had my buddies who followed racing but the thought one day I’d be able to fire up the old PC (it would have been difficult in that I didn’t have one and I don’t think they’d even been invented yet) and communicate and debate with other fans in North Carolina and North Dakota or Alabama and Alaska with a few quick keystrokes would have seemed like science fiction to me.
The ability to fire up the computer and have all the latest news in the sport in seconds (thanks Jayski for all these good years) would have been a pipe dream. And maybe despite the nasty tone of some tweeters (is that what you call them?) maybe NASCAR started touring the back allies of the electronic village as well. Back in the day, if you wanted to voice your displeasure with NASCAR about all you could do is write a letter and mail it to them. (Or burn it in the backyard with the leaves which would have had the same effect.) But now that fans can rally together electronically (sometimes hiding behind silly screen names) we can make ourselves heard. Yeah, I’ve heard some writers say only the discontent fans use Twitter and the “silent majority” of fans think everything is swell, but those are the folks most often accused of being “Kool-Aid drinkers,” “drones,” and “Jerry Jordan” on Twitter. Yep, things have changed in the media too, racing and otherwise. After a brief stint in the print medium, I sallied forth onto the internet and I’ve been playing this game about 20 years now. Perhaps to even a greater degree than the compliments I’ve been lucky to receive, criticism has made me a better writer. No, it hasn’t swayed my point of view, but listening to opposing points has helped me flesh out my thinking on some topics. Hell, I’m even fairly successful in using “its” and “it’s” appropriately after hearing about it every time I messed up for four or five years.
Yep, for all the talk of the internet isolating us, at times it brings us together as well. And it sure does seem speaking collectively fans can get things done. The only thing that confuses me about thinking back to 1992 is realizing that was 23 years ago – a long time. How is it everyone else got so much older and I haven’t?