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.


Sean said...

I admit I know nothing about the engineering of spoilers vs. wings. I studied economics and statistics, and wasn't into the engineering side of racing as others were. But I'd certainly take your word for it over Jimmy freaking Spencer's.

Why is it that the Cup drivers who had the suckiest careers seem to have the most influence these days? Spencer and Michael Waltrip and Kenny Wallace are always mouthing off all over the place; Brett Bodine, who gets my vote as the worst Cup driver ever with an extended career, actually is involved some in engineering the COT, but he DOES have an engineering degree and is at least more sensible than those talking heads would be.

I'm no expert on engineering, but I've watched NASCAR long enough to know that aero push started in 1998 with the 5-and-5 rule evening the three manufacturers' spoilers...that was when the racing got crappy and was in my opinion the year NASCAR jumped the shark (especially given all the crazy marketing at the same time like "NASCAR's Night in Hollywood" and bad officiating such as phony red flags being introduced...all in one freaking season.) This was EIGHT YEARS before the COT, so there would still be aero push with spoilers, and my guess is that there would be MORE.

I don't give a crap what the cars look like. I'm not a car guy... Even COT detractors acknowledge the car is safer. I'd leave it alone and if you want to go back to spoilers, come up with a whole new design.

As far as flipping, from what I've seen the two cars seem to flip with about the same frequency; however, with the new car it seems drivers are less likely to be injured in a flip (see Michael McDowell).

Sean said...

I think you're somewhat wrong about bump-drafting and the yellow line rule. Yes, those rules were ostensibly added for safety, but NASCAR has never, ever, ever enforced those consistently and never will. The Regan Smith screwing changed my opinion on the yellow line rule completely. He WANTED to make the pass cleanly, Stewart blocked him, Smith did make the pass cleanly, then got stripped of the win because Stewart was the bigger star. That ruling effectively caused the Keselowski/Edwards and Stewart/Busch crashes this year that made a mockery of those two races. Had there been no yellow line rule Keselowski would have passed Edwards cleanly and Stewart would have passed Busch cleanly and there wouldn't have been such wild wrecks. Not to mention that other drivers like Junior are never penalized for going below the yellow line... IF they had allowed Smith to make that pass last year, then maybe keeping the yellow line would make sense. But now that the leader feels he has to block and second place feels he has to punt, this is where we're at. You talk about banning blocking. That would make sense, but can you possibly imagine NASCAR penalizing drivers for blocking? Junior/Stewart/Gordon/Johnson would never get penalized... I think they've boxed themselves into a corner where removing the yellow line rule is the only real solution.

Bump-drafting in the turns? They've kept doing it (ESPECIALLY Denny Hamlin, who bump drafts people into the lead by like three car-lengths...even though I can't stand Hamlin and know this isn't real racing I do enjoy watching Hamlin bump-draft people for some sick reason) and NASCAR never calls anyone on it.

They may have been rules for safety but since NASCAR is never going to enforce those safely, I think they should both be removed, giving the drivers more room to clean up their own messes since NASCAR isn't going to enforce anything competently to do it themselves.

Who does enforce blocking really? In ChampCar and IndyCar I can recall one leader each being ordered to pull over: Glock and Castroneves respectively. I recall Dixon being black-flagged once in the Indy 500. But lots of other times blocking has gone unpunished. Maybe it's something that should be done but nobody's ever going to do it and nobody's ever going to penalize the stars. It sucks, but it is the reality. I don't agree with you on that point.

The stupidest thing BY FAR was the Waltrip comment about leading individual laps on plate tracks. JESUS. Those are already the tracks that have nothing to do with driving talent (engineering + luck), and having them count as 1/9 of the schedule and 1/10 of the chase is already too much (they should be weighted LESS if anything). Not to mention NASCAR's decision to award 5 points in the first place to anyone who leads a lap is patently ridiculous, awarding 1 point to leading every lap at such an irrelevant track is even stupider. I'd award 1 point for each 10% of a race a driver leads, so it adds up to the 10 for leading the most laps if you lead start to finish, which no one is ever going to. But MW must be insane...or just serving his own best interests, because he's never done anything except on plate tracks when he had the overwhelming best car.

I wouldn't worry about fans deciding things in NASCAR, really. Is NASCAR known for listening to the fans? hahaha If they were, they wouldn't have moved Darlington and removed Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, wouldn't have adopted the chase, and wouldn't have adopted the top 35. I will admit that fans are mostly responsible for the green-white-checkered and the godawful shootout-style restarts. Probably most NASCAR fans don't remotely care about the engineering anyway and would have their first wish be to allow a fan vote into the chase to ensure Junior has a chance even though his career cannot possibly be redeemed at this point.

