Home / Amy Henderson / Holding a Pretty Wheel: On the Wrong Side of Parity
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Holding a Pretty Wheel: On the Wrong Side of Parity

Parity.

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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About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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10 comments

  1. Avatar

    It’s not the length of the racing it’s about the ability to pass other cars for the lead. Short track racing back when Dale Earnhardt Sr and Jeff Gordon were racing that was racing. Pushing and banging the other guy for a spot or the lead without having to worry about getting black flag for rough driving like we are seeing today. My god, you can’t even bump draft on a super speed way without getting a warning, take a look back to the truck race at Talladega when the leaders got black flag for it. Its called racing boys, let them race.

  2. Avatar

    Really great point on braking zones Amy. There’s a lot to be said in skill and equipment when that is factored in and absolutely leads to more passing. Great point Jeremy made as well about the spoiler settings. I think the bottom line is NASCAR was built on innovation. When today’s model is viewed, there is no innovation allowed and that has had an extreme trickle down affect; the cars look the same (loss in manufacture interest/investment), the racing capability is too equalized (lack of passing), and the seats become more and more empty. This results in sponsors seeing less bang for their buck. I know there’s no “one quick fix” to get things back to where they were but I definitely think allowing more intuitive measures put into the car will start to turn the tide.

  3. Avatar

    I agree with John. 4 hours plus is way too long, for a generation who has an attention span of about 10 minutes. Advertise the race as “400 miles, or TV time remaining”. If, at the end of 2 hours, or whatever time frame you choose, the race isn’t over, throw the checkered flag at the end of TV coverage. Indy Car has done this, why can’t NASCAR?

    • Avatar

      This will not be possible until the next TV contract. Imagine if they shortened the races starting today. In order for the TV folks to get their money’s worth, there would have to be 45 minutes of commercial per hour of coverage. Since ratings would not rebound for years, the cut in TV money would be huge and cut the overall revenue down by as much as 50%. I doubt many in the industry could stomach that.

  4. Avatar

    Just about to leave for ISM for the weekend. I’m excited to go for 3 days and still sleep in my own bed but it seems like an IROC weekend in many respects.

  5. Avatar

    The premise of the rules today is that if everybody is the same, then everyone has an equal chance to win. I couldn’t disagree more. Money will still rise to the top because picked through the pepper to find the fly poop is more expensive, not less. If there are no variables except the very small and very expensive to find, small teams won’t have the adjustment capability to develop a winning car, a point you touched on.
    The guy that belongs in the Hall of Fame is the guy that developed the business case model in the 80’s that showed companies that having an ad on a race car was better than a Superbowl ad or a roadside billboard. But I don’t really care about the business of racing…I just want to see a good race, which to me means the best car wins. My only wish list item is to shorten the TV experience. Don’t cover the ‘color and pageantry’ because its not either on TV. Shorten the ‘stage delays’, shorten the races. Fit it into a 2 hour commitment for the viewer.

  6. Avatar

    Taking away the ability to be innovative or to have options has sucked the life out of the racing. bravo.

  7. Avatar

    Agree but some of that is extremely difficult to do. For example, make sure no one has an aerodynamic advantage without a common template. I suppose if the cars were static, after a few years of on track data, they could get pretty close but the cars keep changing every few years. I don’t miss hearing manufacturers (and fans) whine after every race that the others have an advantage (although they still do) and I am sure NASCAR is happy that they don’t have to deal with it every week, but it sure seemed the races were better when they didn’t have common templates. Maybe that is the cost of better racing.

    • Avatar

      Aerodynamic advantage… doesn’t NASCAR currently have to approve aerodynamic design (at least of nose/tail pieces as they relate to manufacturer differences)? Thus, NASCAR must have (or could require) wind tunnel data to approve a body or any aerodynamic part. I don’t see this as a big change. The only thing I would mandate is that once NASCAR approves your template, that’s it for the entire year. No tweaks, no changes. Good or bad, it is what you have to work with.

      Also, since we’re on the subject of aero and bodywork… I think NASCAR should mandate full open grills at all tracks an NO taping over them for aerodynamic affect / handling. However, I would give teams the ability to set the rear wing angle wherever they want it. Fold it flat down the back, go straight up, or lean it forward if they want. Whatever. So long as the rear spoiler is the correct length and height, they can set it wherever they want. Heck, I’d even allow them to not run one at all! However, whatever it is set at for qualifying is what they start the race with. They can change it on pit stops to tweak handling, but not between qualifying and green flag.

      Totally agree with giving them back suspension settings. Set min/max ride height front and back, and dictate the cars cannot crab-walk (I hate seeing that!), and let them have at it. Gears? Set min/maxes and let them run whatever they choose within that range.

      • Avatar

        Well I suppose “Good or bad, it is what you have to work with.” would be fair to everyone but if one manufacturer didn’t do a good job it would mean one third of the cars aren’t competitive. Would that make better racing? Would people be more likely to tune in? Personally, I wouldn’t care but I am just being the devil’s advocate in pointing it out. It is kind of important that whatever NASCAR approves for each manufacturer is fair. Wind tunnel data only shows part of the picture. It isn’t until they get data at all types of tracks that they can start to get the complete picture. It’s a hell of a balancing act. We don’t want identical cars in the name of parity but it wouldn’t be much fun to tune in every week and see one team/manufacturer dominate for the entire year. So, like I said, it’s easier said than done.
        Beyond the aero/body template, I agree with letting them do whatever they want (within some guidelines) on all the other areas (gears, spoiler, shocks, etc,). Those are the areas that allow someone with a disadvantage in one area (aero) to find a way to mitigate that deficit.

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