ATHLON SPORTS – BOWLES: FOUR THINGS WE LEARNED AT FONTANA
Once upon a time, Goldilocks attended a NASCAR race for free at a big, “cookie-cutter” superspeedway. The girl sat down and watched, politely only for the cars to never pass each other. “This racing is too boring!” she said.
Her race was… too many tracks, too many repaving jobs the last few years in this sport. Phoenix, Michigan, Kansas… new pavement, plenty of single-file opportunities. Fresh asphalt makes hard tires a must in terms of safety, turning speedways into glorified highway possession zones that make watching the local interstate preferable in comparison. Passing? What’s that? No tire wear makes everyone all run the same speed.
So Sunday, Goldilocks sat down at the old, rusty racetrack also known as Fontana. (The race was sold out, but some Muppet celebrity named Fozzie happened to scalp her a ticket.) So the girl sat down and watched, seeing white-knuckle competition only for half the field to blow out tires. Every ten minutes, the race went through wild running order twists, the fastest cars turned feeble in a race that could have doubled as Survivor.
“Oh, my God!” she said before checking the pressure on her own Goodyears before driving out of the parking lot in the Porridge-mobile. “This racing is just too crazy!”
Tires appeared to be an issue in Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, but who’s really to blame?
To its credit, NASCAR developed March Madness at a track whose wild finishes you could count on one hand. No fan can look at a green-white-checkered, where the field seemingly entered Turn 1 ten-wide and say they were bored out of their mind. It’s the circumstances that caused the five-star ending which turn a little extreme. In a 400-mile race, on a two-mile oval the longest green-flag stretch was 28 laps. After several drivers short-pitting, their setups too much to take for these Goodyears someone else would push it, just a little too much and wind up blowing a rear tire out.
Now, let’s not get confused here; Sunday wasn’t the crisis house Goldilocks visited when traveling through Indianapolis back in ‘08. In that race, the cars all ran 70 percent, like they were there on parade while tires didn’t last more than 13-14 laps. Disintegrating like a wet paper towel, that embarrassment emptied the seats at what was the second-biggest trophy race to win in this sport. At no time will Goldilocks, nor the people who were there (this writer included) forget the utter disappointment and disbelief suffered firsthand with one of NASCAR’s biggest events.
Nor was this race a repeat of Charlotte, back in 2005 when “levigation” left tires leveled, so much so that NASCAR nearly called the race. Tony Stewart, that year’s eventual champ was among several drivers who hit so hard they narrowly avoided serious injury. Before the SAFER Barrier, half the field limped home with hundreds of thousands of dollars in sheet metal repairs. No wonder “The race is too boring!” was Goldilocks’ mantra, for several years after that; rock hard tires were produced to the point NASCAR’s home track nearly wilted.
No, Fontana’s wrecks were (mostly) more forgiving by comparison; this tire was the same one that last year produced one of NASCAR’s finest intermediate races. Teams here are to blame, in part by getting aggressive, focusing on setups designed to last over a full fuel run. The thing is, Goldilocks learned by talking to some white-haired fan in the stands, stock car races of old didn’t have tires that lasted a full fuel run. Knowing when your rubber got worn out became a large part of success, taking old-school drivers who mastered those Goodyears to the top at rubber-chewing Darlington, Rockingham, and elsewhere. It’s been a long time since a guy like Carl Edwards had to figure out when his tires were all used up – before they bit and used up his car. It’s a point Kurt Busch emphasized Sunday, using his post-race presser to remind people teams now have free reign on air pressure and rear camber controls NASCAR used to mandate.
Problem is, too many talented drivers fell victim to the issue that it’s hard to blame it all on the teams. Hendrick Motorsports, who dominated the race with drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon saw the No. 48 car have a flat in the final ten laps. Ryan Newman of RCR had problems, as did Brad Keselowski of Penske Racing. Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick, both with Stewart-Haas, all three drivers from Roush Fenway… in all, more than half the field suffered through it. Rookie or veteran, the tires wore out so quick, with such frequency at one point Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s crew chief, Steve Letarte wondered if one of NASCAR’s richest teams would actually have enough to finish the race.
“Just can’t believe these tires,” said Johnson after his problem. “Looks like there’s 15 others ‘guilty,’ too.” Those sarcastic comments were matched perfectly by crew chief Chad Knaus, who deadpanned, “It’s our fault though” before listing every other “tire-blowing” racetrack of late where the race teams were blamed.
“This is crazy!” said Goldilocks again as the house with the three bears seemed trivial by comparison. She went up and asked the Goodyear boys only to get that Knaus’ prediction, to a T: It’s not our fault. Really, really.
“Every left-side tire that we’ve seen gone down or had issues with is kind of the same characteristics,“ Goodyear’s NASCAR racing manager Greg Stucker said. “[The] common denominator is being aggressive on air pressure.”
Where’s the real truth? Lying somewhere in between. The race teams’ performance on-track is what gives us good races; their tires are merely best supporting actor. That means aggressive setups, set by genius crew chiefs, is a pace Goodyear simply has to match. There needed to be a test where honest opinions got shared, on both sides, with long-term setups paired with a compound giving teams just a little more wiggle room. Did the tires have to be rock hard? Of course not. But 15 laps per failure, with the fastest cars all hitting the wall all just seems a bit off.
Sure, in the short-term those on Goodyear’s side will crow about the finish, that the teams need to prep better and “Oh my God, that ending was better than any college basketball upset!” But Goldilocks knows better, having read the news on reducing horsepower a day earlier. Why would NASCAR tinker with 2015 if the speeds, tires, and setups were all picture perfect?
But here’s the most important part of this fairy tale; how close “too crazy” can come to a very disturbing reality. Goldilocks saw tragedy, 13 years ago unfold right before her eyes with a death no one wants to experience again. One bad break, a tire blowing in 15 laps that got one of these stars seriously hurt and these words take a decidedly different tone this Monday morning. Let’s not forget.
At least the racing at Fontana showed NASCAR, Goodyear, and the teams are getting tantalizingly closer to perfection with this aero package. But Goldilocks, in leaving the speedway Sunday night, knew the truth: she still hadn’t seen “just right.”