Sean said...

I know, this was overkill. One more thing about the yellow line rule.

There's pretty much been a big wreck in every plate race, before and after the yellow line rule was adopted. Do you really think there would be MORE big wrecks if the yellow line rule was removed? No, it would remain about the same no matter what rules NASCAR makes (unless they use smaller engines or less aerodynamic cars to slow the cars down, or lower the banking of the tracks). If the rules were about safety, how come wrecks didn't decrease? (Well, part of it is artificial debris cautions...I'll admit that...they started happening BIG TIME in 2001, which was the same year the yellow-line rule was added.)

The SpeedGeek said...

No time to write much right now, but you and I definitely agree on one thing: NASCAR got here because they refused to enforce their own rules. Every time they go to a plate track, it's "draconian penalty this" and "never ever do that", but the result is always exactly the same. I'm just saying that if they want to improve the on-track product and increase the safety all in one fell swoop, there's one thing they can do: enfore the rules. Easy? No. But it's something they maybe oughta consider.

It's just so aggravating that I've been railing about this basically since I started my blog nearly 4 years ago (plus for years before that), but the NASCAR alternative is nothing but a bunch of red herrings and stuff that may or may not work. It's not rocket science, guys. Just enforce your rules, the actual rules you have in place, and the rest will take care of itself.

Catie said...

If fans called the shots, there would be mass chaos on the track. End of story.
However, something needs to be done. I didn't enjoy any Nascar race I saw all year and I've been a fan since the ripe old age of 6. I grew up during the last few years it meant something to have a different manufacturer. I remember when people started complaining about aero push.
I agree with you: the COT car isn't to blame. What I don't understand is why they don't have someone like, say, Ryan Newman, who has an engineering degree be involved in the changes. His perspective would be valuable because he not only has technical knowledge, but also drives the car and could provide good feedback.
At any rate, something needs to happen, but the fans shouldn't be calling the shots.
1) Conflicting ideas
2) generally, lack the necessary technical understanding
3) a host of other good reason.
I don't have any proposals because I'm not going to make an assumption that I know what's best for these cars- mostly because I'm clueless.

Rick said...

Wow! Someone else remembers the "5 and 5 rule" and "NASCAR's Night In Hollywood"! That's right about the time CART moved into #1 on my racing radar...

The yellow line rule is there to keep drivers off of the apron of the track-a place with different banking that can destabilize cars making the transition and a place where disabled cars go to get the heck out of the way. A perfect case for the rule is the closing laps of the 1999 Daytona 500. You can watch the video on Youtube and see Jeff Gordon make a banzai pass around Rusty Wallace, barely avoiding a slow car in the process. (Incidentally, if you continue to watch that race, about 4 cars pull away never to be caught and they finish in about the same order. Is that what NASCAR wants? Are those the "good old days"?) Bottom line, (so to speak) the yellow line rule is there for a reason and needs to be there. NASCAR's enforcement is another question-Denny Hamlin seems to get more preferential treatment than anyone (See: 2nd Pocono race).

I'm convinced that Michael Waltrip was being sarcastic.

Sean, are you suggesting that the bump-drafting and yellow line rules shouldn't be there because NASCAR does a poor job of enforcing them?

The Keselowski/Edwards and Stewart/Busch wrecks were caused by blocking.
Keselowski moved down, then Edwards moved to block, making contact and turning himself around. I could see where you might suggest that, if Keselowski could have gone below the yellow line, he would have made a clean pass. The more basic argument is if Edwards had not blocked him, Keselowski would have made a clean pass. The yellow line or Keselowski's reaction to it didn't cause the wreck-Edwards turning the wheel to move his car down the track to block Keselowski caused it.
At Daytona, Stewart was cruising along in his lane. Kyle Busch moved up the track (away from the yellow line, which he hadn't been particularly close to) to block Stewart, making contact and turning himself around.

If they're not going to cut down the banking or downsize and rev-limit the engines, here are my suggestions:
1. Enforce the rules.
2. Keep the bump-drafting and yellow line rules.
3. Ban blocking.
4. Keep the CoT. The wing and splitter make the cars look more modern and more like real race cars; the large greenhouse makes them look more like real cars. Not to mention it's safer and those aerodynamic devices offer more adjustability.

Sean said...

"A perfect case for the rule is the closing laps of the 1999 Daytona 500. You can watch the video on Youtube and see Jeff Gordon make a banzai pass around Rusty Wallace, barely avoiding a slow car in the process."

