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Teams’ Brain Guys Getting Leg Up On Rule Guys

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 12 2016
Kyle Busch in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had the field covered during the Go Bowling 400 at the Kansas Speedway last weekend. Is downforce on the rise? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

Kyle Busch in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had the field covered during the Go Bowling 400 at the Kansas Speedway last weekend. Is downforce on the rise? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Crossing the finish line first always tells you who won the race in motor sports, but it never tells you how the race was won. And in the long run, the how will generally determine the who.

buganalysisAn intriguing case study concerning one of the “hows” is currently playing out in the Sprint Cup Series. It centers on how team engineers are fighting to overcome the efforts – efforts the teams themselves say they support – of the NASCAR officials who revamped downforce rules over the last year in order to slow cars down and make racing more entertaining.

At Kansas Speedway last weekend, several drivers were asked about efforts by teams to increase downforce in the Cup cars and almost all who responded agreed it was happening and will continue to happen.

“I know that every weekend you find some,” Chip Ganassi Racing driver Jamie McMurray said when
asked if downforce is on its way back up.

The history of auto racing is the history of people with wrenches in their hands working against the people who put clauses into rule books. For competitors, searcing for on-track advantages has always been about finding loopholes and it’s always been about developing innovations.

The history of the war between competitors and rule-makers is filled with interesting battles involving things like the size of fuel lines, soaking of tires, installation of huge deck wings and

The Joe Gibbs Racing Camry of Matt Kenseth and the "sister" No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. have been piling up big numbers in the laps-led column. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

The Joe Gibbs Racing Camry of Matt Kenseth and the “sister” No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. have been piling up big numbers in the laps-led column. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

manipulations of shock absorber construction.

Watching to see what innovators like Smokey Yunick, Roger Penske and Ray Evernham would roll out early each season was, to many, as much fun as watching winning cars do burnouts. What old-school car guy out there doesn’t remember when Granatelli rolled out the turbine car at Indy in the late ’60s, or when NASCAR teams un-trailered “winged warrior” Daytona cars at about the same time.

Never enjoying the fun were series officials. They knew that wild, successful innovation could mean lopsided racing and, hence, decreased fan interest.

As technology amped up big time late in the 20th century, as teams began having access to bigger and bigger piles of money, as engineers began to replace mechanics in shops and garages and

Innovation used to be a big part of NASCAR.

Innovation used to be a big part of NASCAR.

paddocks, oh-oh moments increased on the part of series officials and their broadcast “partners”.

The people who sell tickets and advertisements believe to this day – probably correctly, given the nature of the modern fan – that their jobs would become increasingly difficult if one team or make of car would thoroughly dominate competition over the course of a season, or, gasp, several seasons.

The quest for a “level playing field” elbowed the acceptance of mechanical innovation out of the picture in virtually every professional racing series.

In NASCAR, the series went from racing actual stock cars, to the implementation of homologation rules, to the mandating of wheel base sizes and engines displacement, to the construction of purpose-built tube-and-metal skin mutants.

It was about 10 years ago that NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France gathered a small group of reporters in the NASCAR hauler at Kansas Speedway and announced the decision to build the Car of Tomorrow. The cars would feature bulbous front splitters and horizontal rear wings.

The primary purposes, France explained, were to increase safety, lower costs to teams and, by the way, improve competition.

Many who had watched the evolution of Cup machinery over the years, and the subsequent effect on the quality of racing, knew the latter reason was the primary reason. The purpose-built Cup cars of the ’90s on early 2000s were spending copious amounts of time in wind tunnels.

They were becoming more and more slippery with each redesign.

The result was the kind of racing that only the purest of the pure could love. The kind of racing where slingshot passes and door-to-door competition became the victims of the science of flow dynamics.

The COT experiment never caught on with the racing public. Fans complained that Cup cars began to look like those damn Indy cars. The COTs were relegated to museums.

Since then, NASCAR has binged on implementing high-tech spec cars that would race like the stock cars of a supposed golden age.

The latest effort flowing north on Interstates 95 and 75 is the “low downforce” machinery that was born a year ago.

The new cars, with smaller rear spoilers and front splitters, and tires designed to more readily “give up”, were tested and then implemented full time in races, basically, this year.

The reaction from drivers through the first 10 races of the season has been almost universally positive. Having a blast, they would say in interviews. The slower speeds (they were off by about 5 mph in practice at Kansas last weekend) were creating big excitement for those behind the wheel.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Gibbs driver Carl Edwards said, “you can cut the spoilers completely off

Carl Edwards has won two times already in 2016. RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett )

Carl Edwards has won two times already in 2016. RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett )

the cars and get rid of the splitters and the less we have the better and I think I really – I cannot thank NASCAR enough for making these changes. We went through all those tests last year, tried everything, NASCAR came back with the lower downforce package and I think it’s really paid off.”

But as the races have clicked away this spring, it has become apparent that the same problems that plagued racing in the past were growing again. While the Cup series has featured some close, exciting finishes this year, many of the the laps preceding those finishes were familiarly dull: One car would get out front, lead large chunks of laps by relatively large margins and life in the grandstands and living room couches would turn to yawnfests.

It is clear that the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing are the class of the field right now: Its drivers (including that of JGR associate Furniture Row Racing ) have led approximately 60 percent of the 3,504 laps run this year. They’ve won six of 11 races.


One explanation would be that JGR, with help from Toyota Racing Development, is finding ways to counter the new low-downforce package.

AJ Allmendinger, who drivers for JTG Daugherty, buys into that explanation.

“Well, what is great about the race teams is they always have rules made and they will always find ways to try to make those rules and use them to their advantage,” the former Champ Car and IndyCar series driver, said.

“Look at a team like Gibbs, the organization they have probably figured it out the best so far, but it always goes in stages.  You are always going to go out there and do everything that you can to get the most downforce, the most grip out of the race car.  All of our teams are trying to do that, but it’s definitely a bit different than the past couple of years for sure.”

Edwards, who has two victories in his JGR Toyota, was asked if the thought teams were beginning to take big chunks out of the anti-down force package.

“We are always going to push to get every bit we can as race teams and NASCAR is probably going to have to stay ahead of us in that respect, so yeah,” Edwards said. “No matter what rules package we have we’re going to go as fast as we can, get all the downforce we can and we’re going to keep innovating all the time, so yeah that is a factor.”

The 2016 season is not even a third of the way through its schedule, yet teams are already finding ways to overcome the thing of which those very same teams were so vociferously in favor.

The ball is now heading back toward NASCAR rule-makers side of the court in the battle for lower downforce.

Many seem to agree that there is more downforce to be taken away. Goodyear, too, will have to get involved as softer tires have been a big part of getting the cars to, as Allmendinger said, “slide around”.

“I’m sure NASCAR understands that and I’m sure they’re going to keep working to keep it that way,” Edwards said.

Also assured, however, is that downforce produces speed and that the teams and their engineers will be working hard to circumvent NASCAR rule-makers in the never-ending quest to gain an advantage over the competition.

It’s always been that way and always will. And ain’t it a blast?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 12 2016
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