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State of the Sport - Part 1January 5, 2003
This is the first in a series of articles about what I think of the current state of NASCAR. The off-season seemed to be a good time for me to assess the "State of the Sport." Believe me, anyone who knows me personally will tell you that you would have to look very far to find a more diehard fan race. I've been following NASCAR since 1988 and still get a thrill as each weekend approaches. Unfortunately, in 2002, I got less of a thrill than ever before. Our sport has made several dramatic turns lately and not good ones in my opinion.
I guess things really have been changing over the last five or six years and I just wouldn't admit it. Many times in past years, my friends have spoken out about how NASCAR is alienating them. I was always the one who refused to join the general disdain for a sport that I love so much. And despite the criticisms and suggestions I'll be giving in this series of articles, I still love the racing itself. I just hope that NASCAR can straighten things out before they totally alienate even the hardcore race fans like me. There are several areas in which NASCAR needs to see the error of their ways.
Part 1 - The Bad Things About Technological Advances.
Believe it or not, I am all for technological progress. When I watch old races from the 1950's and 60s, I can really appreciate how far stock car racing has come, particularly in the area of safety. Unfortunately, in the last two or three years, the aerodynamic dependency of the race cars seems have taken almost all of the competition out of NASCAR. In fact, over the last ten years, the cars have moved very far away from the production cars that we all drive. And isn't that why most of us got into stock car racing in the first place? I know I started following the sport because I could relate the Grand Prix, Monte Carlo and Thunderbird to the cars I saw on the street. And in 2001, NASCAR made the final leap away from stock cars when they introduced the NASCAR Dodge Intrepid. A car that everyone knew was based entirely on the NASCAR Taurus. And in 2003, NASCAR will introduce common templates for all makes of cars. With this move, the Fords, Chevys, Pontiacs, and Dodges will be all be the same race car, with only slight differences on the nose and tail to link them to the production model of each make. Of course, NASCAR keeps swearing that this is not the case. Does NASCAR think the fans are so stupid that they believe these cars now have any relation to their street versions?
With the evolution of the aerodynamically slick car has come a major change in the quality of the racing we saw back in the days of the "notchback" Monte Carlos and big Thunderbirds they were running when I started following the sport in 1988. With this evolution has come the demand for more and more money from sponsors and car owners. Long time icons of the sport like Bud Moore and Junior Johnson have been forced to close their doors because they can no longer afford to field competitive cars. Rich multi-car teams can now spend unlimited time in wind-tunnels perfecting the aerodynamics of their cars. Years ago, this was unheard of, as was testing at the tracks prior to running there. NASCAR has announced a limit to testing at Winston Cup-sanctioned tracks in 2003 and this is a step in the right direction.
I really didn't believe in the so-called "aero-push," but in 2002, it seemed almost impossible for drivers to pass each other on most of the tracks. I recently read a statistic about how few races had passes for the lead in the last ten laps in 2002. In the past, this was something we rarely saw. NASCAR is looking at making the cars larger and less aerodynamically sensitive in the near future, partially to increase driver safety, but also to help bring back the competitiveness of old. If this ever comes to be, it will be great, but NASCAR should have curtailed this aero-dependency long before now. Long before track position alone seemed to determine the outcome of a race. What I love about racing is that it was always a combination of several things that put a car and driver in victory lane. It combined the driver's skill and daring with a fast car, the ability of the crew chief to set up and adjust the car, and the pit crew to efficiently and quickly service the car during pit stops. Along with a large dose of luck. But in 2002, it seemed like as long a driver had a decent car and the fastest pit stops, almost any driver could stay out front and win a race. And mostly because other drivers cannot get close to him to set up a pass because of the aerodynamics upsetting his car so much. NASCAR has to do something and something quick to make the cars less aerodynamic, so that we can return to the competitive racing that drew the fans to stock car racing in the first place.
Another issue affecting the quality of racing is the use of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega. Unfortunately since I watched my very first race in 1988, NASCAR has required the use of these plates. This is partially caused by the aerodynamic slickness of modern cars which has contributed to higher speeds on the superspeedways, but also because of NASCAR's fear of a lawsuit. I can understand that they don't want cars to go flying into the stands as Bobby Allison's nearly did in 1987, yet in my time following racing, we've still seen cars get into the stands at a variety of tracks. And the continuing use of the restrictor plates does not appear to have solved that problem. All it does is limit the competition even more, keeping the cars bunched up in a large pack, with the driver's skill having little impact on who wins the race. And year after year, regardless of whether they are going 212 or 182, the drivers show they can continue to have horrific wrecks at any speed.
The drivers also need to understand that fans don't really like restrictor plate racing. I'm not sure where they got that idea., but if I hear a driver say one more time that the fans love this kind of racing, I think I will scream. Did NASCAR brainwash the drivers into believing the fans really like restrictor plate racing in order to justify the continued use of the plates? But speaking for myself and most of my friends, we'd much rather see the cars run full throttle at Daytona or Talladega. They might be going a lot faster and we might be subjecting ourselves to greater risk sitting in the stands, but recent years show that fans can be injured in any number of circumstances. That's a risk we knowingly take when we go to any time of sporting event. But at least without the plates, there would be some separation between cars, which might just avoid these multi-car accidents that cause constant threats to the drivers as well as fans. I don't pretend to have the answer. I am not a gear head by any means, but isn't it possible to use a much smaller motor at Daytona and Talladega? Perhaps the 6-cylinder with which the production versions of the Winston Cup cars come equipped? And just for these two tracks, make the cars much more closer to their stock counterparts - to "dirty" them up and make them less aerodynamic? I know there has to be a better solution to the problem than what we currently have. Something better than continually slapping a smaller and smaller plate on the engines that restricts the air flow further and further and consequently restricts the racing as well.
My plea to NASCAR is to take just a little bit of the technology out of racing, make the cars just a little more like their showroom counterparts, and try and return some actual racing to the sport. Don't just provide us a parade each weekend. One in which the teams who have the most money perfect the bodies of their cars to the nth degree. One where those with the fastest pit crews can put a driver out front so he can win with very little racing on his part. To me, that's not racing anymore.
Read Part 2- The Problem with Expansion.
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