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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Why NASCAR sets the standard for how to run the sport

by Gordon Kirby
These should be sobering times for open-wheel or formula car racing around the world. We all know the web of problems shrouding IRL and Champ Car and of course, Formula 1 has wilfully plunged itself into perhaps the most ego and greed-laden Machiavellian episode in the checkered history of the most exalted of racing categories. The Stepneygate saga has exposed F1 at its worst and with the story set to run and run it's impossible to estimate how much damage will be done to the FIA's world championship.

Meanwhile, NASCAR continues to roll along. Despite soft TV ratings, weak crowds at some races, the much-criticized transition to the Car of Tomorrow, and the arrival of Toyota, the France family's leviathan of American motor racing remains in rude health as the Nextel Cup series enters its Chase for the Cup play-off season.

As everyone knows, former F1 and CART superstar Juan Pablo Montoya is the poster boy for NASCAR's new global expansion with Dario Franchitti and Jacques Villeneuve poised to follow his tracks. Montoya's move from F1 to Chip Ganassi's Cup team was a first for racing and his pair of NASCAR wins to date in a Busch race in Mexico City and Cup race at Infineon Raceway, have paid off for Ganassi, his sponsors and NASCAR as a whole. For his part, Montoya couldn't be happier with his move into the 850 hp, 3,400 pound beasts.

"I'm having fun," Juan commented in New Hampshire last weekend. "You get to race every week. The races are awesome and the cars are a handful. It makes it interesting. I wouldn't change it for anything."

Montoya loves the pure pleasure of racing in NASCAR. "It's good because you're always racing," he said. "In open-wheel you get frustrated because you can't pass people. Here, you can, and if you don't do it, you can try again and try again, and you will pass him. There are always different patterns and grooves, and every week it's a different track and a different set-up."

Juan readily admits there are politics in NASCAR, but nothing like Formula 1. "There are some politics, but I think it's a well-balanced environment," he remarked.

© Paul Webb
The most difficult adjustment Montoya has had to make is not in his driving but in learning to live with being out to lunch some weekends. "I think the biggest thing you've got to learn when you come from open wheel is that some weeks you're going to run thirtieth, or thirty-fifth," he observed. "And that is so hard to understand, especially when you ran thirtieth and did a good job! It's hard to explain because there are races where you did a worse job and you finished fifth."

Juan says it can be argued that there are more details for the driver and team to play with and dial-in during a race weekend than there are in F1. "You play with geometries every week and in open-wheel racing you never do that," he said. "In open wheel, you've got bars and springs and the front wing, and that's it. Here, you've got shocks and steering and suspension geometries that you're always messing with. So in many ways there are more things for the drivers and for the teams to either get right, or screw up.

"There are a lot of things we've still got to learn as a team," Montoya added about his adventure with Ganassi's team. "We've got to be better and be more consistent as a whole organization. I think when we're good, we're as good as anybody. We've just got to be that good every week."

Another measure of NASCAR's continuing success, beyond the flood of open wheel drivers coming into Cup racing, is the switch to the Car of Tomorrow. The move to the larger, bulkier CoT has been criticized by everyone from drivers and teams to the fans and media, but the fact is the transition seems to be going extremely well.

Sure, the cars may be less attractive and any visual differences between manufacturers have been essentially eliminated. Nor do many drivers like the feel of the new cars and it may well be shown over time that the new car doesn't race as well as the old because it makes only half the downforce created by the old car.

All that aside, the logistics of the switch to the CoT appear to have gone much better than predicted. NASCAR's vice president of competition Robin Pemberton says a healthy working relationship between the organization and its teams and drivers is the key to this successful process.

"I think a very important thing is there's a mutual respect between the teams in the garage area and us," Pemberton commented. "A lot of times it gets played out in the media as something other than that, but for the most part there's a mutual respect between the teams and us. They understand what we're trying to do and we understand what they try to do to compete and try to get a leg up.

"I think over the last couple of years of working on this project, when the competitors and the governing body realized what path we were headed down, everybody took stock in the program. Everybody voiced their opinions and had their little fixes. We didn't drop what we were doing and start over on any project or part of it, but we listened to the teams and they listened to us. It was a good educational process back and forth between the two groups about what it takes for them to compete and what it takes for us to organize and keep the sport in check."

© Paul Webb
Pemberton says the Cup series' top drivers have provided invaluable input into the development of the new car. "You go to different racetracks and drivers come in and say, okay, here's what we're working on, here's what I feel, here's what it's doing, here's what I really think is important," Pemberton said. "Whether it's a Jeff Gordon or a Jimmie Johnson or a Matt Kenseth, or any of those competitors, they've all given us their input.

"Now that we have this good working relationship on this car, we take what they say and we go to work on it. We look at everything, but if it's something that we think is valid and deserves a good look, we will do that."

Pemberton is proud of how well the new car has worked in the face of predictions about shattered spoilers littering the tracks and suggestions of other reliability problems. "All in all, the car has been a lot more durable than what people expected it to be," Pemberton remarked. "We lost the first splitter at the last race in Bristol, and we've only crashed out and lost one wing so far out of all the practice, qualifying and racing we've done. So it's been pretty good.

