Sunday, February 26, 2012

Great Racing: It's Really Not That Difficult

One would think that the world's biggest race series with the world's finest drivers would have a clue as to how put on good racing.
The track is so wide... why is the racing groove so narrow?

One would be wrong. 

Indycar, NASCAR and Formula 1 have all struggled to one extent or another with the task. Nothing manifested the desperate situation more than Daytona's Speedweeks, a week-long, tandem-pack parade where racing "three wide" is so common as to become meaningless. After all, you really can't race any other way. Lose the draft for three laps and your race is over. 

Leading the race is equally meaningless. It's actually a disadvantage. You can't find a single driver in NASCAR who wants to lead at Daytona with two laps to go.

The most valuable skill a driver can offer is the ability to avoid accidents. That ability won more races at Speedweeks than driving talent. 

The problem is not confined to NASCAR. Also cursed with the dreaded pack racing, Indycar has worked its way through similar issues. Same with Formula 1. Thankfully, they've improved considerably, but F1 racing was so uneventful a few years back that watching it actually caused physical pain.

Series promoters have tried an array of embarrassing gimmicks to compensate for the lack of genuine competition. "Push to pass" buttons enjoyed a brief heyday. Mandating one set of sticky "red" tires was another artificial band-aid.

The repeated epic failure of gimmicks compels us to give authenticity another try. So let's go back to the basics. 

Remember the universal rule of auto racing - the wider the tires, the more narrow the groove. Conversely, the more narrow the tires, the wider the racing groove becomes.

There is little a driver can do to outrun anyone else when the car has sufficient grip to be be driven at full throttle through a turn. It is difficult to convince fans that stomping the pedal to the floor for two hours somehow qualifies as a test of driving skill. However, when the car has insufficient grip to be driven through a turn at full throttle, driving skill becomes a factor and vehicle separation occurs. 

Excessive grip denigrates every form of racing, not just NASCAR superspeedway events. Whether mechanical or aerodynamic, grip makes passing more difficult even on road courses. As grip increases, the racing groove narrows. Physically, the racing surface is as wide as it's ever been, but 60% of it is unusable because the cars can't pass through a corner side by side at racing speeds without crashing.

So how do we reduce grip? Simple. Take away mechanical grip by reducing tire size and mandating hard compounds. And take away aerodynamic grip by removing or reducing wings and spoilers.

Presto. Grip is gone. Driving flat out is impossible. The driver matters again.

Even short tracks should have learned this long ago. Instead of micromanaging the world with endless engine regulations and 300-page rule books, promoters can simply mandate hard-compound, 8-inch tires. Teams would then be welcome to spend mega-bucks on 800-hp engines without gaining a serious advantage because they only have enough mechanical grip to use the first 300 horses.  
Super Cup figured it out... 600 hp on old, hard tires

At every level of racing the reduction of grip results in more passing, higher quality competition and a more accurate measurement of driving skill. 

The Super Cup Stock Car Series has come up with a brilliant way to reduce grip and improve competition - they race on used tires. All tires are provided by the series. They're worn-out beaters that have at least 50-100 laps of competition already on them. The combination of 600 horsepower engines in 3400-lb cars shod with hard, slippery tires makes for truly great racing. Sure, the cars could average another 5 mph on sticky tires, but so what? The competition is awesome.

As a competitor in the series, I love this rule. I know that more of the race is in my hands. I have a greater opportunity to make a difference as a driver. 

Super Cup has not cornered the market on good racing... they're merely doing what every other series should have done years ago.

So this is really pretty simple. If you want a pack parade masquerading as an automobile race, increase the grip of the racecars. But if you want a true test of driving skill, meaningful passing, and genuine interest in something other than the last two laps, take their grip away and let the good times roll.

See you at the track. Best,

Stephen Cox
Co-host, Mecum Auto Auction, Velocity channel
#21 Packs Racing/Boschett/McGunegill Engines Chevy 
Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions 

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