It’s happened a few times in recent years: a team finds what they think is a gray area in the rule book, only for NASCAR’s response to be completely black and white when a penalty is handed down. Actually, that’s happened throughout the history of NASCAR. Teams look for every advantage, and NASCAR looks to keep them on the straight and narrow.
One by-product of bending the rules has been new rules. As teams find different things, NASCAR might let them slide, if they’re not technically illegal. And if they’re not illegal, they soon may well be. The rule book has gotten significantly fatter over the years as NASCAR has tightened most areas so that there is very little room for teams to make the choices that were once common in the sport.
On one hand, the cars have evolved far from the early days when they were taken off the dealer’s lot, the doors welded shut and a few roll bars added and then went right to the track. Teams and manufacturers wanted the cars to be faster and race closer, and they worked toward those areas. Safety innovations were put in place as well, and it wasn’t long before strictly stock was largely a thing of the past. In the mid-1990s, manufacturers pleaded their case for race-specific car bodies and won. Before that, race templates had to fit both the street and race versions of the cars in most areas. Not anymore.
That triggered the “car wars,” when the manufacturers and teams lobbied for changes after seeing what someone else was doing better. NASCAR played along for a while, but ultimately made the decision to go with more uniform cars, and along with that, there were more mandates than ever on things like gear ratio, springs, shock absorbers, and just about everything else. Teams now have very little choice when it comes to the cars.
In some areas, that’s not a terrible thing. There have been many safety innovations added through the years, and those are areas that should not be compromised. NASCAR has always taken a hard line on engines, and again, that’s fine. Some teams will always find a few horsepower here and there, but for the most part, taking a hard line on engines and components is good for everyone.
So, is there room for innovation in NASCAR? Absolutely, and the sanctioning body should be finding ways to bring it back to some areas.
It wasn’t that long ago when teams could choose their rear gear ratios for each track. There was a risk and reward factor in gear selection; go too far and you’ll have durability issues. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Today’s cars are so reliable that it actually takes away from the racing a little. Wondering whether a fast car could make it to the end was part of watching races in the past, especially at certain tracks, and it added suspense, which is in itself a little bit exciting. Opening up gear selection could make the competition better and add a new strategy to the mix that’s sorely needed.
As long as they serve the intended purpose, allowing teams to work on suspensions. Again, there’s a risk and reward factor here, especially with no minimum ride height. Set the car up too stiff and it won’t roll through the corners or get down into the track properly, but set it up too soft, and there’s the risk of grinding the splitter or even cutting a tire, and it won’t travel through the corners very well, either. Too little choice here means that teams don’t have to work as hard to get it right, as they all work within the same box. Open that box up, and while some teams will find more speed, others will have to fight their cars. In other words, it would make the drivers have to drive harder — the actual object of the sport.
As far as bodies, there would be issues with going back to full stock templates, though it has the potential to be implemented slowly, as a down-the-road thing. It would take manufacturers time to redesign their race models if they want to stay in NASCAR, and the potential danger is that one or more of them might decide it wasn’t worth the cost and drop out, leaving just one or two makes, which might turn off the fans who are brand-loyal. Street cars don’t have the distinctive features they used to anyway, and many makes already look similar. The Gen-6 body has some brand identity while being fair among manufacturers. What NASCAR needs to do here more than anything is to not allow drastic variations on the bodies, especially those that made the fourth-generation car look like a grotesquely twisted version of a car, like it was caught looking in a funhouse mirror. They need to look like the street versions; if anything, I’d like to see them more symmetrical now.
Finally, are there ways NASCAR could open up tire strategy without opening up to multiple manufacturers and risking an inferior, and dangerous, product? Yes. IndyCar has a rule which actually forces teams to use tire strategy throughout a race. There are two tire compounds at the track each weekend: one which is durable but has less grip, and one that is grippier but doesn’t last as long. Teams must use both tires during a race, but how they choose to do so is up to them. There’s no reason this couldn’t be brought to NASCAR-tire choice could make for some on-track battles and some difficult choices for teams. Jimmie Johnson‘s tire woes at Loudon are a reason why opening up tires and suspension would be a good idea. His team gambled and lost, and that’s something there isn’t much of today.
In general, that’s exactly what opening up some areas to teams to work in would do: make them gamble. It would bring back the days when drivers had to race not only each other, but also the tracks and their own cars. It would mean taking risks and reaping the rewards if they work out — and an early exit if they don’t. Wondering whether a driver is going to blow an engine or a tire adds suspense for fans, and that makes the racing more exciting.
NASCAR’s intent in tightening up the rules was to create parity, and that’s never a bad thing. However, allowing teams to take risks —and suffer the consequences if they don’t work out — might actually open doors for smaller teams to hit on something, for an older driver to find a feel he used to like. The sport was built on innovation, and it’s time to bring it back.