Open the doors for NASCAR qualifying
A second weekend passed where NASCAR's new qualifying rules were in effect for the Sprint Cup series. Once again, drivers nearing top-end speed ran nearly door-to-door with others inching around the apron. All that was missing on the slower cars was a pair of flashing lights and a crop of blue hair peering across the top of the steering wheel. While NASCAR insists on wanting to let things “play out” with the new rules, the sanctioning body's stubbornness is both puzzling and dangerous. The simple change- the OBVIOUS change- is allow adjustments during the qualifying period. But it may take a serious incident before NASCAR takes action.
The purpose of qualifying is to make one lap as fast as mechanically possible while ignoring virtually all other concerns. Teams learned long ago to tape over any open surface to lower wind resistance and find greater speed during qualifying sessions. Doing so during the race is generally impractical as fresh air is critical to engine cooling. But for a single lap run, it's worth the effort. Under the old qualifying rules there was no need to worry about an engine's temperature on lap five; the session would be over after two at most.
NASCAR's change to multi-round knockout-style qualifying changed that and many other things. The idea was to inject a bit of excitement into what had become a fairly dull affair. Instead of a one or two lap sprint, the new format allows teams a set period of time instead of laps to make their best lap. When NASCAR originally floated the idea this past off-season, the idea was to allow virtually no changes to the cars over the course of the qualifying session. Only extensive feedback from teams convinced NASCAR to allow some basic work to take place during qualifying.
Once again, the law of unintended consequences swooped in to expose one glaring flaw in the process. Engines produce power best when they're cooled down. And with the teams unable to plug in equipment to cool off the engines, they had but one alternative to do so; driving around the track at extremely low speed. The combination of air flow and virtually no engine use allows the engine to cool off and prepare the car for another high-speed qualifying run.
For comparison's sake, take the feeling of a pass on the freeway. Think about the rush of air and power that pushes a passenger car around when a car doing 25 miles per hour faster zooms past in the fast lane. Now multiply that feeling several times over as a car doing nearly 200 miles per hour drives inches away from one doing 50. It's safe to say that there's an impact on the airflow. And as we've learned over the past decade, the impact of changes in airflow on a NASCAR race car cannot be understated.
Moreover, that's simply the impact on air. As several drivers speculated this weekend, imagine the potential for disaster should that impact become a physical one. While these are the best stock car drivers in the world, accidents happen on a weekly basis. A bobble, a loose car at the wrong moment, or even a mechanical failure would be a disaster. No amount of safety equipment is guaranteed to protect a driver rear-ended by a car going 150 miles per hour faster than the other.
If you have any doubt as to the potential for injury, ask Steve Park. At one time, Park was considered a safe bet to become one of NASCAR's better drivers. Dale Earnhardt senior thought enough of Park to make him DEI's first true full-time Cup driver and Park rewarded Senior's faith by taking the #1 Pennzoil Chevy to victory lane on two occasions in three years (including an emotional win at Rockingham the week after Earnhardt died in 2001). Park's career was drastically altered later that year when a mechanical failure under caution sent Park's car directly into the path of another speeding car; the estimated speed disparity was approximately 100 miles per hour in this accident. Park, who suffered a severe concussion and broken ribs, had to be cut from his race car and life-lighted from the track. While he eventually returned to stock car racing, he never won another Sprint Cup or Nationwide race and today is a cautionary tale.
Steve Park's frightening 2001 crash under caution
Since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR has had an outstanding record in terms of on-track safety among its three national series. Despite several breathtaking wrecks, no driver has been killed or critically injured driving a Sprint Cup/Nationwide car or Camping World truck. The slew of safety measures- from SAFER barriers to HANS devices and everything in between- have worked. The tragic fact is that it took the death of a legend for these things to go from being a feasibility study to mandated equipment.
Moreover, safety in auto racing is never a guaranteed outcome. There is an inherent risk whenever you place a man inside of a machine traveling at high speed and then place him on track with 42 others doing likewise. No matter how “safe” auto racing has become, it is still a dangerous enterprise. Any time you do something that ups the risk quotient, there had better be a fairly significant increase in the reward column to account for it.
Restrictor plate racing is a perfect example of that calculation. There are plenty of different ways to slow cars down to the point where they are unlikely to become airborne. And as the two-car tandem draft format proved, there are plenty of ways to run the plate tracks without going two-three wide, ten cars deep. But fans voted loud and long with their remotes and their ticket sales. The tandem draft is now dead and the packs have returned. NASCAR made the (correct, in my book) calculation that fans have come to love pack racing at Daytona and Talladega. While that kind of racing isn't supportable on a weekly basis, doing it four times a year is something fans want and are willing to pay for. Their patronage at those two tracks goes a long way towards making the entire series viable. Despite the increase in risk, the reward was deemed worth it and for now, few fans vocally disagree.
Allowing cars to go 50 miles per hour in qualifying, however, simply does not meet the basic risk/reward calculation. It's a significant risk increase according to several drivers. The potential damage could be catastrophic. And the reward is virtually non-existent. In this case, the only measurable reward is that teams get to cool their engines for another shot at a pole lap. If there's another way to accomplish the same goal (cool engines) that involves none of the risk, isn't that preferable?
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Penske brought a system to the track that would enable teams to cool engines without lifting the hood since the hood going up seems to be NASCAR's red flag. After all, who knows what kinds of evil teams could do with an open hood? On twitter, USA Today NASCAR writer Jeff Gluck said that the reason why this is so is that it would be difficult to police teams when the hood is open. If that's true, perhaps NASCAR shouldn't have laid off so many officials last season. There are enough officials on race day to have one watching each team during pit stops; I'd imagine there's enough to keep an eye on pit road during practice. Again, in the calculation of risk vs. reward, paying a few officials is a far better outcome than a fatal, preventable wreck during qualifying.
In the end, the simplest solution would be to just step back and stop trying to regulate the teams so hard. Instead of putting crew chiefs into a box where they feel compelled to put their driver on the firing line at 50 miles an hour, why not allow them to make changes during the qualifying session? Why not allow them to use the purpose-built equipment they already have available to cool the engines? As long as teams are not outright removing parts, where's the harm?
The main argument against in-qualifying adjustments seems to come from a desire to protect teams from themselves. If teams were allowed to go all out for qualifying (as was once the case), it would result in an ever-escalating arms race of specialized parts and pieces designed to maximize speed over a two lap run. It's why NASCAR began penalizing teams who made major changes such as swapping engines after qualifying. Certainly, competitive balance and holding costs down is a worthy goal. But it cannot be the only goal- or even the primary one. Continue to ban teams from making major parts changes. We don't need to return to the days of a two lap qualifying engine.
But cars going 50 miles per hour inches away from ones doing 200 isn't the answer either. And as long as NASCAR continues to prohibit cooling in the pits, they will leave teams only one other option; cooling on the track. NASCAR desperately needs to change that before something tragic happens and forces that change upon them.