Race Weekend Central

Time to Let the Engineers Play

This week has already been a busy one in NASCAR. To start, rain washed out what is supposed to be the usual Sunday raceday occurrence, leaving Martin Truex Jr. to snap his 847-race winless streak. The way that FOX sold his win, you might have forgotten that he won a race in the last decade or that he also earned a championship at one point. 

Yes, Truex had not won in 54 races, but really, that’s not even two years of Cup racing. For a 42-year-old driver who had 31 wins on his resume prior to Monday (May 1), this win follows the trajectory for many racers that still circle the tracks after turning 40. 

At some point this week, another champion made a surprise announcement by having his Legacy Motor Club team switch to Toyota next year. The team, formally known as Petty GMS, now called Legacy Motor Club, and partially owned by Jimmie Johnson, will be ditching its ties to Chevrolet to get its engines and support from Toyota in 2024. 

See also
Dropping the Hammer: 'Time Marches On' for Jimmie Johnson, Legacy MC

Such a move will surely make fans of Petty thrilled. The desire to express anguish toward Toyota has been the target of some of the fan’s xenophobic nature since the Japanese-based company joined the Craftsman Truck Series in 2004. By 2008, when Kyle Busch earned the organization its first win, the vitriol seemed to stay at a particular level and has hovered there ever since.

With Johnson and Petty, Toyota is now backing two of the biggest names statistically in NASCAR, who hold 14 championships between them. Any outcry should be directed toward the notion of economics and what it takes to run a championship-caliber team. 

While that news may have been shocking, the National Motorsports Appeals Board issued another decree, this time aimed at Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing. Apparently, RCR is no Hendrick Motorsports, and tinkering with the underwing means the 60-point, $75,000 fine will stand. 

While it may be fun to debate the penalty and what happened and go into specifics, the bigger matter that arises is just how busy the pit police and appeals board have been this season. One might think that teams are running contraband cars, something straight out of Mad Max, the way penalties are being issued. 

This latter element is part of the bigger issue surrounding NASCAR at the moment. 

One of the things I often ask my students is a rather simple question: what are we watching? The question is simple but often means that we are overlooking something bigger, so we should take a moment to recalibrate. 

“What are we watching” is meant to get to the basics, to think about the product before us and our relationship to it. In that regard, if we were to watch laps from the Wurth 400 from Monday, the question of “what are we watching” offers some particular insight.

From one perspective, we are watching cars negotiate a 1-mile concrete track in Dover, Delaware. From another, we are watching a sporting event taking place on the national stage in front of few actual spectators. From another, we are watching the fastest billboards on earth. From a competition standpoint, we are witnessing a race devoid of on-track action where restarts and pit crews seem to determine the running order more than anything else. And from a neoliberal capitalist’s perspective, we are seeing how the money involved in sport stratifies the field and ensures that NASCAR reifies notions of class and hierarchy.

If I got these answers, I would be thankful but I’m still not sure it would get at what seems to be bugging me. The sport has become one that feels too loose and yet over-policed. 

See also
Happy Hour: Was Dover Martin Truex Jr.’s Last Win?

The drivers are allowed, if not permitted, to act like the art of driving is an unfamiliar concept, one that was left back at the shop all in the chase to gain spot with a car that rarely lets them do so. While Ross Chastain has become the easy target for runaway rambunctiousness, he is far from being the sole perpetrator. The notion of on-track policing has been discarded and drivers instead move toward on-track haranguing and destruction. 

Don’t bother offering up the ‘good ol days’ rebuttal because there was nothing poetic about Dale Earnhardt punting Darrell Waltrip into the wall at Richmond Raceway in 1986. 

The wreck is said to have pretty much ended Waltrip’s career and it is easy to scan the footage and notice the lack of safety measures that modern drivers and fans enjoy. 

While the drivers are temperamental egomaniacs strapped to hyperbolic horsepower, the cars themselves have become the acknowledged challenge and the disappointing recognition of stalled technology. 

With the cars scrutinized to the full, with bodies measured by lasers and engine parts weighed to the milligrams, all sense of creativity and advancement has been sidelined in the name of fitting in the box. The worst part about the car is that it doesn’t work. The short tracks have shown that, in an amazing display of confused construction, aero push can happen nearly anywhere. Dover, not a girl and not yet a woman, sits in between short and intermediate tracks and passing looked to be almost impossible on the track. Martin Truex Jr. running away on two tires while Chastain chased him down on “four fresh Goodyears” says everything about the car’s performance.

What becomes absurd is that Formula 1 likes to scrutineer their cars to an absurd degree as well – but the cars are allowed, nay, encouraged, to be different. Sometimes a team nails it and finds everything it can in the regulations, and sometimes they miss and wander off into a bewildered state of being after ruling the sport for years at a time (see: Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Williams). Some teams fail, some succeed but the endeavor of letting engineers have some freedom is a beautiful thing. 

