Tuesday, May 26, 2020

COMMENTARY: In Today's NASCAR, Is 600 Miles Too Much?

Brad Keselowski won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday night, with the checkered flag falling at an hour when even the most rabid NASCAR fans struggled to maintain consciousness.

Already the longest race on NASCAR’s 2020 schedule, the 600’s traditional “daylight to darkness” format was stretched even further by an hour-long rain delay and an overtime finish. The only thing preventing it from being called a marathon was the fact that it ran longer than two marathons, with plenty of minutes still to spare.

And that, my friends, is becoming a problem.  

In 1960, when Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith first conjured up the idea of a 600-mile stock car race, the premise that “more is better” still applied. An unofficial graduate of the P.T, Barnum School of Promotion, Smith was always on the lookout for something new, something different, something that had never before been attempted, or even imagined. And in an era where 500-mile races were considered “outer limits,” a 600-miler was simply beyond the realm of human comprehension.

Smith’s “World 600” was designed to be the ultimate test of man and machine, and in the beginning, it was.

In its inaugural running in 1960, the event featured eight official caution flags for a total of 45 laps, with at least a dozen other incidents -- crashes and mechanical failures that failed to produce yellow flags -- included in real-time reports of the race. Cars withdrew on laps 5, 6, 27, 85, 138,176, 233, 246, 333, 341, 352 and 365 of the event, with issues ranging from “terminal crashes” to engine and transmission failures, fuel leaks and even a collapsed frame.  A total of 55 cars took the green flag that day, with only 36 of them surviving to see the checkered flag in a race that took 5:34:06 to complete on a day when the ambient temperature reached 89 degrees.

If that sounds torturous to you, consider that this year’s race – with an hourlong weather delay and an overtime finish thrown in for good measure – took almost exactly as long to compete. At a whopping 607.6 miles, Sunday’s marathon was the longest event in the 60-plus year history of NASCAR.  

Keselowski won the Coke 600
What once was designed to be the ultimate test of both man and machine has arguably become neither.

Race cars do not fail anymore. Engines no longer spew their guts on the back straightaway, erupting in billowing plumes of white smoke while chunks of piston and connecting rod cartwheel wildly in all directions. Wheels don’t collapse, tires don’t blow (at least with the regularity that they did in 1960), and it has been decades since the “Reason Out” column of the Monday morning race report contained words like “Fuel Leak” or “Frame Failure.”

In the early days of NASCAR, the question “Will my driver win” could only be answered after first determining “Will my driver finish?” Today, however, there is only one question needing to be answered. Finishing the race is virtually guaranteed, and it’s been decades since fans had reason to worry that their driver’s big lead would be erased within sight of Victory Lane by the failure of a 25-cent junkyard part.

Asked if Sunday’s race had taxed the endurance of the machines involved, defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch responded quickly in the negative.

“Is it (tough) on the cars? No,” he said. “The cars are way too sophisticated now. We could probably go 800, maybe even 1,000 miles on a race car before you’d start to see problems.”

Bruton Smith
He’s right of course, meaning that an extra-distance event like the Coke 600 is perilously close to becoming a game of “wait and see,” with a final verdict that takes far too long to determine. In today’s modern, microwave society where instant gratification is king, “wait and see” is no longer something the average Joe is willing to do.

In the 1960 World 600, second-place finisher Johnny Beauchamp rolled home four laps behind winner Joe Lee Johnson. Sunday, being four laps behind earned you 25th and 26th place at the drop of the checkered flag, as Ty Dillon and Matt Kenseth will unhappily attest.

In 1960, 35% of the field failed to make it to the checkered flag. Sunday, 37 of the 40 starters were still running at the finish, 19 of them on the lead lap. Only JJ Yeley, Bubba Wallace (hub) and Clint Bowyer (crash) fell out of the race before it was over.

Casual fans who sample our sport only once or twice a year – the way many of us experience the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 – have little interest in subjecting themselves to a 4½-hour motorsports marathon, no matter how good the racing may be. NASCAR is currently embroiled in a daily competition for the hearts, minds and attention of the North American sporting public. In recent weeks, we have recently major steps toward winning that competition, thanks to a healthy dose of “outside the box’ thinking.

