Wednesday , July 23 2014
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Holding A Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Needs Innovation, Not Restrictions

Holding A Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Needs Innovation, Not Restrictions

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.

Crew chiefs such as Chad Knaus, pictured above, would have much more room to innovate if NASCAR moved away from it's policy of parity.

Crew chiefs such as Chad Knaus, pictured above, would have much more room to innovate if NASCAR moved away from it’s policy of parity.

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.

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.

15 comments

  1. This is a really good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Brief but very accurate information… Thank you for
    sharing this one. A must rread post!

  2. There is so much wrong with NASCAR that waining fan interest is inevitable. That said, the lack of innovation is certainly a contributing factor. Identical cars with engines all produced by a few builders is a recipe for dull. Put these kit cars on cookie cutter tracks, add interchangeable drivers and you’ve got the new NASCAR.

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  4. Your opinions have a lot of merit Amy. The “new” racing or “putting on the show” have all contributed to ho hum racing. When NASCAR stopped scoring at the finish line for yellows, stopped racing to the finish line on yellows, and incorporated the lucky dog and wave arounds it was good for the show, but changed racing and drove away the old school fans. The debris cautions and arbitrary green, white, checkered finishes just added to the demise of fans who grew up watching the real races. As long as NASCAR is willing to sell TV rights over what people want in a race the fan base is going to continue to shrink. Guess it all boils down to racing vs the show.

  5. The new look of this website is awful, can’t spend more than 5 minutes on this site without my eyes hurting. I have enjoyed the past several years with Frontstretch and its followers like kb, Carl D, JohnQ and many others but this new visual style is just too painful for me. Wish you all the best of luck.
    Joe..

  6. well, apparently I stopped typing before the end of my sentence. That last word should be “successful”.

    workus interuptus

    LOL

  7. Love the look of the new website — very nice! I had read Tom’s article last week and thought it was well thought out. As he said, attrition WAS part of racing and it was interesting to see if the tires, engines, etc held up throughout a long race.
    I agree with your premise, too, Amy because NASCAR has worked so hard to get parity and essentially made this into another IROC series and then had to start manipulating things in order to try and put the “fun” and challenge back into it. I understand the whole cheating issue and why it makes people crazy, but I guess my point of view on this is — if everyone is “innovating”, cheating, whatever you want to call it, it makes it more interesting and many ways a lot more fun. Certainly better than the whole kit car scheme that they came up with. That’s a bad race car that has never performed well and how in the heck are you supposed to have loyalty to any manufacturer when all the cars look alike except for the decals. They’ve done a little better with allowing adjustments on the ride height but now that the majority of the racing is back to the 1.5 or 2 mile ovals with the high speeds, the racing is back to being a high speed parade and pretty dull to watch (at least if people are watching on TV). Me, I don’t bother to buy tickets to any of those tracks. I feel that it is a waste of my time and money. I’ll stick with the short tracks.

    I was really surprised to hear Humpy say that he though Brian was doing a great job — maybe at bringing in $ from tv and various sponsorships for the France family & NASCAR’s coffers, but as far as making it a better sport, I totally disagree that he has been successfu..

  8. Great article Amy. I still believe the evolution of the “lucky dog” and “wave around” coupled with the new point system changed the way teams approached the strategy of the race. They don’t have to race that hard in the back because its much easier to get a lap back. They were also willing to settle for the position they were in to obtain a good points day. They would have to race very hard to stay on the main lap because it was hard to make it up. The leader usually got passed because he had to work hard hard on putting a car a lap down. There was always a race within the race ergo more for a broadcaster to talk about other than single file racing. Yelling when NASCAR gave the Chevy’s a half inch more on their spoilers or took off half inch on Fords air dam was fun too. Keep up the great articles.

  9. This is mostly correct. Except that it’s non-Hendrick crew chiefs that are labeled rotten cheaters who need to be fined and penalized. When Hendrick does it, it’s “working in the gray area.” When anybody else does it, NASCAR “needs to police the teams.” Regular fans might complain about Knaus, but few others will.

    • I’m a 24 fan – we complain about Knaus cheating all the time! I was so happy when Gordon moved so he wasn’t in that shop any more. I swore Knaus sabotaged the 24.

  10. Amen! If they succed in making all the cars ‘equal’, there is no point in holding the race! Innovation (cheating) used to be a point of pride…if you could figure out a way to out fox the other teams, you were admired. Making everything the same is not exciting.

  11. All good points. It may make it more interesting or it may just allow someone to bore everyone to death if they happen to gain too big of an advantage. I think the answer is simply more short tracks (and maybe road courses). All the aero crap is out the window at short tracks. Even damaged cars with minor damage can compete. If there were more short tracks and fewer 1.5-2 mile tracks the 1.5 mile tracks would be more bearable because it would be a change of pace instead of the norm.
    I do agree that NASCAR should allow teams more leeway to innovate but short tracks can be an equalizer as well to allow under funded teams a chance.
    You did call attention to the one thing that I am glad went the way of the dinosaur. The weekly whining by one manufacturer or another saying that the others had an advantage and NASCAR constantly tweaking the cars in response. I do no miss that at all.

    • Hate to break it to you but aero is just as important on the road courses as the ovals. It, like the reliability of the cars is just a part of modern racing.