You may not have heard much about Monday’s official NASCAR test at Michigan. But I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that it could be one of the most significant in recent NASCAR history. On the line will be two different attitudes, and two different visions for NASCAR racing going forward; NASCAR’s own, and seemingly everyone else’s.
According to Jayski.com, ‘Gene Stefanyshyn, vice president Innovation and Racing Development for NASCAR, said two different packages featuring various changes would be tested on the 2-mile track at MIS.
“We have a prime rules package and also will be doing a low downforce package, because some of the drivers have been very vocal,” Stefanyshyn said. “They think (low downforce) is a solution … so we’re going to try one of those.” The prime rules package will include the use of dive planes, a 9-inch spoiler, six-percent rear differential gear ratio, three different power levels (engine horsepower) as well as a driver adjustable track bar. Dive planes are small strips on the left and right side of the front bumper areas about halfway between the splitter and hood.’
To recap, since its introduction at the start of the 2013 season the Gen-6 racecar has been plagued with one notable issue; aero dependency. And while it doesn’t have a huge impact at certain tracks, this Achilles heel has been felt most keenly at tracks like Michigan – the intermediate and longer ovals of around 1.5 miles and up. Without going into too much advanced jargon, the Gen-6’s splitter, ‘shark fin’, incredibly low ride height and large rear spoiler combine to make downforce and airflow huge factors. The car actively relies on air flowing over the car to create downforce to make it fast – and when this is taken away, such as when another car is close by, the handling goes away drastically.
These characteristics are normally felt on cars with heavy emphasis on aerodynamics, such as prototype sportscars and open-wheel racecars (F1, Indycar and so on). But these series rarely ever run on high-banked ovals very close together in huge packs (and when Indycar does, they develop modified aero packages to compensate). In short, the very nature of NASCAR racing makes it highly unsuitable to rely on aerodynamic grip. Which is why it continually perplexes me that NASCAR seems adamant that this is a good way to go.
And the ‘prime package’ they are proposing for this test is only set to take things to a whole new level.
Dive planes? On a stock car?! You want to just say goodbye to any notion of rubbin’-is-racin’ or bump-and-runs whilst we’re at it? Because there’s a damn good reason why they don’t generally happen in sportscar or DTM racing. And you do realise that making the rear spoiler larger and larger only creates more dirty air for the car behind? Hope you enjoy the leader sodding off within five laps of every restart, as that’ll become ever more the norm – especially if the mooted decreases in horsepower come into play also. What next, the introduction of DRS and KERS in 2016?
Excuse me whilst I go and bang my head against a wall.
NASCAR has never been about high-downforce racing. It’s been about cars with very low downforce and enormous horsepower being wrestled around racetracks like huge metal rodeos – and in turn racing close together in big packs, rubbing, banging, beating. It didn’t matter what you threw at a NASCAR race car, it came back for more. And yes, I’m not naive enough to say that aerodynamics did not at least play some part. But never before did the racecars rely on downforce like life-giving oxygen, barely able to turn corners if this elixir of life is taken away for a micro-second. Like its spiritual brothers in touring car racing, stock cars understand that they are not be-winged supercars littered with aerodynamic and driving aids – they are regular, everyday cars taken racing. And that’s a huge part of the appeal.
And what is fascinating about this test is the recognition by NASCAR that even the drivers feel like taking away downforce is the right direction to move in. It shows that, for them, hitting 200-210mph into the corners and setting new track records in qualifying isn’t half as important as having a car which can race well with other cars around it. Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards have both spoken out previously about the Gen-6’s handling tendencies, and Stefanyshyn’s words would give a clue that they aren’t the only drivers who feel this way.
The fans would seem to be in general agreement with them too.
One cannot escape the fact that the pre-COT car was a great racecar. It ran well consistently everywhere, from short tracks to the Brickyard and everywhere in between. There was a charm to watching the drivers slide and bounce around at 170mph, and regular side-by-side and pack racing was the norm. And this contributed to other areas – the car being good meant changes to the package were minimal, meaning the costs to run the cars came down, meaning the spread of competitive teams was wider. Above all, though, the consistently brilliant racing meant the fans were happy. It didn’t matter if you liked the Chase or not – the quality of racing was still sufficiently high to keep fans flocking to the tracks and TVs every week. Now? Worryingly large gaps are starting to appear in the grandstands, even at circuits considered to be big draw cards in NASCAR. And notice how fans were never so viciously opposed to 1.5 mile cookie cutter tracks until recently – it’s no coincidence that these are the tracks the Gen-6 suffers the most at.
The worst approach NASCAR could possibly take right now, in my opinion, is to go with its ‘prime’ package and further increase downforce on the racecars. All this will do is further drive up costs, further decrease competition, and only increase the advantage of clean air. Instead, I recommend one of two approaches. Either look very closely at the drivers’ recommended package of lower downforce, because if anyone knows best how to get these cars racing well, it’s the guys who race them. This is also the route most fans and viewers seem to prefer. Or on the other hand; leave the current package well alone. Give the teams and drivers flexibility to work on the package themselves. We’ve already seen in 2014 a great leap forward in the quality of racing since 2013’s regularly awful dross, so what’s to say another year of organic growth won’t start to iron out these issues on their own? This also has the added benefit of helping bring costs down, and with teams at the lower end of the field feeling the pinch more and more, this could be a real lifeline for competition within the sport.
You can tinker the Chase all you want, Brian France. But ultimately the most important thing for a motor racing series is the racing itself. If the racing is great, the fans are happy, and the stands and garage areas are full.
Keep that in mind as the teams go out for testing on Monday morning.