Let’s not stop now.

Not long ago, the very idea of trimming the Coca-Cola 600 to a shorter, more user-friendly length amounted to nothing less than treason.

“Tradition” was reason enough to leave everything the way it was. If 600 miles was good enough for Grandpappy in 1963, it was good enough for us. Not because it was the right thing to do, necessarily, but because it had always been done that way.

Now, however, the world has changed. Three months in COVID-19 quarantine have allowed many of us to begin examining things from a whole new perspective. We no longer take things for granted, simply because they have always been there.

Wednesday night Cup racing? Why not?

Doubleheader weekends? 500 kilometers instead of 500 miles? Sure! Let’s try it! What do we have to lose?

It is time to ask ourselves whether the Coca-Cola 600 puts NASCAR’s best foot forward the way it once did. Smith’s revolutionary "more is better" concept no longer resonates with a significant percentage of the racing public. With 300 television channels, instantaneous access to the worldwide web and dozens of readily available flavors of social media on-call to entertain us on demand, “too much of a good thing” May finally have become... too much.

We have “been there” and “done that,” and with a major revamping of the 2021 schedule already promised by NASCAR, perhaps it is time to re-examine our sport’s longest race, to see if we can come up with something new, something different, something fun; in a way that will honor the legacy of Smith, the Great Innovator himself.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

COMMENTARY: NASCAR Puts Necessary Teeth In Its At-Track Protocol

NASCAR issued a new technical bulletin yesterday, putting some teeth in the sanctioning body’s newly announced COVID-19 event protocol. 
Race teams were issued a lengthy list of policies and procedures late last week that will govern their May 17 return to competition at Darlington Raceway, as well as subsequent events. That protocol includes a major reduction in the number of team members allowed to attend each race event, multiple health and temperature checks before, during and after each race, controlled entry and egress from the garage area and mandatory masks and social distancing for all personnel. 
Yesterday, NASCAR made it clear that they take those guidelines seriously, warning that Cup Series personnel who fail to comply can be fined between $10,000 and $50,000. Violations in the Xfinity Series garage will result in fines of $5,000 to $25,000, with Truck Series offenders docked between $2,500 and $12,500.
There is a reason why the powers-that-be in Daytona Beach are taking their new mandates so seriously. 
The world is quite literally watching right now, and how NASCAR and its members conduct themselves in the coming weeks could play a major role in determining whether more states relax their stay at home restrictions and allow NASCAR (and other professional sports) to return to the playing field. 
North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida have led the way in that regard, becoming the first states to relax their standards and allow NASCAR racing to resume. When the cars return to the track at Darlington, they will do so as part of a single-day program that includes no practice, no qualifying and no fans in the grandstands. 
It is imperative that our sport get it right at “The Track Too Tough To Tame,” and in the days that follow at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
If people play fast-and-loose with the guidelines set forth by NASCAR to keep them healthy, they are quite literally jeopardizing the short-term future of the sport. It wasn’t easy for NASCAR to make its way back to the track, as the first professional sport to return to competition. The necessary state and federal officials have all given their thumbs-up to the plan with varying degrees of trepidation, and not everyone agrees with the decision to do so. The Governors of North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida have faced considerable criticism since NASCAR’s plan was announced, from those who consider our return to competition to be premature, ill-advised and even downright dangerous.
If our sport fails to follow the guidelines and procedures set forth – or even worse, returns home from Darlington with new cases of Coronavirus – the Governors of those states can (and will) shut things down again, as quickly as they allowed them to restart.
After Darlington and Charlotte, reliable sources say that additional races are planned for Martinsville Speedway on May 31, Bristol Motor Speedway on June 3, Atlanta Motor Speedway on June 7 and Homestead Miami Speedway on June 14. Those events have not yet been formally announced, as the sanctioning body reportedly waits for the official go-ahead from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, whose timeline for reopening his state is a good deal more conservative than that of his counterparts in the Carolinas and Florida.
What happens in the next three weeks can play a major role in helping him make up his mind.
NASCAR has a golden opportunity to prove to prove to Gov. Northam and others that it is competent, trustworthy and capable of policing itself and keeping its people safe in the midst of a pandemic. Success on that front will almost certainly open additional doors; both for NASCAR and perhaps even society in general. 
For better or worse, our sport has taken on the role of the nation’s guinea pig, and this is a test that we cannot afford to fail.
On the off chance that there is a crew member or two who fail to take that responsibility seriously, the prospect of a $10-50,000 fine should reinforce the message quite nicely.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Virginia Moving To Relax COVID-19 Guidelines

