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Holding A Pretty Wheel: Is There Room for Innovation in Today’s NASCAR?
(Credit: CIA)

Holding A Pretty Wheel: Is There Room for Innovation in Today’s NASCAR?

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.

(Credit: CIA Editorial Photography)

Are teams like Denny Hamlin’s #11 crew cheating, or being innovative? Could moe innovation be good for the sport long-term? (Credit: CIA Editorial Photography)

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.

About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Co-Managing Editor of Frontstretch since 2012, Amy oversees the site’s photography and daily content as well as assisting with staff management. A ten-year veteran writer and three-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, Amy pens The Big Six (Mondays), Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays), Holding A Pretty Wheel (Fridays) and writes a monthly diary with Truck Series driver Brendan Gaughan. A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

11 comments

  1. When a certain organization is successful, they’re “innovators who are on the cutting edge.” When any other organization threatens their dominance, NASCAR “polices the teams” a bit more. That kind of forward thinking creates legends.

  2. Exactly, Bob—Get the cars off the ground. Face It, the Cup Series would be a lot more interesting if they simply changed from the Gen 6 to the Trucks. It is a simple, radical answer—But it would be a HUGE improvement.

  3. remember..a certain teamis praised for working in the “grey area” and are innovators..everybody else..”cheaters”.

  4. Tire selection won’t work for stock cars on oval tracks. IndyCar only uses option tires on road/street courses, not ovals. On ovals, the teams will always take the tire with more grip. From my understanding, its just not safe to allow tire options on ovals. Goodyear’s job is already hard enough, they don’t need to be forced to develop 2 compounds for each race.

  5. Right now, everybody is doing the same RPM in the same spot on the track with the same amount of downforce… I agree, ditch the gear rule, so one guy is pulling up out of the corner faster, but
    isn’t quite as fast at the end of the straight…. Could also play into fuel mileage. That could
    allow all kinds of different strategies to play out…

    One thing you didn’t put in there, and it was a good list… Let them play with the rear
    spoiler angle again… That could potentially give some cars greater straight away speed, while
    some will give that up for higher corner speed… Would that make for better racing, I think so,
    it certainly can’t get any worse.

    Even when they had that stupid looking wing, they could change out the side plates, and I don’t recall if they had a wicker on it also….

    I hated the wing, it was just stupid, but I think it made for better racing by not punching as big of
    hole in the air.

    I’d also like to see the cars get up off the ground… A stock car should not be as aerodynamically
    dependent as an F1 car… So the speeds will come down, I don’t care if there is a track record
    set every week. Let the suspension be used as suspension again… Remember when they used to set them up soft for long runs, and then stiffer for short run speed?? Now its set up to get the splitter and side skirts onto the ground. I can’t tell if they are doing 180 or 190…

    The races don’t get me excited anymore… Used to yell at the TV, slide to the edge of my seat, heart rate come up, I’d get excited… Last time that happened was Keselowski and Ambrose at
    Watkins Glen, before that I don’t recall… Its been quite a long time.

    Something has to change, I’ve mostly lost interest, the racing has really gotten excessively dull
    and predictable. 2 laps to shake it out after a restart, and then a single file parade with a
    second between each of the top 10 cars…

  6. I can’t say that I like the kit cars or parity. IMO, it has produced some of the most boring racing. I don’t like the look of the COT cars at all. Yes, safety is important and I’m glad they have made those changes to protect the drivers, but IMO there should have been some other way than NASCAR mandating every piece and part.

    The IROC series no longer exists for a reason, it wasn’t all that interesting to watch or at least it never seemed to draw a big crowd. See any correlation between that and NASCAR’s fall in attendance and ratings?

  7. The biggest opposition to changes such as you suggest would be from the teams I believe. The more rules you have the more that favors the big budget teams. They have more engineers, more computer time, etc. to find the ever more elusive edge. Personally I would favor a return to the stock bodies over the current chassis. But unless the manufacturers revolt none of this is going to happen.

  8. Why is there a need for parity? Years ago, there were seasons when Chevys had an advantage on certain types of tracks, the aerodynamic Thunderbird excelled on Super-speedways and even Pontiacs, Buicks, and Olds had their advantages. A team would find something for a period, then the other teams would figure it out. Plus, the round Thunderbird, the sharp-angled Monte Carlo, and the fast-back Grand Prix all looked very different.

    • Without a doubt distinguishable cars with different advantages and disadvantages in different venues would make for far more entertaining racing and maybe reignite manufacturer rivalries. A simple solution, almost retro. Impressive.

  9. Do we have to state the obvious here? We all know of one team owner that’s real good at finding grey areas. And hey, if it’s really pushing the limits, why just “accidentally” running into the wall after taking the checker flag is a great option.

  10. Well presented and thought provoking. It leaves me wondering where that line is between parity and identical. While I want to see close racing there is something about the generic nature of the cars that takes away from the experience. In the past innovation at the track lead to improvements on the street. NASCAR seems if anything shape its rules to stifle any attempt to improve the vehicle.