NASCAR’s low downforce aerodynamic package for 2016 was implemented to try and make the racing better, and no matter your allegiances, it is true, based on any metric or eye test you’d like to perform, that the competition this season has been better as a result.
There have been a couple of stinker races, sure, but that is the nature of racing. In the end drivers with better cars can move through the field and pass for the lead, which was not possible with last year’s package.
With the series off this weekend, Frontstretch sat down with Gene Stefanyshyn, senior vp of innovation and racing development at NASCAR, to talk about the 2016 rules package. Stefanyshyn talks about the pros and cons of the new package after roughly a third of the season is in the books. He also discusses the package that was run at Michigan and will be run at Kentucky. Goodyear’s role in the package development was also part of the conversation.
Mike Neff – The new rules package in 2016 has been a topic of conversation for the entire season. Most people think the racing has improved. What do you think the new package has been doing that is good for the sport?
Gene Stefanyshyn – I think the current package has produced some close finishes and better racing. There are a lot of ways you can look at it. You can look at numbers and metrics, [but] we don’t rely on just those. There are objective and subjective parts to it. Subjectively most of the people I’ve been talking to say it is better. We are seeing, in the back and middle of the field, more action as well. I think everything is better.
Neff – Do you also feel like the package has allowed a driver who has a better car to run down the leader and actually pass them for the lead?
Stefanyshyn – When you talk to the drivers, and I’ve had conversations with some of them, they feel that, aerodynamically, when they get within five car lengths they experience less of a bubble or barrier to break through. They indicate they feel it is better, although they do say that when they get to within a car length or half of a car length there is still a bubble there. Those are things we continue to work on but they have seen an improvement in that regard.
Neff – What has the package done so far this year that you would like to alter or make even better?
Stefanyshyn – I think, for the 2016 package and things we have been working on for the 2017 package, [it’s] the aerodynamic shadow that is cast by a car. How big that is, we’re trying to reduce it, so that cars around the car feel less of an effect of that aerodynamic shadow, as it were. With that, as we take some of the downforce and sideforce off of the cars, you essentially are taking some of the support mechanisms away from the driver. The car therefore will become more difficult to drive.
I think all of the drivers have understood that when we’ve talked about this. Each car, individually, will become more difficult to drive, and the drivers tend to like that because they get to utilize their skills and exhibit their skills more. That part of it will become more difficult, however, when they are around each other they should be more predictable, at least that is the thinking.
Neff – Looking back at this past weekend and the experimental package you ran at Michigan International Speedway, what do you think it did well?
Stefanyshyn – The drivers seemed to indicate it is directionally correct. They gave us a few suggestions that they felt, from driving the car, that we could work on. I do think the one thing it did say was NASCAR needs to really concentrate and watch the fact that the car is a handful to drive. [Joey] Logano began to tiptoe into that conversation about the car being a handful. When was the last time you saw a leader, the No. 78, passing a lap down car and spinning out? They seem to like that, the challenge to drive the car.
Neff – Looking at Goodyear’s role in the new package, a great aero package is negated if there is a tire that doesn’t wear out. If drivers car push the car to the maximum for the entire fuel run, it takes away from the driver input to making the car work as the runs go along. Goodyear has done a good job of bringing tires that fall off through the run without failing. Do you think Goodyear has done a good job marrying the tires with the package this season?
Stefanyshyn – Yeah, I think they’ve done a good job there. We need to continue working with that. We have seen fall-off improvements. The way we measure it is over 50 miles. We try and get a 50-mile run from 2015 vs. a 50-mile run from 2016. We measure the time gain over that 50 miles. We’ve seen significant improvements in tire falloff or degradation of lap times. We’ve seen up to a 70 percent improvement, with Richmond being a big improvement in tire falloff.
So I think part of that is as we take the aero forces off of the car and the loads off of the tire, we give them a bigger box that they can play in to develop tire constructions and compounds. They have been doing that and we’ll continue heading in that direction. The one thing that some people don’t understand or appreciate [is that] the tire falloff or wear is highly dependent on the race track surface. This is where it gets a bit complicated. Even if you do take a lot of aero forces off of the car, if you get a smooth track it is difficult to create tire wear.