In NASCAR, keeping everyone so tightly constricted means failing to use the wonderful minds that populate team headquarters. Let the engineers have some fun. Let them get creative. Let them see if they can collectively and singularly create a racing product that offers something more eye-catching, scintillatingly fast, and more conducive to on-track entertainment. Because it would be great to see fewer penalties and appeals and avoid the sport becoming the America’s Home Video of driving asininity. 

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.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

10 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
sb

AMEN! This has turned into IROC deuce. Without creativity and innovation it is pathetic.

Bud

I have been a fan since the ’60s. I read years ago that Honda would not come to NASCAR, because the box was too tight for their engineers too learn anything. I’m sure that is true today.I believe NASCAR’S and some fans ideal of perfect season would 36 races and 36 different winners.BORING ! NASCAR is destroying it’s self and don’t have a clue !

Christopher

NASCAR will never admit that their much-vaunted Next Gen baby is an underperforming and unsafe failure. The hideous looking (and much safer) Car of Tomorrow raced better than this disaster of a car.

John

Darrell Waltrip popularized the notion that engineers were ruining the sport of Nascar. Since his expiration date, Nascar has continued to cater to that customer base. With the 18-49’s watching more Formula 1 than Nascar, perhaps there is a need to rethink the sport from ground zero.
First, how do you define a “good race.” Some race directors appear to think that throwing a yellow for any reason with 10 to go defines a good race, but I do believe this is a critical part of defining the direction of the sport.
When a few win many, they become heroes. When many win one, you have parity. When everybody is a winner, nobody is a hero and nobody is an underdog. Bob the jack man may be the everyday man’s hero, but not mine. I don’t pay to go see a tire carrier determine the outcome of my 4 hour investment in time or the price of taking a family of 5 to the race track. If the pit roads are tight…fix the pit roads. If speeding penalties are determining who wins and loses, put a button on the wheel that limits speed.
Finally, Nascar needs to take back control of scheduling. TV ‘partners’ start times suck. The potential for late afternoon showers is greater than any other time during the day. Rain delay or postponement are awful for ratings, too. Plus is limits the number of people who can attend races. Who would drive to North Carolina to watch a race on Sunday night if the kids have school and you can spend another vacation day? Apparently many others believe that, too. The gate will soon matter to track owners when the team owners demand a bigger slice of the TV money (I still think a strike is all but inevitable).
Finally I would recommend opening up the tuning envelope that the teams have to work with. Let them have free reign over bars, springs and shocks.

Jim

I really wish NASCAR would listen to this message but I’m not very optimistic. The F1 point is so on target. Tightly regulated in some ways — but also with room to innovate. NASCAR should easily be able to figure out a way to do that!

Bill B

There has to be limits set but, right now, the limits are so narrowly defined that there is no room for any innovation. No one wants IROC cars (I hope). Right now NASCAR is pretty much neutering their sport.

Ed Rooney

The engineers can’t play. That’s by design.

NASCAR has done an incredible job…. of painting itself into a tech corner.
For example, a gear change in yesteryear meant a trip to the hauler and back. Now, it means at least a year lead time and a convoluted cross-reference shareholder sign-off approval matrix that would make the federal government blush.

Not just gear changes affected by this either. All the elements that need to be be tweaked for each race track are now, effectively, cast in stone. Engine components, body parts, ‘glass’ components, the chassis, electronics, tires, brakes, etc. Very few of these can be tweaked week to week. At best, engine horsepower can be raised by 50-100 hp without a major rework.

Yes, NASCAR engineering is now, arguably, ‘too good’. But NASCAR, a 75 year old organization (!), has all but sealed its fate with suffocating layers of bureaucracy. I think sometimes it is inevitable with any long-running group or company or organization.

The enormous capital expenditure for this latest (flawed) car alone will ensure that nothing changes substantially in the short term. There is no going back. This is NASCAR now and for years to come.

Brian

The 1986 Richmond race is a good example but the Bristol race where Earnhardt on ancient tires just blasted Terry LaBonte into the wall on the final lap might even be better.
Interesting Chastain is chastised and Earnhardt is worshiped. Both essentially have the same behavior behind the wheel.

Alfred in AZ

Lot of good comments here. I agree that the “box” needs expanding. The balance between sport (including ingenuity) and entertainment is tipped too far towards the latter.
Keep the body and aero under control but open up the chassis tuning options. A technology arms race would be expensive, but a reasonable middle ground could be a good thing.

DoninAjax

They should be using ’79 T-Birds and Monte Carlos so they can actually “race”!

Share via