Va. Gov. Ralph Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said yesterday that he will reopen a select number of businesses and other activities next Friday, May 15, as the first stage of a three-step plan for returning the Commonwealth to a more normal mode of operation. 
COVID-19 hospitalizations are down across the state, and at a news conference in Richmond yesterday, Northam said that he will allow some businesses – including hair salons, restaurants, entertainment centers, gyms and retailers to reopen with reduced capacity and enhanced safety measures in place. 
Businesses and offices will be required to enhance physical distancing and do more cleaning and disinfecting, with employees allowed regular breaks for hand-washing. 
Northam said he expects the first phase of reopening to continue for approximately three weeks, with a subsequent further relaxation of guidelines for social gatherings to follow. Phases Two and Three also will last about three weeks, so long as infection data does not spike. 
Martinsville Speedway: Still uncertain
Northam said yesterday that his executive order closing most nonessential businesses has been extended from May 8 to May 15. He added that a separate stay-at-home order set to expire on June 10 will remain in place, for now. 
While no official announcement has yet been made, NASCAR is believed to be targeting Sunday, May 31 for a 500-lap Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway; the fifth event of its resurrected Cup Series schedule.
Northam did not mention NASCAR during yesterday’s press conference, and the sanctioning body has not commented on what impact his latest announcement might have on that event.
In a related story, a NASCAR spokesperson has confirmed to NBC Sports that voting for the 2021 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame has been postponed. 
Originally scheduled for Wednesday, May 20, Voting Day has been pushed back to a date to be announced;  the latest postponement attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
The 2021 Modern Era Ballot – for drivers whose careers began within the past 60 years – include new, first-time nominees Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Carl Edwards, along with Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant, Harry Hyde, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd, Kirk Shelmerdine and Mike Stefanik. 
Nominees on the 2021 Pioneer Ballot – for careers beginning more than 60 years ago – include first-time crew chief selection “Suitcase” Jake Elder and car builder/team owner Banjo Matthews, along with returning nominees Red Farmer, Hershel McGriff and Ralph Moody. 
Voters will be tasked with selecting two Modern Era nominees and one from the Pioneer Era for induction into the 2021 Hall of Fame Class.

Monday, May 04, 2020

NASCAR Announces Rules Updates

NASCAR issued an updated rules bulletin to its Cup Series teams on Friday, implementing several rule changes in the aftermath of the crash that injured Ryan Newman on the final lap of the Daytona 500. 

Many of the changes are safety related, some are not.

Most noteworthy on the list of updates is the addition of a new roll bar support, intrusion plate and upper-main roll bar support on superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega). The additions stem from the damage done to the upper driver’s-side roof area of Newman’s car in that Daytona crash, damage that played a role in him suffering a head injury that sidelined him temporarily from the sport. 

The additional bars will be optional for use on smaller tracks.

NASCAR has also eliminated the use of aero ducts at superspeedways, and reduced the size of the throttle body from 59/64” to 57/64” That change, while relatively small, is expected to decrease horsepower from 510 to around 480 or 490 at the sport’s largest and fastest ovals.

NASCAR will now mandate the addition of a check valve to oil reservoirs and overflow expansion tanks, to prevent spillage in the event that a car overturns, and there will be updated roll bar padding specifications for all tracks beginning June 1. 

They will also require that slip tape be applied to the entire lower rear bumper cover and extension at Daytona and Talladega.

The sanctioning body has lifted the temporary testing ban that was implemented at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, though open, on-track testing is still not allowed in the Cup, Xfinity or Truck Series for the remainder of the 2020 season. Cup Series organizations are allowed a maximum of 150 hours of wind tunnel testing time through December 31 of this year.

And finally, all "new-parts submission" meetings for the remainder of 2020 have been cancelled in the interest of cost-containment, while the minimum number of short block sealed engines allowed per team has been reduced from 13 to eight.