“To the rear for inspection failure”
Those words were all too common in 2018 as NASCAR’s race weekend inspection process has become more and more technologically based. The precision optical sensors used to scan each race car are meant to catch even the tiniest variance from NASCAR’s rules, and they certainly caught plenty of teams off guard.
At most tracks (a few had special procedures, such as the superspeedways), one failure on race morning would send a team to the back of the line for another pass. A second would cost some practice time the next weekend, and a third meant forfeiting the starting position.
Teams that could afford one built their own optical stations, but that didn’t really stop the failures. It helped those teams somewhat because they now knew exactly where they could work, if at all, so they didn’t have to play it overly safe and sacrifice any speed. But two different machines would still have slight variances in calibration, so the penalties didn’t go away.
Teams ramped up their games, painting certain areas of the cars darker in an attempt to fool the scanners. NASCAR used a lower-resolution scanner on cars that were not black in base color to save time, and teams tried to exploit that. NASCAR put an end to it, and in reality, it was more so just posturing and trying to make others think there was an advantage, rather than any actual advantage.
Perhaps NASCAR’s biggest mistake came at Texas Motor Speedway in November when race control sent Jimmie Johnson to the back of the field after failing inspection twice. The problem? The rules state that’s the penalty for failing three times, not two.
The call came down too close to race time for the No. 48 team to lodge any kind of inquiry. In the end, it didn’t cost Johnson a race, because he didn’t have the speed to win anyway and was no longer a playoff contender. Still, it illustrated a need for change in procedure, because had a playoff team been penalized wrongly instead, it could have cost someone a chance at the title. And by the time NASCAR admitted the mistake mid-race, it was too late to fix it.
Is it possible that NASCAR, in an effort to create parity, took the inspection process overboard? Absolutely. While a person holding a template on a designated part of the car leaves room for error that a nonhuman process does not, it also leaves room for judgement — where a quick “go fix that” would usually suffice. Now, non-issues become issues.
Should teams expect any changes in 2019? Probably not to the process itself. They may see a few more weekends where cars are impounded after a Saturday qualifying session in order to shorten a weekend, and those weekends mean stiffer penalties for failing pre-race inspection because it’s also post-qualifying tech.
On one hand, nobody likes a cheater, and NASCAR for sure has a responsibility to both teams and fans to enforce the rules. The tighter process and automatic penalties for failing tech at different points in the weekend does that, and because those penalties are known beforehand and consistent, it’s fair. Except, of course, when NASCAR called it wrong for Johnson. But generally, that across-the-board transparency is a good thing.
But there is also a faction of race fans who take exception to NASCAR penalizing teams for failing tech at any point, including post-race. If that’s directed at the process, it seems backwards — fans for years complained (not incorrectly) about NASCAR’s lack of transparency with the rules and inconsistent treatment of teams for breaking them.
But it seems as though much of the resentment is not toward NASCAR applying the rules, but the rules themselves, which give teams almost no room to work and thus makes the cars virtually the same in many ways. If the fans are lamenting the lack of room for innovation, that’s something NASCAR should consider moving forward.
Perhaps there is a happy medium somewhere — giving teams more room to work, but penalizing heavily if they overstep. That seems as though it has the potential to appease both fans and teams who feel increasingly constrained by their lack of choices.
Some fans would like to see post-race inspection eliminated, but that’s probably going too far. As much as possible should be done at track, and there are certain areas all cars should be required to pass after the event. During the playoffs, particularly for the cutoff races, they could stand to take more cars — at least the two above and the two below the cutline.
NASCAR has said they are willing to consider stripping wins altogether for teams caught breaking the rules after a win, and that’s a positive step. The long-standing explanation was that fans don’t want to get home and find out the next day someone else got the win. But in this instant-information era, most fans would know before they left the track unless the infraction was found later at R&D.
Would learning the win didn’t stand really be more upsetting to fans than knowing a driver with an illegal car kept the trophy? That’s the debate NASCAR is facing.
As for the process itself, as long as NASCAR continues to clamp down with more and more technology and less and less room for human judgement, it’s likely that fans will see multiple inspection failures during many race weekends. The questions that need to be addressed are whether the majority are actually trying to break the rules and at what point is keeping the cars within such a minute window actually doing the right thing for teams or fans.
If NASCAR continues on this route, the main thing will be to make sure mistakes like the one at Texas do not happen and that there is a process for teams to speak directly with race control to plead their case before the race starts and the call is irreversible. The best route to eliminate controversy might be to reconsider where the parity really needs to come from and rethink the entire process, not just at the inspection line.