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The Way It Is/ NASCAR leads the way in cutting downforce

by Gordon Kirby
Over the past few years I've written many columns about cutting downforce in Formula 1 and IndyCar. I've presented arguments from numerous drivers, past and present, and there's darn near unanimous agreement that downforce should be slashed. Yet F1 and IndyCar continue to make rules that increase downforce.

This is a great frustration to many of us and it's even more frustrating to see NASCAR tackle the job and apply a solution in a way that seems to leave everyone--drivers, teams and fans--happy campers. This year NASCAR has mandated much smaller spoilers and splitters, cutting downforce by as much as thirty percent. The result has been much better racing.

Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has been a big proponent of the move to low downforce. Johnson says he couldn't be more pleased with the results.

"I think taking the downforce off the cars has worked very, very well in all cases," he declares. "Ironically, there are some tracks where it doesn't show up as much as we thought it would. But I think on the tracks with abrasive surfaces the low downforce package has put on the best racing we've had for years and years from each of driver, fan and statistical perspectives."

Johnson is equally happy with the way NASCAR has worked with its drivers and teams to achieve this result.

© Nigel Kinrade
"The process has been interesting and has been good for the sport," he remarks. "The drivers have a seat at the table with NASCAR in the development of specs on the car. I'm very proud of NASCAR and thankful for them taking this approach because it's the driver who senses and feels what's going on. The engineers are very smart people and a lot of people in the sport are very smart, but why not listen to the human element about what's going on.

"There is no quick fix in motorsports because there are many complicated elements but it's been very good cooperation and a huge step in the right direction. I'd say the downforce changes are proof of the collaboration and working together. But honestly, it's taken some time and we're still learning how to communicate to each other properly.

"With forty drivers, there are usually forty different opinions. It's difficult for any sanctioning body, including NASCAR, but with the drivers council and the seriousness that's involved it's good to see the commitment of the drivers to doing the right thing, I think people are putting aside their own suggestions that would benefit them solely in favor of doing the right thing for the sport."

The drivers are represented by six of their number who sit on the drivers' council, including Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano.

"Each manufacturer is represented and we have representation from the smaller teams because the perspective of what needs to happen to the sport from the top two teams is far different than the teams further down the field," Johnson correctly observed.

Jimmie adds that the experience of sitting on the drivers' council and working with NASCAR has been very rewarding.

"It's been nice for me personally," he remarked. "As a six-time champion I still had limited access to what's going on inside NASCAR, but now that I'm serving my first term on the drivers council I've learned far more about my sport than I ever knew before. It's been a very educational process for me and one that I take very seriously."

Doug Duchardt is the general manager of Hendrick Motorsports. Duchardt is similarly enthusiastic about the way NASCAR has worked with its drivers and teams in reducing downforce.

"I think it's probably the best example of how NASCAR and the industry worked together to come to a solution," Duchardt told me. "The drivers have been saying it for years and we got together to come up with a plan."

© Nigel Kinrade
He admits that last season's race tests of different low downforce packages gave the teams plenty of work.

"Last year was a tough summer because once we had decided to go for a low downforce spec in 2016, we tried a lot of different packages. We tried one thing at Kentucky and we tried something else at Indianapolis, Michigan and Darlington. It was a huge challenge to have three different specs through the summer.

"But universally, it's been better racing this year. It's better for the drivers and better to watch and now we're talking about how we want to approach 2017."

Duchardt pointed out that it's difficult to asses the results at some tracks.

"We've run Michigan and Kentucky which are two tracks that are very different," he noted. "Kentucky has had a complete repave and change in configuration and Michigan has been repaved so it's tough to compare. Since the repave, Michigan isn't there yet as far as being able to run multiple grooves."

Duchardt says everyone was pleased with the substantial cuts achieved in mid-corner speeds.

"We felt good that we were able to reduce mid-corner speeds, which the drivers were concerned about," he said. "I think there's a feeling that the greater the difference from peak speed to mid-corner speed, the better the racing will be because you can pass. If there's only ten mph from peak speed to mid-corner speed, it's going to be tough to pass. But if that difference is forty mph there's going to much more opportunity for passing.

"So those are the kinds of things we're talking about with NASCAR with the drivers giving feedback. We go to the wind tunnel together to sort it out. That, to me, is the positive on the new system of how we're working together.

"There's definitely been an evolution in the right direction," Duchardt added. "NASCAR has been open to engage the competition leaders of the teams to discuss the approach to the rules. I think you try to find a balance of minimizing changes because any time you make a change the costs go up.

© Nigel Kinrade
"You're also trying to stop something before it gets out of control. We've seen that in different forms of racing. It could be materials that are being used. It could be a concept that forces everyone to invest in something new that you don't want to happen. But if you can come up with that new idea you have that advantage for a certain amount of time."

Duchardt admits this reality is difficult for any racer to accept, but as he says it defines NASCAR's philosophy and way of life.

"It's frustrating but you get used to the fact that you may only have some kind of creative thought applied for a certain amount of time before they ban it," he remarked. "Instead of four cars having it, forty cars have to, and that causes big cost ramifications. That drives frustration from the competitors side, but NASCAR is trying to manage the overall sport.

"Having said that, I feel the dialogue is good, the intent is good, the tone is good, and I think it's getting better as we move on. From the CoT to the Gen 6 car, they keep tightening down the rules and the areas you can work which means you're turning over small stones all the time to try to stack pennies in every area. That's tedious and tough, but that's what you have to do."

Duchardt added that NASCAR teams spend as much time in the wind tunnel as F1 teams.

"There are two wind tunnels in the Charlotte area and they stay busy all the time," he said. "The big teams are in the tunnel every week. There's work going on all the time whether they're in the tunnel or doing CFD work. It's the same as in every top level of motorsports."

Everyone in racing is deeply aware of the slow but steady decline in TV ratings and crowds for most races and categories. It's an important issue that all sanctioning bodies are struggling to come to grips with.

"I feel there's a challenge for motorsports in general, whether it's Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar and most other categories worldwide," Duchardt remarked. "Everyone seems to be fighting declining interest levels."

Yet as far as catering to the tastes of drivers, teams and fans, NASCAR is making a much more concerted effort than anyone else to make beneficial changes to the sport. It's sadly unfortunate that F1 and IndyCar seem from their very different perspectives incapable of learning and applying NASCAR's best lessons.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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