Calling Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!
Was that Auto Club Speedway? It looked like the most boring track on the NASCAR circuit, but it certainly doesn’t act like it anymore. Remember not so very long ago when we decided to visit Southern California twice a year and we all scheduled our weekly naps around those days? Oh, lawns got mowed, basements were cleaned out, and even the button box would get sorted. NASCAR fans would do anything to avoid staring at the 43-car field parade single file around the two-mile venue with acres between positions.
So, what happened? Well, lots of things. Mostly we now have an aged surface with bumps, a groove the width of the Mississippi, and a loose aero package that all combines to make the now annual meet a real driver’s event. Gone is the reliance on technical perfection that just about guaranteed anybody jumping out front after a restart another 50 laps of uninterrupted flight into the sunset. Car control is back in the hands of our heroes, but not too much.
Sunday’s presentation was a little bit like a Darlington race on steroids. Everybody seemed to have some stripes on the passenger side door. Rear bumpers certainly didn’t look healthy after the first 100 miles, and tires gave up in a meaningful way after only a few laps.
Oh, these are the days, my friend. This may finally be the 21st century incarnation of NASCAR that we’ve been seeking since the mid-90’s. No, we will not return to the days where engines blew as often as brakes failed. Mechanical failure is not going to be a real part of the equation for those teams in the top 20 of the Sprint Cup rankings. Also, money will always predicate which stables will be stealing the hardware at the end of the year. However, when we put the act of keeping the car pointed in the right direction firmly in the hands of those behind the wheel , we’ve managed to reinsert the visible human element back into stock car racing.
It’s much easier to cheer for Jimmie Johnson reaching the checkered flag first when we can see him fight off an equally hungry Kevin Harvick, when there is a gaggle of cars behind them sending smoke up after brushing the wall, and when the cries of frustrated drivers fill the airwaves of our scanners.
Auto Club used to make it all look too easy. I’m sure crew chiefs would spend sleepless nights setting up the ugly CoT in preparation for the snooze-fest. Once the car checked off all the wind tunnel results, the driver got inserted into the cockpit and the race was put on autopilot.
Well, time heals all, right? And what time did–just outside the land of Hollywood–is wore the track out. Right into perfection.
We can all plead to leave the warped field of competition alone, but there is also the reality that a gritty racing surface is one or two years away from crumbling into potholes that appear mid-race. Yes, heave a sigh of resignation. Once the decision is made to repave, have no doubt, Mr. Hyde will make his reappearance as the sedate, forgettable competition on which SoCal grew its reputation.
In the meantime, shake Dr. Jekyll’s hand and share a cold brew. He won’t be around forever.
I’m actually a little impressed. This year’s use of FLIR technology during NASCAR ON FOX broadcasts is actually more informative than years past. During the KFC “Heat Map” segments, instead of just aiming a camera at the glowing brakes at Martinsville, they are showing us how heat builds in the track, which creates the “groove.” It has been comparatively interesting track-to-track. Last week Phoenix showed us a sliver at the bottom of the corner where the cars could run, this week all five lanes were wide open. Funny how science can show us how it all works.
The video is a small example of what this growing use of technology can do in our sport.
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