The "New" Nascar

October 13th, 2005  
Team Infidel

Topic: The "New" Nascar

NASCAR's Future Is Today's IROC

Published: Oct 12, 2005

NASCAR doesn't hide the fact it is trying to put some engineers out of work.

The ever-increasing standardization of the cars and tightening of the rules is aimed at deemphasizing technology and the people who pursue it. Why should a race team keep a staff of engineers if engineering ingenuity isn't allowed?

Much has been made about how the "car of tomorrow," the next-generation race car that could debut as soon as next year's fall race at Talladega, will have a boxier shape for better racing and safety enhancements such as a centered seating position for the driver.

What became clearer last weekend at Kansas Speedway is that NASCAR also is using the new car to create a "smaller box" in which teams can innovate to make their cars better.

With standardization of the cars and virtually no room within the rules to build "trick" parts or pieces, costs come down and smaller teams get a fighting chance against powerhouses such as Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. The downside -- voiced by some of the sport's top owners and crew chiefs -- is NASCAR becomes more like IROC, the all-star series in which drivers compete in identical cars.

"I think that's good,"

NASCAR chairman Brian France argued last weekend in a briefing with a small group of reporters. "We want it to be the best drivers and teams on the track. We don't want engineers winning races. I think it's great they're complaining about it."

So what wins races, driving ability alone?

"It's drivers, who's got the best team chemistry, who makes the calls on the race, when to pit, all the strategies," France said. "That's the biggest determining factor. There's always been an engineering side, but if we can diminish that, we're all for that. If you want to be in a technology contest, we're not the place for you anyway. We want competitive, side-by-side [racing], the best racing in the world."

Goodbye, Templates
The shapes of cars are regulated by a series of templates (steel pieces cut into specific shapes). Because there are tolerances of as much as two inches within the templates, fabricators, working on data collected through wind tunnel tests, have been able to tailor the cars' shapes for the various types of racetracks.

Talladega and Daytona cars are bullet-like and designed for the least possible drag. Cars for intermediate tracks such as Kansas and this week's track, Charlotte, are designed to trap the air like a sail and push the car down, thus making the tires stick through the corners.

The shape and dimensions for the "car of tomorrow," NASCAR president Mike Helton said at Kansas, will not have these tolerances. Fabricators will be limited to a precise shape, meaning teams won't need large fleets of cars for all of the different types of tracks.

Again, the goals are cost-cutting and parity.

"If a guy has 10 cars [now], then with this new car, he could do it with six at worst, and maybe with four," Helton said. "That comes with taking a clean sheet of paper and us policing the car in a way that it doesn't matter if the car is sitting at Martinsville [a short track] or Sonoma [a road course], it could be competitive. That doesn't stop anybody out there from building 36 cars. But you don't have to.

"That's the deal that opens some of the barriers of entry [to the sport], where if I want to be a car owner, then I am not scared to death when I start looking at coming in."

Lookalike Sport
If the Ford, Chevy and Dodge models competing in Nextel Cup were people, you would practically have to check dental records to tell them apart. That's how similar the cars look on the track. But there are still some differences between the car makes aerodynamically.

When the "car of tomorrow" hits the track with its blunter nose and taller "greenhouse," or driver compartment, even the wind won't be able to tell the difference between a Ford, a Chevy and a Dodge.

Each will basically be a NASCAR car with badging from one of the manufacturers. It'll be one basic shape.

"There are something like 80 templates for all of the cars today," France said. With the car of tomorrow, "there will be one big template that fits snug and tight, or there might be infrared or digital measurements we could take. If we do it right the racing ought to get better. More teams should have the opportunity to show their stuff and not be victims of how much money I have."

France and Helton make a good argument that reining in technology is in the best interest of their sport's health. By keeping out such things as exotic metals that allow higher RPM engines and traction control and standardizing the cars shapes, NASCAR essentially is doing what other sports do with salary caps: controlling spending so everyone can compete.

On the other hand, it's a less sophisticated kind of racing. Some of us like a little sophistication with our fender banging. Part of the attraction of racing is following how and why one team can make its cars go faster than another.

That isn't the NASCAR model, though, and these are not good times to be an engineer in the sport.