Yes, Ricky Rudd was lucky to escape with his life after that one, and that race is definitely the best argument for the yellow-line rule.

"NASCAR's enforcement is another question-Denny Hamlin seems to get more preferential treatment than anyone (See: 2nd Pocono race)."

That was outrageous. I think Hamlin's punt in that race was clinical and contrived though. He was trying to "help" Kyle Busch get into the chase so he wrecked Reutimann out, because Reutimann was ahead of Kyle in points at the time. He definitely should have been penalized for it too, and then they tried to make it an "emotional" ending because one of his relatives just died. Gimme a break.

"Sean, are you suggesting that the bump-drafting and yellow line rules shouldn't be there because NASCAR does a poor job of enforcing them?"

Yes; I'm not speaking about ideals, I'm speaking about realities here. NASCAR blatantly gives superstars calls all the time. The Regan Smith screwing convinced all second-place runners afterward that the way to win is to force the leader to block you and spin off your bumper. With no yellow-line rule, those would have been clean passes. Banning blocking? Sounds good in principle, but knowing how NASCAR is GOING to be biased towards stars in all its rulings, the stars will get away with it; then the minor drivers will see the stars getting away with it and start blocking as well, and the rule will have no teeth. Although drivers can do some stupid things, I at this point trust them to handle things themselves over NASCAR officiating things. NASCAR won't ban stars from doing these things, and until they do that, no such ruling will have any teeth.

And I ask you, has the wrecking gone down since the yellow-line rule was added? No, it has actually increased. There was a point to it and Gordon at Daytona was that point, but now I think it would actually be better off without that rule, because until NASCAR starts showing backbone towards its superstars, everyone in the field is still going to continue to block and bump-draft. Idealistically, you and Andy are right. But in terms of the reality, I think there shouldn't be rules if they're not going to be enforced.

The SpeedGeek said...

There's one problem with the drivers taking care of their own disputes on the track. That used to work back in the old days, when the drivers actually seemed to respect each other and the danger of the situation. However, I don't see it working nowadays, partly because I don't get the idea that the young drivers in the series have much respect for the older drivers (I'm looking at you, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch), but mostly because nobody thinks that they can get hurt out there.

In the "good old days", first of all, the speeds were far slower. But mainly, the drivers were all quite familiar with going to other drivers' funerals. They all knew, even if it was on a subconscious level, that they could get hurt, so you didn't see much in the way of scores being settled on the track. Today, though, under the "watchful eye" of NASCAR, and with goading by the media, the drivers all think that anything is in play. That's crap. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were in freaking grade school the last time somebody died in a Cup car. Denny Hamlin was probably in junior high (too lazy to look up his birthday), but seems to have no memory of anything but who has wronged him.

OK, Mike Helton, you want to bury some drivers again? Fine. Lift all the rules. Let the fans and Jimmy "Half-Wit" Spencer design the aerodynamics. Or, you could grow some stones, stop pointing at all of the "innovations" that NASCAR's "come up with" (the SAFER barrier, the HANS device, unleaded gasoline, central air conditioning), and do something that's actually revolutionary: ban blocking. You'd in stantly have a one-up on every sanctioning body in the world (IndyCar doesn't do a good enough job of constant enforcement to put in a claim here) and your product would improve overnight.

Allen Wedge said...

I'm so late to this party, but wanted to say well said.

The overall problem like you all mentioned is 2 things: 1) that its been a while since even a remotely serious injury happened so no one (except maybe Brian Barnhart) is scared. Was Dario's broken leg maybe the most serious in NASCAR in the past 5 years? I mean shoot we saw cars in the catchfence doing 72 rolls where drivers got up and ran to the finish line to be amusing. 2) NO ONE enforces rules anymore. And Formula One goes the opposite way and makes up rules after the races are over to change results, lets meet in-between.

The fix is easy, make rules to decrease stupidity and actually enforce them; the rest will fall into place.

Personally in NASCAR I'd love to institute a 'per car wrecked' penalty. You cause the "Big one" at 'Dega you get docked that many laps in the race and that many championship points, then multiply the # of cars by 1,000 and there's your penalty fine.

Dan Schrementi said...

I listen to NASCAR Radio on Sirius and the drivers repeatedly say that the big one is going to happen yellow-line or not. Blocking or not.. etc... The blame falls squarly on restrictor plate races.

So if rules won't do it, and the restrictor plate is necessary for safety (which I agree it is) then the next step in the logic process lies with the super speedways. I just find it interesting that the sport's biggest races are its biggest conundrum.

Good read, SG.

- Dan