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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/ Exploring how NASCAR works

by Gordon Kirby
You can complain all you like about NASCAR's faults and foibles and make a list of the organization's many modern problems. But the fact remains that NASCAR has a powerful hold on a huge portion of America's racetracks, industry, fans and media. While everyone else has paid lip service, at best, to the ladder system, NASCAR has built a complete system down to the grass roots, nurturing drivers, fans, tracks, car builders, teams and the media. More than any other American sanctioning body NASCAR is strong enough to weather the prevailing economic storms. Like it or not, its pre-eminent position in the sport is likely to continue for many years to come.

Over the past couple of years NASCAR has introduced its 'Car of Tomorrow' to the Sprint Cup series and recently began testing the first Nationwide series CoT. It may be an ugly duckling in both appearance and handling, but NASCAR's step back into the future has arrived. Starting with its adoption over the next two years by the Nationwide series, the larger, boxier, more centrally-seated CoT will slowly work its way down through NASCAR's extensive ladder system.

"It's in place and it's stable," says NASCAR's vice president of competition Robin Pemberton about the CoT. "Now it's in the hands of the competitors to pick and choose the areas they desire to work in to make it fit their drivers' driving styles or their organization's philosophy and approach. Everything is locked in right now and it's up to them to make their improvements, and they've done that. I think if you look, not just from last year to this year, but from the early part of this year to the latter part of this year, the teams are getting more up to speed and more comfortable with the car.

"Right now, we're taking it one series at a time and it's obvious that it takes a few years to adapt any one series to it. We haven't come out with a hard plan but it's become evident that a full roll-out for the Nationwide series in 2010 will be the best choice."

Pemberton emphasized that the lessons learned as far as safety matters in particular are being applied on an ongoing basis through NASCAR's ladder system.

"We continue to improve the safety in all the vehicles, whether it's the fuel cell that was upgraded a few years ago to the current Nationwide car to help intrusion and safety for the drivers, we're doing that with the Trucks right along with it. It's not about the new car all the time. It's about the things we learn and the updates we can do as we see fit and move forward with all of our series from the Camping World and Modifieds, right up to the Cup series."

Toyota's racing boss Lee White is the group vice-president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development (TRD). White is much less sanguine than Pemberton about the CoT.

"I think it's very much a moving target because the car hasn't remained stable," White commented. "In our experience, at least, the things people were doing last year and earlier this year have changed because NASCAR has seen people having success from working at their components, and basically changed the rules on the fly. So the teams are having to re-engineer on a continuing basis and I think it remains to be seen where the whole CoT thing is going to shake-out over a period of time."

White points to the limits placed on bending the rear axle housing to produce the front to rear offsets seen earlier this year as an example of NASCAR working to eliminate any openings in the rules for the new car.

"Things like what the Roush group and Carl Edwards were doing very early in the season by toeing the rear axle and crabbing the car resulted in extremely strong performances at Fontana, Atlanta and Las Vegas. That was seen by everyone and taken to an extreme but that's been mitigated by rule changes."

All this is part of NASCAR's ongoing battle with its teams and manufacturers to further restrict or eliminate any openings in the rules.

"I know the Gibbs guys have had some challenges with suspension components that were completely legal and within the rules and they've since been told they can't run them anymore," White related. "I'm sure Hendrick and all the other teams have had their challenges as well. As you compete by engineering and improving the breed you take steps and then they're brought back by NASCAR and everyone starts again."

White would like to see NASCAR sit down with its four manufacturers for a thorough review of the CoT.

"I truly believe that it probably wouldn't hurt to have a second look at it," White said. "The car wasn't created in a vacuum. We were involved along with all three of the other manufacturers in the concept of the CoT. Certainly we were closely involved in a lot of the safety aspects along with Dr. John Melvin."

White confirmed the story told by others that the idea of putting a splitter at the front of the CoT's nose came from Germany's DTM series.

"I was present in the horseshoe table at the NASCAR Tech Center when a guy who worked for another manufacturer reached in his handbag and pulled out a twenty-fourth scale model of a Mercedes DTM touring car. He set it on the table and said, 'Gentlemen, you need a splitter just like that.' I was sitting there right beside the guy.

