Saturday, January 30, 2010

Blogathon 2.0!

For anybody who reads my blog who might not be aware (this might be about three of you), the guys at Furious Wedge are running another edition of their 24 Hour Blogathon today. The main thing they're covering is the 24 Hours of Daytona, but they're also going to be touching on the Australian Open Men's Singles final, the X-Games, college basketball, and just about anything else you can think of that's going on right now. It was a ton of fun last year, and this year they're going bigger and better. I'll be back again to lend my "Geeky Thoughts", but there'll be a cast of thousands from across the blogosphere there as well. In addition, there'll be a live chat going on during the last hour or so of the TV coverage on Speed, which will be followed up by some international Mario Kart Wii. It's going to be a blast. Anyway, I'm signing off from here for the next 24 hours, but I'll be posting over there as much as I possibly can between all my other obligations at home.

See everybody at Furious Wedge!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Should Fans Call the Shots in Daytona?

I am at a loss.

NASCAR, after years (specifically, 2001 through 2006) of research, introduced a new specification car in 2007. This car, dubbed the "Car of Tomorrow", has undoubtedly improved the safety of the sport through the introduction of new thinking and new technology. The CoT moved the driver's seat inboard and added additional crush structures to the sides of the car. It also made provisions for larger window openings, in order for drivers to get out easier in the case of fire. There could be no question from any halfway rational fan of racing that any of these developments were positive.

However, the CoT has come under fire from many camps because of the way they look and the way that they race. The question of aesthetics is simply that, a question of what one individual thinks is attractive and what another doesn't. I, personally, am in the small group of fans who don't mind the new car. Frankly, the old car had morphed from something that very closely resembled machinery that you could buy in a showroom to a car that was unlike anything seen outside of a local short track. People have derided the new car for the same reason, but the people who want to go back to the old car constantly ingnore the fact that the old car didn't look anything like their street car, either. The new front splitter and new rear wing have also been derided, but as somebody who also likes sports cars and touring cars, both of which have carried splitters and wings for years, I actually sort of like those things.

As an additional factor, the wing was also introduced as an easy way for NASCAR to better adjust (and lessen) the rear downforce of the CoT and a way to better manage the air that flows over the car in the instance of the cars spinning and travelling down the track backwards. In short, when turned backwards to the direction of travel, a wing will allow some air to flow underneath it (this is how a wing works, with airflow over both surfaces) and escape over the roof, whereas a spoiler will not. This escaping air would lower the pressure under the rear of the car, thus lessening the tendency of the cars to flip over, and thus making the racing safer. Additionally, the wing end plates would spoil some of the air flowing over the rear of the car, where a spoiler has no end plates.

As for how the new aerodynmics have affected the way the cars race, this is an ongoing source for debate. Many people bemoan how the cars can no longer run nose to tail, and the preponderance of "aero push", caused by air no longer reaching the front of a trailing car. What people forget is that the old cars also had terrible aero push. The new cars are also more dependent on mechanical grip for their overall balance (due to NASCAR reducing the overall level of downforce on the CoT), and so teams have been experimenting with radical suspension geometries and setups: coil-binding, sway bars, and the like. What people easliy forget is that teams had already been experimenting with these things before the CoT was even introduced, so the CoT has actually changed this aspect of the sport very little.

This week (and before), there has been much talk of NASCAR getting rid of the wings and front splitters, probably because of input from the fans. I've read hundreds of comments and blog posts and dozens of calls into Wind Tunnel over the last two years to the effect of "the cars are ugly! The wings look stupid! Bring back the spoilers!" Look, folks. Those splitters and spoilers were introduced for a reason. Can any of these commenters or bloggers please do some lateral thinking and then tell me what will happen if the spoilers are brought back? I'm thinking not, mainly because the CoT has never been fully tested with spoilers instead of wings and splitters. Jimmy Spencer (in the first of those two columns I just linked to) spent an entire column saying that wings are terrible and are causing all sorts of problems. However, he presented no evidence of what the wings are actually doing, and showed absolutely no awareness of how the wings even work. At one point, he even blamed the wing for Joey Logano's flip at Dover, a flip that occurred at far below normal racing speed (he'd already hit the wall and slid along it for a couple hundred yards before flipping) and with two cars piledriving him into the wall. Yet Jimmy, who admits in his column that he is not an engineer though he certainly pretends to know better than those of us who actually are, claims that the flip would never have happened if there'd been a spoiler on Logano's car. OK, Jimmy! Got some wind tunnel data to back that up, then? No?

I only hold up Jimmy Spencer's column because it has been so symbolic of what I've heard so much from many NASCAR fans in the last year. Many of these opinions are not based in any sort of reason, and many of them have not taken into consideration the effects of what they've suggested. So, then, should NASCAR use these comments and complaints to change what they're doing on and off the track? I'm going to sound like an asshole here, but who should be designing the aerodynamics of a race car, a group of aerodynamic engineers with a wind tunnel at their disposal or a high-school educated backhoe operator who calls into Wind Tunnel every week to bitch about how bad the new car sucks?

In a similar vein, NASCAR appears to be considering wholesale changes to the way they police their races at the restrictor plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. Among other things, they may be bringing back allowing bump drafting in the corners and opening up the apron to allow cars to race below the yellow line. I'm sorry, but I thought that those two rules were introduced in the effort of improving safety. People seem to be claiming that passing will be improved and increase if those areas are opened up. You know what will definitely increase if they allow those things? Giant wrecks that knock peoples' favorite drivers out of races and reduce the spectacle of racing through increased yellow flag laps. You know what will increase passing? BANNING BLOCKING!

Getting rid of a no-talent tactic that decreases passing and makes the sport more dangerous? What a revolutionary thought.

Michael Waltrip went even further this week in suggesting that each lap led at the plate tracks should be worth one point. Sure, this may encourage people to try to get to the front of the pack instead of riding around in the back like Jimmie Johnson did this fall at Talladega (though his goal was not to lead but to survive until the end), but what happens for the people at the actual front of the pack? Leaders are apparently already allowed to do whatever they like to keep cars behind them, but if you start rewarding laps led with extra points without also banning blocking, you will see a huge increase in blocking and possibly even less passing. And that's fun to watch, right?

This may be a bit presumptuous, but I thought that Brian France, Mike Helton and Gary Nelson were each getting paid millions of dollars per year to make tough decisions about the safety of their sport. In fact, they're all getting paid to think about these things as their full time job. The fans, though? Many of them do not understand what actually happens on the race track. Watching Wind Tunnel for a week or two should illustrate that point quite nicely. So, why are they potentially putting the safety of the drivers (and fans) in the fans' hands?

Look, NASCAR can do whatever they want, and they certainly don't have to listen to me. Lord knows they sure haven't so far. But the idea to allow the fans to dictate what they do, either for aesthetic or un-thought-out emotional reasons, is a terrible precedent to make. If you need to make concessions to the fans (as some folks, drivers included, are saying), then reduce ticket prices or give away free t-shirts. But, if this is what NASCAR is going to resort to, allowing the fans to make new rules and decrease the safety of the sport, then they better be prepared to install torture racks at every track, for whenever Kyle Busch makes contact with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.