Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: NASCAR Simple as Childs’ Play

For those of you who are regular readers of my essays in the Frontstretch newsletter, you likely noticed my absence last week. I enlisted the help of a colleague (thanks again, Clayton!) to cover my spot while I made a quick trip to North Carolina. While I’d love to say that I was in Mooresville consulting with Penske Racing or JR Motorsports, I was actually there visiting my two teenaged daughters. Both have jobs that will keep them from making their annual trek to northern Michigan this summer, so it seemed simpler to take our parental show on the road and head south.

One advantage to having family in the Mooresville/Charlotte region is that such visits enable me to mix business with pleasure. While spending time with my children, I am able to check the pulse of NASCAR Nation right from its own backyard. My wife and son had recently ended their school years, so we found an ideal time for family travel.

My son just finished second grade, a year when he and his friends were obsessed with the Lego-based video game called Minecraft. This is a creative game that requires players to exist within a natural setting. Players have to build shelter, find food, protect themselves from predators, and pretty much manage all facets of their daily lives. Minecraft is also what’s called a “sandbox” game, meaning that it is all about the playing; there are no points to earn or levels to achieve. It also teaches some pretty interesting lessons about the difficulties of life.

This is where NASCAR enters the picture.

Soon after returning home from North Carolina, my son walked around the house with a “pickaxe” made from Tinker Toys. When I asked him what he was doing, he said that he was a miner, like a character from Minecraft, who had to dig for things.

My maternal grandfather spent most of his life working in the anthracite coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania, so I assumed my son was mining for coal to generate heat his character needed to survive cold nights.

It turned out my son was mining for diamonds that could be used to create swords and protective armor (don’t ask). As he saw it, mining was as simple as jabbing your axe into the ground. After a few swings, you would hit diamonds and your problems would be solved.

Tell that to your late great-grandfather, I thought.

Video games like Minecraft, while encouraging some level of problem solving, also tend to oversimplify life. Mining is as easy as swinging a pickaxe, just like building a house is as simple as stacking some blocks. The ends overshadow the means because advances in technology have allowed this to happen.

My son’s “mining for diamonds” reminded me of an interview I heard back in May with Greg Biffle. The Roush Fenway driver was talking about the new rules package and how it changed the basic nature of Sprint Cup racecars. A reduction in overall horsepower, coupled with changes in aerodynamics and weight, all mixed with new tires from Goodyear, produced the current cars NASCAR Nation loves to hate.

Biffle – an experienced veteran in the Sprint Cup Series – said that the new cars were almost impossible to spin, which reduced the number of accidents and affected all sorts of race-day dynamics, including pit strategy and the infamous inability to pass other cars because of dirty air.

The current Cup cars have an excessive amount of sheetmetal behind the rear wheels, he explained, and that extra metal changes aerodynamics to the point where cars are pretty much glued to the track surface. This seriously affects the air flowing over the cars and creates many of the issues we grumble about each week.

Advances in car design reduced the difficulty of going fast while also reducing the legitimate chances of passing your competition.

The evolution of stock car design is easily charted by a walk through the NASCAR Hall of Fame. On the day of our most recent visit, there were multiple school groups there on end-of-year field trips. One of the first exhibits you see is the “Glory Road” display of famous stock cars from the 1940’s through the present era.

Even a novice NASCAR fan can readily see the changes in sheetmetal and body design as they walk the “road” and move from yesterday to today. Fenders give way to splitters, spoilers, side-skirts and shark fins running from door to bumper.

Maybe this explains why so many young drivers begin their NASCAR careers with high hopes, decent finishes and rapid climbs to the big time.

And design advances involved more than just the shaping of sheetmetal. Consider the benefits of things like improved tire construction, more reliable engines and added safety measures following Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001. From seats to belts to helmets, NASCAR is far from the sport it once was.

I remember when Geoff Bodine ran Cup races using power steering and full-face helmets. I remember when his brother Brett used something called a HANS device that made him move about like Darth Vader. Think about how those developments changed NASCAR for the better, and how suddenly driving a stock car became just a little bit easier (and safer) to do.

It’s like mining for diamonds in Minecraft versus mining for coal in Swoyersville, Pa. They are similar activities, but yet totally different in range and scope.

And now we face more differences as NASCAR tweaks Cup design yet again at midseason. Reducing downforce by half a ton will put drivers back into the competitive equation which should, in theory, improve the ability to pass other cars. More passing will mean better racing. Better racing will mean happier fans. Happier fans will mean a more popular response to NASCAR as a mainstream sport. We (and Brian France) can only hope.

It’s as simple as mining for diamonds with a Tinker Toy pickaxe.

About the author

Dr. Mark Howell is a college professor whose life and area of specialization is all about motorsports. He has published two books on the topic, has appeared on numerous national television and radio programs to talk about NASCAR and has been part of the Frontstretch team since 2011. Mark also spent three years (2001-2003) as a part-time pit crew member in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. As a professor, Mark teaches courses in advanced writing, popular culture, and film studies. He is also on the nominating committee of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach, Florida. In January 2017, Mark was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. It has curtailed his writing for Frontstretch, but he still manages to provide content whenever possible.

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