"So that whole concept of using the front splitter and rubbing it off if you run the car too low did not, in my opinion, originate with anyone wearing a NASCAR shirt. But certainly, over a period of time with some testing they've adopted it and now it is what it is."

White says that aside from the safety issues, one of the reasons for going to the new car was to cut the costs spent in coil-binding the springs of the old Cup cars.

"The concept of the car came about because a lot of people were spending a lot of money on springs at $1,400 apiece," he commented. "They were coil-binding the springs to control the compliance and ride height of the car and now all that's been replaced. Everyone's still using the $1,400 springs and now you have snubber packs or shock packs or bump stops, or whatever you want to call them. There's a complete industry out there now developing bump stops to get the best ride possible and mechanical grip without wearing off the spoiler.

"It's like the direction and the concept was correct but the expense of doing it has not really been mitigated. It's just been replaced by other expenses, and there may be some room to get everybody together and re-evaluate what's best for the sport. That would be a suggestion I might make."

White agrees with some observers who believe the method of inspecting the cars needs tweaking.

"It seems to me that certainly some thought might be given to how you approach the car itself," White continued. "I don't know that you need to change the car. You might just need to change how you tech the car. Some people have already made that suggestion, even some people employed by NASCAR. So we'll see.

"I still think the car we're racing is a bit of a moving target," White added. "Everyone's gotten better, all the top organizations. Really, if you look at the Chase, it's comprised of four organizations--Hendrick, Childress, Roush Fenway and Gibbs. Everybody else has had their day, but they've been a little hit and miss, a little bit random in their results. So I think the new car still has a little way to go yet."

White believes the tire problems Goodyear struggled with at Indianapolis and possibly elsewhere this year are endemic to the current Cup car and may not be fixed by tire-testing alone.

"The thing that worries me is that at this point in time the problem you have on high-speed flat tracks is the tire becomes the suspension," he commented. "We all saw at Indianapolis what happens when the tire becomes the suspension. The tires are not designed or meant to be suspension parts and we all saw at the Brickyard what happens when that occurs. So I'm a little concerned that by doing more testing it will make the tire better and we'll think it's fixed, but when we get there next year we still have the same basic problem."

I have to add, particularly in the wake of Sunday's Cup race and Friday's ARCA race at Talladega where both Goodyear and Hoosier suffered a run of tire failures, that these things simply do not happen in any other form of racing around the world. And too, ten years ago I witnessed Bridgestone/Firestone thoroughly out-engineer Goodyear in Indy car racing. When it came to quality control and consistency in size and shape of each set of tires Bridgestone blew Goodyear into the weeds.

Meanwhile, earlier this year NASCAR placed additional restrictions on Toyota's Nationwide and Truck engines after they performed better than the opposition. White explained how Toyota is working with NASCAR to keep everyone satisfied.

"We're having our challenges with NASCAR right now in the Nationwide and Truck series, probably brought about because of, shall we say a little too much success too quickly," White remarked. "They're taking some steps to level the playing field in the near term. They assure me that further steps are being taken to encourage other manufacturers to race their current engines in those series in the near future. Then everything will be free and open competition once again. In the meantime, we're having to suffer through a little bit of a handicap system.

"I absolutely do not support the penalties that were put against us in the Truck and Nationwide Series this year. But on the other hand these guys have got to protect the series and they have to protect NASCAR. So if we want to participate, you've got to cut them a little slack and give them a chance to make it work and hope that they appreciate that in a year or two years it will come back and work in your favor.

"You can make the technical argument, which we have done, and that's fine. But this really isn't about that. This is about what's good for business and we have to step up and be willing to work with them. We've all seen other sanctioning bodies fail and I think that helps me be a bit more tolerant."

White says he has learned the lesson that domination can be bad for the sport.

"I've said for years that the only thing worse than never winning is winning too much. In 1987 I was with Jack Roush and I think we won every Trans-Am race and the Trans-Am series as we knew it didn't survive. And in the early nineties Toyota won, I think, twenty-four straight IMSA prototype races and the series didn't survive.

