As elusive as the printed form is, NASCAR has rules. Sports in general have policies covering everything from how the game is played to how players dress for competition. The rules put the competition on equal ground, at least to start. There are good teams and those who don’t perform as well, but they’re playing the same game by the same rules. You couldn’t have a basketball game with one team’s hoop 5 feet higher than the other; it wouldn’t be fair.
In the interest of competition, NASCAR’s rule book has grown thicker over the years. Following years of unrest from car manufacturers that one make was getting an unfair advantage and complaints between teams of the same, NASCAR tightened things up.
Things like gears and suspensions are tightly mandated. Teams now run just one engine on race weekend when they once had a separate one just for qualifying. Everything they do fists in an increasingly narrow box. These rules are meant to create parity, to make all things equal between teams.
But what if they’ve done the opposite?
Have regulations intended to make competition closer had the intended effect? Well, in some ways, they have. About half the field is capable of winning any given week, and we’ve seen just one repeat winner so far in 2017. The group of teams running on much smaller budgets than their more wealthy and powerful peers are always going to be behind them simply based on their limited budgets, and keeping the rules tight means they don’t need to spend money on more parts and pieces to try and keep up. It’s hard to argue that either of these things hurt the sport at all.
But what if teams had more areas to work in? If cars could be worked on more and were regulated somewhat less, possibilities open up.
Take suspension. If a driver struggles with one configuration, the team will be frustrated week in and week out trying to make something work. Give them choices, and suddenly they hit on something that makes them a weekly contender. What now?
Well, now some other teams whine about it, but most of them try to figure out what’s working and try to make it work for them. For some it will work, and they’ll also get more competitive. For others it won’t work, and they may fall behind, or they may go back to what worked with or without a tweak or two and be right back in it. In some ways, this is already happening, just as it’s happened for decades. Giving teams space to figure things out on their own would only accelerate the process and teams might cycle from front to midpack and back faster.
For race fans, that seems like a good thing.
When NASCAR announced its latest All-Star Race rules and different tire choices were among them, a few people sniffed at it despite the facet (or maybe because of it) that open-wheel series have done this for a long time. The way it’ll be implemented in May, with teams opting for faster tires starting behind those who didn’t, would not work in a full race, but if teams had the choice on a weekly basis, it would work itself out on track anyway, if the softer tire gave up most of its grip about halfway through a fuel run while the harder one lasted much longer. The ensuing choices made by teams is called strategy, and it’s something that has been disappearing in some areas of NASCAR for a while.
Maybe it’s time to bring it back.
It’s not that NASCAR should throw away the rules and go to run-what-you-brung overnight. The first changes would have to be philosophical, that it’s OK to see teams ride and fall and for some to find things that work. Thinking would have to shift from seeing a team doing something different and immediately saying no to letting them run with it, and letting everyone else figure it out and run with it too, or not.
The other things choices add is intrigue in individual races. Faster doesn’t always mean durable. Durable doesn’t always mean fast. But fast doesn’t matter if a part fails. Durable doesn’t matter if it gets beat on the track. But for fans in the stands, the heightened sense of urgency –they’re leading with this gear, but if they makes a mistake, they’ll blow the engine. They’re a little behind right now but they can make it to the end on these tires, and those guys might not.
That uncertainty is good. It makes the racing more exciting without changing the organic nature of a race at all. Debris cautions? If teams took more chances, they’d go the way of the dinosaur. Yes, they’d be replaced by authentic cautions, and safety could become a bigger concern—that’s a fine line to walk, but it’s worth seeing if a trail can be blazed on that edge.
There are areas where teams probably should not be allowed to work. The cars should look like cars, not the overly skewed caricatures that the previous generation of machines became. Engines, of course, are tightly regulated for a reason. Anything that interferes in any way with safety features should never be tolerated.
But beyond that, maybe it’s time to give teams a little space and let them work out who has an advantage among themselves. NASCAR does, of course, need to have a rule book, and they need to police it carefully. But widening some parameters might give teams a chance to be more competitive, and any time that happens, it’s good for race fans, too.
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