Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"Parity" doesn't have to restrict competition

From its very beginnings, NASCAR has attempted to impose parity among the teams participating in the races they sanction. From the very beginning, car owners and drivers have been trying to find a way to get an edge on the competition by going around the rules and finding "gray areas."

NASCAR began as a "strictly stock" series, where the only modifications allowed to the cars was to tape the headlights and bolt the doors shut. The "strictly stock" rules only lasted all of 1949 and 1950, because, after constantly having to disqualify cars because of modifications, NASCAR conceded to the owners that modifications were part of the competition.

Since then there have always been parameters within which the teams can modify their cars, but there has also been some leeway in which the teams can try to find a competitive edge. As the NASCAR version of the stock car evolved, so did the methods in which the teams and even the manufacturers "tweaked" their cars to make them run better than the competition. Notorious "tweakings" were Chrysler's Hemi engine, which was disallowed by NASCAR in the mid sixties, and Chrysler's flying wing, which was also disallowed by NASCAR in 1971, and resulted in Chrysler's withdrawal from NASCAR competition as a manufacturer.

In 2007, NASCAR began introducing what was then known as the "Car of Tomorrow" or CoT to the series. The idea behind the car was twofold--safety and parity. Now known as the "Car of Today (CoT)," the "Car of Right Now (CoRN)," or simply "the Cup car," absolutely no aerodynamic modifications to the body or the rear wing are allowed. In addition, NASCAR dictates what rear end gearing can be used, and how far the rear end tracking can be offset. This was supposed to even things up between the well financed and the not-so-well financed teams. It was also meant as a way to cut costs for the teams and sponsors.

While there have been some good races this year, most notably at Lowe's, Phoenix, Talladega, and Martinsville, the Cup car has shown that it still needs a lot of work. Often, "parity" becomes "mediocrity," as the cars are able to catch up to other cars, but unable to complete a pass while racing wheel to wheel. In order to leave the fans completely satisfied at a race, NASCAR needs to allow more competition by allowing the teams to do a little more with the aerodynamics, and allow some experimentation with the other aspects of the car. Until the introduction of the Cup car, the crew chiefs could custom fit the car's handling characteristics to the driver's wants and needs, but now, with specifications nearly as limited as they were in the "strictly stock" days, that has become much harder to do.

If NASCAR wants to find the competitive edge among the teams that would keep the fans happy, while maintaining some semblance of parity, they might want to consider administrively limiting the amount of money a team may spend on a car during the racing season. This would be similar to the salary caps imposed in other professional sports.

It has been estimated that it costs about $7 million to run one race car in the Sprint Cup Series for an entire season. That includes the construction of the car and its engines, testing costs, transportation, salaries, tires, repairs, and entry fees. "Testing" doesn't include wind tunnels and seven post shaker rigs, those are extra. If NASCAR were to limit all teams to $7,000,000 per car, if that were possible, that would be a type of parity. But there would still be engineers and crew chiefs on each team who would want to change something on the car, and they would. In that case there would still be competition within the limits of parity. The downside would be that, just as in the "parity" we see now, innovation would be strictly limited.

Of course, NASCAR is correct in not trying to impose spending. It probably would take too much administration, and would also be an overstepping of authority by the sanctioning body. The idea of the teams having their financial records under review by NASCAR would not sit well. The best sponsors want to see the teams they sponsor have a competitive edge, and will provide as much financial support as is needed. As private corporations, the teams and their sponsors would be free to go to another series and race at venues not sanctioned by NASCAR, if they didn't like the rules that NASCAR imposed. It would likely result in NASCAR losing its top notch participants, and tranfering their power and prestige to, for instance, a new sanctioning body organized by Bruton Smith.*

*In 2004, Bruton Smith was rumored to be involved with Cale Yarborough in forming a new series featuring more traditional style stock car racing than NASCAR offers, but the idea never got off the ground due to lack of interest by sponsors and team owners.

Something that would make the cars race better would be to have tires that were made for the Cup car. NASCAR is still using tires designed by Goodyear for the conventional racing stock car. Since the Cup car has far less downforce than the conventional car, the tires either provide not enough grip to make the car controllable at high speeds, as we saw earlier this year at Atlanta and Texas, or have a compound so soft it does not hold up to the rigors of the track itself, as we saw at Indianapolis and Las Vegas. The Cup car requires a wider tire that would provide more grip while using a rubber compound that would stand up to the track conditions.

Goodyear, who has an exclusive contract with NASCAR through 2012, is working on a tire that would fit the needs of the Cup car, but that tire is not expected to be available for two more years.
This leaves the responsibility for better racing now in the hands of NASCAR.

Putting louvered vents on the left side of the car that would allow air to pass through the oil tank container would give the car a little more downforce, without affecting the aerodynamic characteristics of the car itself. That would be a quick fix that would not require an overall redesign of the body, and would not be too expensive for the teams to implement. Several teams, including the #99 team of Roush-Fenway Racing, tried to get away with leaving the lid of the oil tank container loose to allow air to pass through, so it must be a good idea.

The most practical thing for NASCAR to do right now is to allow a little more adjustment. Raising the front splitter would provide a little more downforce on the front end of the car. NASCAR could allow more adjustment on the rear wing as well, giving the teams a little more leeway. The #66 and #70 teams got caught a few weeks ago trying to raise the rear wing by 1/32 inches, so, again, it must be a good idea.

At Lowe's, for the Coca Cola 600 this year, we saw some great racing. This could be attributed to the fact that NASCAR allowed the teams extensive testing at that track, and also allowed the teams to offset the rear tracking of the car by so much it seemed as thought the cars were crabwalking around the track. This required a tougher differential and rear axle, so, NASCAR, in trying to limit the cost to the teams, limited the rear end offset to 1/2 inch. If NASCAR could ease up on that restriction, and allow the teams up to 1/4 inch offset more, we may get to see, once again, the kind of racing we saw at Lowe's.

It was wrong, in our opinion, for NASCAR to design this car and then leave it up to the teams to figure out how to make it race well, without allowing more tolerance within which the teams could work than they have.

Granted, for the second time around at the tracks, the racing is expected to be better than the first time, because the teams have had some experience at those tracks. But it has become obvious that more testing is needed at each track before the teams race at each track, and NASCAR has promised that more testing will be allowed next year. They have said, however, that there will be no more testing scheduled for this year. The problem is now, and we fear that the final race of the season at Homestead may be a disaster of the kind we saw at Indianapolis.

NASCAR needs to listen to the feedback given them by the teams, and relax the rules just a little bit this year, rather than waiting until next year. Parity shouldn't mean supressing innovation. It seems that a little bit would go a long way toward better racing.


Tim Zaegel said...

I'm really not even sure it would be possible for NASCAR to accurately monitor teams' spending. That just sounds like a nightmare waiting to happen with a lot of fingerpointing involved ... oh wait, we get that last part anyway, dont' we?

Clance' McClannahan said...

Great Post Jim.