Some of our smoothest tracks are Michigan, Dover and Bristol. Now, Bristol, because it is concrete and very small it has attributes that overshadow that. You get a very, very smooth track, you don’t get a lot of tire wear. If you don’t get a lot of tire wear you can’t dissipate the heat which results in going with a harder construction. There are some challenges there. We are now at the point where we have measured every track, with the exception of Sonoma. We know the roughness of each track and now we are beginning to correlate that with what we should be doing with tires. That is a part of the equation. People shouldn’t think that you can do anything you want with a tire at any track. They all require a different solution. That is part of the exercise, trying to get the tire to fall off and wear without creating some other issues.
Neff – How involved is Goodyear on the front end before you decide what changes are going to be made to these packages? Is Goodyear involved with what its abilities are and what it feels like it can do to build a tire to match your objectives?
Stefanyshyn – They are part of the process and an integral part. We have a meeting with them every Tuesday at 4 p.m., and we talk about what we saw at the track and if there were any issues or concerns that arose. We also talk about where we are going. When we develop any of these packages we do it in consultation with them. They have certain lead times. They have a lead time to produce tires so that we have enough tires made in the production process. If we are doing a new development, they need a lead time in front of that as well. Sometimes, if we plan far enough in advance, we can bring a new tire with the new package. Other times we’ll try a new package with an existing tire and follow up with a different tire later with some work. It depends on the timing of when you can get testing done and all of that.
It is an intricate ballet with the schedules and when you can get folks to the track and all of that. We try and sort all of that out. They are definitely a part of the process and we consult with them and work in collaboration with them. As we bring more data to bear on this I think our problem solving is becoming more robust and more based on data. We still use intuition and history and gut feeling because you have the track, the rubber, the construction, the compound and the weather element, so there are a lot of things that go on there.
Neff – Air under the cars is a balancing act. If there is too much allowed under the car, they can get airborne when cars get out of shape at the speeds you run. At the same time, it seems that would make them far more difficult to drive, and that is why the teams work so hard to get the side skirts down on the track. Is there consideration to reduce or eliminate the side skirts so that more air can get under the car and make them more difficult to drive?
Stefanyshyn – The whole idea of getting more air under the car has been analyzed several times, and we’ve been in the wind tunnel and on the track with a version one and version two of that. We have the center of the splitter raised a bit. The ends of the splitter are at the track while the center is raised around half an inch. We’ve been trying that, and we get a lot more air under the car there, and that does help create the ground effect of the vacuum thanks to the car being sealed to the ground. We’ve also looked at skirts and we’ve seen more benefit of working with the splitter.
Part of the skirts, too, is that they are critical for liftoff so we have to be very careful with the skirts. The idea of sending more air under the car, we have been working in that area. What we’ve done here going from 2016 to 2017, by make the splitter significantly smaller, we’ve taken some of that force off of the front of the car and how it enters the front of the car. There is also work going on with unsealing the car from the ground and we’ve done some testing on that.
Neff – Last year you tried the lower downforce package at Darlington and Kentucky speedways, and it was met with rave reviews, but it was decided not to implement it with the Chase. With the experimental package being tried at Michigan and Kentucky that gives a little bit more lead time into the Chase, is there a possibility we could see an implementation of changes to the 2016 package before the Chase?
Stefanyshyn – That is always possible, but we aren’t done with our work yet. We were in Kentucky Monday and Tuesday [because] we have the Kentucky race coming up. If you look at how we handled it last year, we didn’t want to unilaterally make a decision without consulting with our key stakeholders. Last year the way we did that was a discussion with the OEMs, a discussion with the drivers, a discussion with the technical community and the owners to make sure that we did something that everyone thought was fair. We were going into the Chase, people had done a lot of work on the package up front, people had done a lot of homework we didn’t want to put them at a disadvantage and pull the rug out from under them. It was on the table and we talked about it but, as a community, it was pretty overwhelming that we should kind of hold and introduce for 2016.
If you want to use that as a surrogate or idea of what could happen this year, you could certainly do that. Unless the thinking of all of our stakeholders changes significantly, I suspect we might find ourselves making a similar decision. Again, I don’t want to rule out anything because we aren’t there yet until we get through Kentucky.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.