Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Unfounded Hatred of NASCAR

Disclaimer: I am not an actual fan of modern-day NASCAR. I don’t watch it or follow it, but I have respect for the drivers, crews, and engineers that make it possible. I simply wrote this article to combat certain prejudices that some people wrongfully hold against NASCAR.

Image from www.wsmv.com/

Many fans of Formula 1, Indycar, and other types of road/track/rally racing look upon NASCAR in distaste. The fact that it could be boring for them to watch cannot be argued: that’s a matter of personal opinion. However, many of them preach that NASCAR is not a real motorsport and it requires no skill since all they do is turn left in a big circle. This is wholly incorrect.

First of all, it is true that the NASCAR super speedways like Talladega and Daytona are more or less oval or tri-oval tracks that look like they need no skill to navigate, but NASCAR also races on many non-elliptical tracks that involve both left and right turns. That’s beside the point. My point here is that NASCAR is a real motorsport and it does take immense amounts of skill to participate in, just like every other kind of automobile racing. A turn is a turn. Whether you do only left turns, only right turns, or both kinds of turns, you’re still turning. Doing that at certain high speeds requires skill. Got it? Okay.

Second, anything that calls for a driver and his vehicle to push their limits handling, acceleration, and all-around performance is called car racing. Road racing, rally racing, Monster truck rallies, drag racing (yes, it IS that hard to go straight when you’ve got the pedal to the floor), and NASCAR, just to name a few. When a NASCAR driver does the typical left turn around the sweeping bank of the track, he or she is making that turn as fast as they possibly can without losing control just like in other “more respected” forms of racing. The radius of the turn may be far greater but the speed is also far greater. NASCAR drivers, as well as say, Le Mans drivers, both do their turns at the limits of the coefficient of static friction that the tires and road can offer. This is fact, not my opinion.  I am willing to bet that many naysayers of NASCAR lack the skill or the courage to make those turns at close to 200 mph repeatedly for hours on end.

Image from blog.hemmings.com

Now for my own opinion.  NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing and was founded in 1948 by Bill France Sr. with help from many other drivers.  I'll skip the history but for much of the early part, cars needed to be strictly stock, as in factory production cars.  They were stripped of glass and interior parts and fitted with a roll cage, but that was pretty much it.  At least 500 examples of competing cars and engines had to be sold to the public and this process was called homologation.  This supported the "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" mentality that went on in the 1950s and '60s.  When a specific company's car performed well in the race, the sales at dealers would increase.  However, cars started moving further and further from being stock, like how putting engines into cars that were not originally produced with the cars became allowed.  As an example, the 1969 Ford Torino Talladega ran a Boss 429 V8 at the track, an engine specifically designed for wide-open NASCAR performance. However, the engines made their way into road-going Mustangs instead of Torinos.  Bodies and frames became increasingly altered, too.  In the 1970s and '80s, cars started becoming mere shells of their street counterparts with racing-only parts underneath.  The NASCAR cars we know them in the 21st century have nothing in common, parts-wise, with the cars on the road.  They are pretty much made from templates and the only resemblance they bear to street cars are the stickers that imitate headlights.  The cars travel around the tracks at nearly 200 miles per hour, almost twice as fast as a production car can manage.  The technology is strange; while the engines are extremely powerful and contain many modern day improvements, they run on decades-old designs.  While almost all production car engines now use overhead-cam valvetrains and fuel injection, the NASCAR engines pushrod-actuated valves and until a couple years ago, still ran carburetors.  The current NASCAR stock cars are not even a single bit stock.

My opinion is that NASCAR should go back to what it was like 50 or 60 years ago.  Cars should have to be homologated so the race can remain true to its name.  I have to say this first: A big downside of making stock cars stock would be that it might render certain famous super speedways useless.  There's no doubt that it would be less fun seeing car travelling around Daytona at 120 mph than at 200.  We could get back to using more dirt tracks, though.  Anyway, it's possible that the benefits would outweigh that problem.  First, the speed of the race would be decreased by almost half, but a race doesn't have to be fast to be fun to watch.  The sheer speed of NASCAR races makes the sport unnecessarily dangerous for the drivers.  There are many types of racing where clapped-out, slow cars duke it out on dirt tracks and are extremely fun to watch.  Cars still crash, but the slower speeds mean less injuries.  Another positive effect of making NASCAR cars stock would be lowering of the cost.  A NASCAR engine alone costs $40,000 to $80,000 which is more than a regular car.  Tires are also more expensive and the problem is compounded by high speed eating tires more quickly.  Sponsors can pour $500,000 on a single race.  In contrast, a regular sedan with a roll cage installed would cost far less than $100,000.  Besides being more economical, it would make it more feasible for private racers to participate, just like they did back in the day.  Lastly, using actual stock cars would give car companies a better way to advertise their cars by proving them on the track.  The template cars of today are closely regulated to even out the playing field, but that defeats the purpose of branding the cars.  Making manufacturers put street engines into the race cars would result in car makers constantly improving regular engines for better performance.  This would allow everybody to benefit directly from the improvements in engine technology, just like they did 50 or 60 years ago.  That's why we have Chrysler's Hemi V8.  Sure, many race fans and myself included prefer the roar of cammed V8 engines while most cars today use I4s and V6s.  Maybe we can allow for production V8s to be stuffed into other production cars, such as a 5.0-powered Fusion or a 6.2 Impala.  The 2013 NASCAR Ford Fusion gets closer to at least having a stock shape, but the internals are still specific to the track.

"I'll put it simple: if you're going hard enough left, you'll find yourself turning right." - Doc Hudson, Cars
Image from www.chrysler300country.com/

I'm aware that I might be missing some points here and my wishes for NASCAR could be even more unrealistic than they already are due to constraints unseen by me.  If so, please make it known in the comments!