"Those of us who lived through that history need to learn from that history and understand that, yes, handicap racing isn't fun. It's not racing. Racing is a sports competition and it's all about engineering and preparation--doing the work in the shop and in the lab and then proving it on the racetrack. It should be free and open and under the current circumstances, it's not.

"I don't feel good about that. I don't like it. But you know what? I understand it. I understand that if they don't take this step, we may not have this opportunity in five years. So they have to take the step and we have to figure out how to make it work for us and our company so that in the end in four or five years it works for everybody.

"I have an obligation to not screw it up for the people that I've put in place at TRD so that they have something in ten years, because I won't be here in ten years. I'll be fishing. And the guys at NASCAR have the same obligation to everyone in their organization and to a lot of fans out there.

"So we're okay with NASCAR. I applaud NASCAR's strength to be concerned for the fans and to take steps that are not always the easiest and least painful, not only for us, but for NASCAR and the other manufacturers as well."

NASCAR has always fiddled with the rules to make a 'level playing field'. It's always been a moving target and White remembers trying to educate Tony George about how NASCAR plays the game at a combined IRL/NASCAR Truck race at Michigan a few years ago.

"My friend Wayne Auton, who manages the truck series, likes to remind me that four years ago at Michigan when we won our first truck race with the Toyota Tundra we happened to be there at a companion event with the IRL," White recalled. "After the race they chassis-dynoed the trucks, and of course, we were struggling mightily in 2004 in the IRL series. We basically were out-ran by Honda that year.

"Anyway, I took the liberty of inviting Tony George over to observe the chassis dyno process that NASCAR was conducting. I informed him that, in my opinion, that was how a sanctioning body achieved parity among manufacturers--to do periodic checks to see what was available for power. And Wayne likes to pull my chain occasionally and say he remembers that day when I brought Tony George over and told him the way NASCAR does business is the right way."

NASCAR's competition vice-president Robin Pemberton adds that much of NASCAR's strength is predicated on the health and continued development of its ladder system.

"Our competition department does look and we do try to get where if people choose to move up through the ranks they can do it in a logical progression," Pemberton commented. "Whether it's starting from the weekly racing series to the Modified tour or the Camping World series into the Trucks, or the Nationwide Series and into the Cup series, our rules and regulations are designed to afford someone to get into some of other series and compete economically and hopefully, at one point, it gives them a chance to move up.

"When we look at a rule package, no matter how small or big it is, and no matter what area it is in, we look at how it affects on both sides, going down and coming up through the ranks. We try to work real hard at that.

"For example," Pemberton added, "the Camping World series can run cars that are Nationwide cars of today and a lot of those cars are Cup series cars from a year or two ago. We look at how those things filter down and how it helps people be competitive and gives them many options of where they want to get off on the ladder, or how high they want to try to compete. It's very important to us to help lay the groundwork for people to move up or move around through all of our series."

I asked Pemberton what the biggest challenge is for NASCAR today amid tough economic times, dwindling crowds and things like this year's Goodyear tire fiasco at Indianapolis.

"We need to do the best we can to contain the costs for our teams," he replied. "Whether it pertains to the introduction of new parts and pieces, test policies, or rules and regulations. I think we need to keep a good handle on all these things so when things do turn around in the economy we still have all our key players here with us from the Truck series all the way to the Cup series.

"So we face the same challenges that everyone does. We're trying to be stewards of the sport where we've got everybody's interest in hand and what it takes for them to come to the racetrack and do their job, not just to be competitive. We want to help them keep the costs in check as best we can also. I think that's one of the largest things right now."

As I said at the beginning, you can criticize NASCAR all you like and without doubt American motor sport's eight hundred pound gorilla has many problems in this day and age. But NASCAR enjoys a well-evolved working relationship with its manufacturers and an equally developed ladder system reaching down to the sport's grass roots all across the country and expanding in recent years into Canada and Mexico, too.

The next few years will present plenty of challenges as Detroit's big three, starting with Dodge, take hard looks at their NASCAR programs. But the depth of the organization is such that it will take many years before there's any chance of NASCAR losing its haughty perch at the top of American motor sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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