A couple of weeks ago, Mike Neff laid the groundwork for how to look at the season and the new car. (Quick aside: have we figured out what the name of this machine is yet? Next Gen? Gen 7? Sugar-Free Zero Gen? Gluten-Free Gen 7 Next?)
Regardless of what the new car may be called, what we do know is that it has now been driven at two big non-restrictor-plate tracks and NASCAR racing has accompanied this situation. That may seem like a mocking statement but this car brought a lot of anxiety over the past year and many voices made it seem like it would be the death of racing and that NASCAR had once again made an ill-fated decision and would look like fools.
And yet four straight race weekends have come and gone with the latest on-track iteration. The story so far has been that the only stories are minor stories – and that actually follows the script that could have been written last summer.
The script is a simple one and follows a long-standing pattern of cultural behavior. The cycle goes something like this: some kind of change is announced; then people freak out; then change continues to happen; people continue freaking out; the change becomes part of the fabric of culture; people begin to accept and ignore that the change ever occurred.
Hereʻs a simple example to give the cycle some context. In the 1950s, some guy from Tupelo, Mississippi put out a record that brought out ecstasy from some and vitriol and condemnation a wide base of Americans. Joining this Elvis Presley at the front were the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, full of brash energy and explicit lyrics. None of them sounded anything like Pat Boone or Frank Sinatra and it thus made many people uncomfortable and spawned a serious backlash.
What happened is that over time, this new-fangled thing called rock nʻ roll, became normalized. Sure, there are the odd flair-ups every so often, as can be seen in the 1960s, or with punk in the 1970s, and most certainly as rap became prominent in the 1980s. And yes, the PMRC may have been created to police records with explicit language (see: Tipper Gore) but that did not deter record sales (and some say may have increased the sales of some albums).
The result is that, for all that panicking, rock/punk/rap did not stop, and eventually they have all become normalized facets of life.
Now put that in context with the 18-inch-wheel cars of today that don the NASCAR circuits and we see a similar concept. The sky is falling. The car is junk. It is unsafe. It looks stupid. It is stupid. It doesnʻt turn. The blinkers donʻt work.
All of the hullabaloo about the flat-bottom rear-diffuser car lapping the track belies that panicking is almost the expected part of the process. For all the naysayers and the criticism and the near wanton-failure of the car, the easy recognition would be to listen to who was not talking and what was not being said.
Say what you want about NASCAR, and having written for the sport for a number of years, many of you have no problem in doing so, but there are still smart people in the sport. If the governing body rolled out of trash concept of a car but told the teams that the only way to race was to do so under those flawed guidelines, the smart people would still figure out how to do so.
Engineers do what engineers do, and that is to get crafty in figuring out ways to make things work under the provisions given. Immutable laws persist, like gravity, or the NASCAR rulebook, but engineers work to ensure that things work.
We did not hear much from the people behind the scenes, the ones toiling away on this latest racing billboard and maybe someone should have gotten more of their perspectives on drag, sideforce, downforce, tires, structural integrity, and a host of other aspects.
But that would have been too much. Richard Hofstader pioneered a concept in American society when he published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963. He noted that Americans were happy to avoid engaging in intellectual discourse in what appeared to be cycles–frequently tied to presidential eras.
However, what Hofstader drilled down upon is that Americans, frequently, would rather things be made simple rather than attempt to engage with material at a different level. Hence, we get cultural cues that point toward the lowest common denominator.
When thinking about the new car, it appears that much of the rhetoric appealed to the LCD rather than aiming at going into full detail regarding its specs. There is also reason to question why the NASCAR broadcasts do not have an engineer in the booth for broadcast purposes–surely there is one who is camera-friendly and plain-spoken enough to discuss the reason why so many drivers are having so much problem keeping the wonderful new part-scarce machine running in the right direction.
That leads to the last point. The engineers will continue to tinker but a question about the racing product has now come to the fore. Many drivers have spoken lovely platitudes about the new car and how difficult it is to drive and that it is twitchy and that there is a reason for the record number of cautions in the first three races of the season (39 is it?)
Thatʻs great that the car is tough to drive. Congratulations. To whom the congratulations are owed is anyoneʻs guess. But sure, the new car is tough to drive – does that mean caution-fest races are a good product?
If there is one element that is being lost in the discussion of the new car it is whether making the car difficult to drive actually improves the overall quality of racing? For now, that is something that will still be up for debate after such a small sample size. The upcoming race at Phoenix could be a caution-free (save for stages) parade and will prove to show a different personality for the Next7GenCarRaceCar. That would be great. It also might not.
Cautions do not make for great racing. Nor, however, does watching the leader check out by 4 seconds and the race becoming a mere distraction so that one can actually time how long it takes for paint to dry.
So maybe all the panic was for naught. Maybe the engineers have done their job. Now, maybe itʻs time for the drivers to show that they are, really, some of the best in the world.
About the author
As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.