Once upon a time, that wasn’t a dirty word in NASCAR. It shouldn’t be a dirty word in NASCAR.
So why has it become one?
Let’s roll back a couple of decades. Times were booming, and plenty of people wanted a piece of the pie. Manufacturers were heavily invested in racing, and they all wanted an advantage. What they didn’t want was for anyone else to have one. That was all well and good, but what it led to was a tit-for-tat situation where NASCAR was handing out changes left and right in response to claims of inequality.
At the same time, costs were beginning to rise. Sponsorship for the bigger teams nearly doubled overnight as companies were willing to spend to have a prominent place in the fast-growing sport.
There was a bit more of an illusion then that almost anyone could win, and until sponsorship began to balloon, there was at least some truth behind that. Teams could find speed in their cars in gears, in suspensions, in separate engines for racing and qualifying, in plenty of ways.
But the cost of dozens of sets of shocks and springs and drive train parts wasn’t a drop in the bucket, and as the larger teams began to rake in more and more money, the mid-pack and smaller teams began to fall further behind.
NASCAR’s response made sense as a short-term stopgap: they mandated specific gears and springs and shocks. Teams suddenly had less area to work in. The cars did become more equal, and then, a new car was introduced with a common body template for all manufacturers. Templates had no room for work. And then horsepower was restricted. And restricted some more.
In the name of parity, it all swirled and blended and melted together until everything was virtually homogenized. And the big teams still had all the trappings and all the speed and the little ones no longer had any way to innovate to close the gap.
And so parity became a dirty word.
Does NASCAR need parity? Absolutely. Sort of.
What’s needed is parity between manufacturers. That doesn’t have to mean common bodies and micromanaging. It should mean that no manufacturer has an appreciable advantage in horsepower or aerodynamics. It should mean that no team is at a disadvantage simply because of the cars they race. It should mean that teams are able to find their own advantages.
What’s also needed is parity in spending. What that looks like is another conversation for another time. Money has always bought speed, but there needs to be a balance struck between teams finding sponsorship money and coupling that with wealthy owners to do great things and driving the smaller teams out, or keeping new ones from entering because they know they stand no chance of ever becoming competitive.
To be fair, NASCAR has made some cost-cutting moves that make sense, at least to a degree. Limiting tires is an example; it also creates strategy at some tracks. Cutting at-track personnel isn’t a bad move, though it doesn’t change that the bigger teams have dozens more people back at the shop working to prepare cars for the next week, and the next. Limiting teams to one engine a week is no small savings and doesn’t hurt anything on race day.
What’s not needed is micromanaging. If teams want to spend their money on a dozen sets of shocks and a shock specialist at the shop to fine-tune them, that should be OK. Ditto gears and any other parts and pieces.
Body lines and engines should be non-negotiable. NASCAR should come down hard on teams that manipulate them to find an advantage. But other areas? The sport belongs in the hands of drivers, yes, but also in the hands of mechanics who find a little something more—that’s what NASCAR was built on.
One reason it’s hard to pass on track right now is that the cars are too equal. Suppressed horsepower means there’s not enough throttle response to make a move, and that’s made worse by the fact that braking zones are all but nonexistent at many tracks. Braking zones equal passing zones, and cars able to run on the throttle all the way around do nobody except the leader any favors.
Parity is a myth anyhow. Unless the cars are completely equally prepared (hello, IROC), someone will have something more than somebody else. IROC races were a lot of fun to watch (so were the car draws, especially when that dreaded pink car came up), but a full season of them would quickly lose its luster.
NASCAR’s role should be to make sure no one manufacturer has an insurmountable advantage and to find a way to rein in spending without limiting what the money is spent on. Let teams find speed for their driver, and let there be risk involved with that in terms of durability. It should feel like crewmen make a real difference in races in the cars they prepare. The sport was built on whoever could soup up their car the best each week and still pass inspection after the race.
It’s past time to bring back the soup and cut the fat.
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