As fan concerns about the racing product NASCAR is putting out on track these days mount, the recurring theme remains the same: not enough passing, not enough excitement.
The field gets strung out, and because the cars are more durable than diamonds these days, cautions for phantom debris are common in an attempt to tighten up the field. Everyone knows the list by now; it’s the same old song and dance.
There are a lot of contributing factors, and they’re a familiar refrain as well: cookie-cutter tracks, aerodynamic dependence, ultra-durable tires. You hear about it all the time. But what if there was another contributing factor?
Earlier this week, Tom Bowles wrote about the lack of attrition in races, and that’s part of it, too, but at least part of that comes from something that has become more and more common in racing. NASCAR has, especially over the last decade and a half or so, slowly stripped teams of the ability to innovate.
Innovation seems to be a dirty word in NASCAR these days. If a crew chief is an innovator, he’s likely to be quickly labeled a cheater because he’s working in an undefined area of the rule book, because he’s figured out something that nobody else has within NASCAR’s ever-tightening rules.
Not only is it a shame that everyone is suspicious of anyone figuring out any advantage (that’s what the sport was built on, folks, and if you think teams cheat now, you need to read up on what went down in the good old days, because those guys put the most creative crew chiefs today to shame), but it’s also sad that the days of someone really being able to find a competitive edge any given week are over.
It wasn’t too long ago that teams had more leeway to choose things like springs and shocks and gear ratios, and that was a good thing. For one thing, there was a risk involved. Running a certain rear-end gear, for instance, might make a car fast, but it came at the expense of durability. That meant that some teams would make that gamble, while others would go with a less aggressive decision in order to avoid breaking something.
And it worked. Watching a race, you didn’t know if that fast car would make it to the end or break something before the checkers flew. Cautions happened during long green-flag runs because an overaggressive setup would rear its head during such a time. NASCAR didn’t need to look for debris; someone was going to make some.
When teams had more freedom, it led to more action on track as everyone had something different, something that worked for their own driver. Drivers had more options for finding the feel they wanted in a car. Teams could find speed in far more areas than they’re allowed to today, and that was good for the racing itself.
But allowing teams to work had its downside, at least for some. It led to complaints from fans and teams about inequality. They were right, of course, and that led to a lot of jockeying for rules changes specific to one manufacturer or another — Chevy wanted a tweak to the nose one week, Ford wanted to update the rear end the next and Pontiac cried foul and wanted a new deck lid the next. It did get a little ridiculous.
But equality is a funny thing. NASCAR tried to create it by tightening the rules and taking away areas to work in, but it has never been able to create true parity because the simple fact is that money buys speed, and it’s the huge spending ability of some teams that’s the problem, not the parts and pieces on the car themselves. Money can buy more of those things to be sure, but a smaller team could hit on something that worked when it could really try things, so the underdog had a fighting chance of a good showing. In all likelihood, NASCAR will never create parity by making the rules stricter as long as teams can spend as much as they want on finding new ways to work those rules.
The idea of innovation made racing fun. Yes, there was still cheating, but taking the chance that it would happen and letting teams make their own beds made for better week-to-week action. You might have Team A with a gear ratio that could make its car fast enough to pass at will and run away from the field but also put it on the edge of a blown engine or transmission. Team B might have a safer gear package but a spring setup that allowed it to find speed but risk a crash from how lose the car was. Team C might play it safe on both counts, and any of the three was a threat to win. Now, with many of the things that could once be chosen by teams mandated by NASCAR within tighter specs, all three would probably finish the race. Team A and Team B are going to contend because they have the resources to do so, leaving Team C, with its lesser budget, to struggle for top-25 runs.
What the sport needs is more areas for teams to work within, not tighter rules that make every car almost the same from the time they roll off the haulers. With more areas to work, more areas to take risks and make mistakes are opened up, and that puts an air of excitement back in the races each week. While it’s understandable, even commendable, that NASCAR made changes in the name of parity, the changes don’t create that level playing field. Lack of innovation not only keeps the racing from being exciting — it also takes away an element of risk.
Maybe it’s time to throw out the notion that innovation somehow equals cheating and let all the teams innovate in more areas. NASCAR needs to let teams find speed in different ways from simply buying it with fancy simulators and machines. Allow teams to make the bed they must lie in with the balance of speed, handling and durability. To make better racing, teams need to have room to find what works for them.
Good racing doesn’t come from everyone having the same shocks, springs and gears. It comes from everyone trying to make their cars better in a different way from other teams. That’s what makes racing exciting, and what NASCAR is lacking these days.