"I think a lot of people underestimated the work that all the people at the R&D center did ahead of time. We did a lot of homework and I think that was a suprise to some people. I think our guys did a really good job and the competitors did a great job of coming on board and taking it serious when it was time. Everyone made a good go of it."

The biggest public problem with the new car was the burnout of the safety foam pads which afflicted Kevin Harvick and a few others in some early CoT races. "Actually, it wasn't the foam that was the problem," Pemberton remarked. "It was something else in the car. There was part of the chassis that shouldn't have been where it needed to be. The foam took a rap that it didn't deserve."

Pemberton says Dow Chemical engineers were a big help in sorting out the problems. "Dow did a great job and worked with us and the teams," he commented. "Even 'though it really wasn't their issue, they worked on helping solve the issues, like all of our partners have along the way. We've developed some different ways to contain it and they kind of got a bad rap. But nonetheless, there are a lot of those things that came along the way that we fixed together.

"A lot of those were things that were probably going to happen at some point in time due to an extreme set of circumstances that lined up. The foam wasn't installed correctly and we had some trouble with that. That being said, there might have been an opportunity for an ontrack incident that allowed the foam to get in the wrong location. So we took a good look at it. We may not have had that problem this year, but we might have had it next year when we ran the car thirty-six or thirty-seven times."

Pemberton points to the inspection templates as another thing that required refining. He adds that the CoT's brakes have worked much better than many critics predicted and says the real difficulty in stopping the new car is adapting to its higher center of gravity.

"There was a concern that the brakes were going to run hot but they flow more air than ever," Pemberton pointed out. "We've allowed the car to take in more air, even though it was an overcompensation, because it's not the fact that the ducts don't flow the air, it's the fact that with a higher CG the car is harder to stop and hard to make handle. It's a residual effect of the inherent qualities of the car.

"It's been a good learning process. People have been able to tune their cars quite differently with bits and pieces rather than the entire car being scrapped. That's been a good point with this car."

The teams are allowed to run a different combination of specified rear wing endplates on the CoT. The endplates are flat or curved and can be used in various combinations.

"They can run the side or the curved endplates for side force," Pemberton said. "They have any number of combinations they can run and we haven't had any trouble whatsoever with those. It's spec'd out from two flats, or two curved, or a flat and a curve, and the wickers that you put on can be full length on the endplates. It's worked out fairly well."

Pemberton was pleased to see a range of new CoT cars which had run well on different types of tracks also ran well in recent testing on Talladega's high banks. "At Talladega last week there were cars that performed very well that had raced at Darlington, Martinsville and Richmond," Pemberton noted. "So it's managed to take this into a different realm which was one of the things we had hoped for."

He believes the theory will be proven that the CoT will reduce the number of cars the teams will have to build to suit all tracks. "When you look at the economics of this car, other than the initial hit, it makes very good sense through the garage area on just the sheer number of vehicles you need to build," Pemberton said. "The schedule will force you to have twelve cars because you're going from sea to sea all the time, but the new car has managed to cut down on quite a bit of inventory."

Pemberton reports there will be a steady trickle-down of CoT technology and components through the Busch and Truck series. "Some of the Busch cars have taken and adapted foam into some areas of their cars. Some of the trucks have done the same thing. We've taken some of the things we've seen from our side impact tests and from where ballast boxes are located--things of that nature--and we've made adjustments on the cars right along.

"The fuel system, or the Car of Tomorow fuel cell, will be implemented across the board next year in the Busch and the Truck series," Pemberton added. "Then, moving forward maybe another year or so from now, we'll probably implement even more things from the CoT project into the Busch series. It remains to be seen exactly how that will take shape."

This was NASCAR's first year running unleaded fuel. "We also had a fuel change and went to unleaded fuel this year," Pemberton said. "With the different exhaust system on the CoT there were some things we had to work on in the engine area and will continue to work on."

Speaking of NASCAR's change to unleaded gasoline, I wondered if there was any chance of the organization making a move in the future to ethanol or any other alternative fuel.

"We've got good partners with Sunoco and it took a long time to get the unleaded fuel figured out with these engines," Pemberton commented. "We'll continue to look at anything that our current fuel partner sees we need to look at and we'll keep an eye on other sports and how they use different fuels and react to different issues. But we're doing all we can do as far as being as green as we can be, which may be contradictory for a racing series.

"Nonetheless, there are certain things we can and can't do. A lot of the things we're doing are outside of the garage area with increased geen awareness with our people and our crew members and all of our employees. We're not scared to make changes in any of our rules and regulations if it looks like it's the best thing to do.

"We'll continue to look at those things," he added. "But it's not easy making changes like that and there are a lot of issues associated with making those changes. We have to be careful not to cut our nose off to spite our face."

Indeed, Car of Tomorrow aside, incremental change has always and will continue to be NASCAR's mantra. The failure to manage changing technology and its effects on racing has been a major reason for the failure of so many racing series from the original, unlimited CanAm series through IMSA's GTP championship to the much-lamented CART Indy Car World Series. The same basic set of problems, allied with unrivaled arrogance and avariciousness, are seriously goring F1's oxe these days. The way things are going it's not hard to imagine NASCAR ultimately ending up as the world's only form of big-time, professional racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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