Monday, February 21, 2011

NASCAR Is Not Evil

A great quote often attributed to Ernest Hemingway goes like this: "There are only three true sports – bullfighting, deep-sea fishing, and motor racing. Everything else is just a game."

I am a motorsports fan. I love almost every form of two- and four-wheeled racing, with the notable exception of motocross, which bores me to tears. Road racing is my passion… open-wheel formula and closed-wheel sports cars make my eyes spin just watching them slice from apex to apex, exhaust blasting and dust flying and bits of exotic rubber shredding off at every corner. I’ve been fortunate to spend time at the wheel of many different types of road and race cars during track days, autocrosses, off-road tours and racing driver schools. Driving a race car on-track is third on the list of things I enjoy most during my life’s waking hours.

That’s why I wince whenever another racing fan disparages NASCAR as not being ‘real' racing. It’s a very common feeling among fans who believe their series is far superior than anyone else’s, and nowhere is that divide more pronounced than between the road racers and the oval racers. Think the Farmers and the Cowmen. The Skiers and the Snowboarders. The Hatfields and The McCoys. The Conservatives and the Liberals. You know… a simmering resentment that borders on (and sometimes turns into) open hostility. Thankfully, there are some of us who look at all racing disciplines (including motocross) as a uniquely vibrant symbiosis of man, machine, science, chance and luck.

NASCAR racing, and the premier Sprint Cup Series in particular, is a singular example of that symbiosis… professional racing that has been cooked down to its most brutal and elemental format. There are many people, including hard-core race fans, who don’t seem to grasp the nature of classic oval racing that is central to NASCAR’s existence and popularity. “All they do is go fast in a circle for hours and hours” is the most common criticism of the genre, which is woefully uninformed about the incredible effort it takes to go fast in a circle, sometimes for hours. A bit of understanding goes a long way towards gaining an appreciation for the sport. Let me help.

The most popular lore about NASCAR’s history refers to mid-20th century Southern moonshiners in their souped-up cars outrunning the revenooers while trying to deliver their cargo of White Lightnin'. While this historical episode is absolutely true, the oval racing phenomenon has its roots much, much further back… back to horse races at 19th century American county fairs, to the bareback match races in dusty Arabic town squares, to the chariot races and nascent Olympic stadium foot races in ancient Rome and Greece. Yep, it goes that far back, and the connection is not just passive. Men have competed in the oval format, with and without their mounts, for millennia. It is human nature to test ourselves against each other in a closed-course environment while spectators cheer and drink and gamble and fight and puke and enjoy the spectacle.

A modern top-echelon Sprint Cup racing machine is NOT a 'stock' car, even though NASCAR stands for ‘National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing’. The name harkens back to 1949 when the organization was formed and they really did race cars that were essentially stock or barely modified for competition. In them days, the racers also had guns and knives and fistfights in the pits so the they could handle on-track disagreements, and they were lucky to win enough prize money to pay for their race expenses, especially if a car got wadded-up. These days, like all other mainline professional sports, it’s all about The Benjamins for the mega-bucks multi-car teams with expensive equipment and personnel and rigs and sponsors that demand free tickets and team clothing and fresh flowers on each hospitality center table while they dine on gourmet food.

Today’s Sprint Cup race car is a purpose-built, handcrafted, tube-framed, metal-clad, mega-horsepowered speed device that owes its existence to science, technology, human endeavor and sheer madness. The cars are an exercise in building a machine to stringent technical specifications which allows them to reach speeds in excess of 200mph while competing with 42 other cars on the track at the same time. Depending on which track they're at, their engines can produce as much as 800 horsepower. Their eggshell-thin sheet metal bodies are formed and tweaked and massaged to reduce drag, increase downforce and promote aerodynamic efficiency. The chassis is fabricated from thick-wall metal tubing that can withstand a crash where an impact can measure to 100 times the power of gravity, or 100G’s, all while protecting the flesh/blood/bone driver strapped inside.

Once the cars are inspected to ensure they meet the technical and safety specifications, the driver proceeds to lap the track as fast as the laws of physics will allow. The science involved is the part that has me so enamored with racing in general. Combustion. Torque. Friction. Gravity. Geometry. Inertia. Momentum. Aerodynamics. Thrust. Thermal expansion. Deterioration. Turbulence. Calculus. Metallurgy. Chemistry. The mind reels at the complexity involved in order to ‘go fast in a circle, sometimes for hours’. My years working in the performance tire industry taught me about how tenuous the connection is between the tire and track surface at the limits of adhesion. The tire tread surface literally melts when it contacts the ground at speed, morphing into a gooey patch that just barely maintains friction, keeping the car moving forward but almost losing the safety of friction-based traction. SCIENCE, BABY.

Another distinction of the Sprint Cup Series: these are endurance races, as opposed to a shorter ‘sprint’ races. Most of the oval races are 400 or 500 miles long, with a 600-miler run at Charlotte (NC) each year on Memorial Day weekend. The smaller ovals usually run lap counts as opposed to miles due to their slower average lap speeds (100mph is slow?), but the challenges are no less daunting. This format is unique to NASCAR, as the US-based open-wheel and sports car series run only a few high-mileage endurance events each year.

The endurance nature of the NASCAR events are where the real racing challenge happens. Visualize this: 43 cars and their teams have qualified for a race, and they all compete at maximum speed on the track at the same time, requiring multiple pit-stops for new tires and fuel… FOR 500 MILES. Each lap is another opportunity to mess up and crash or get spun out. Each pit stop is another opportunity to get it wrong, drop the car off the jacks before the tires have been mounted, stop in the wrong pit (yes, it happens), drive into or out of the pits too fast, run over a tire or air hose or some other infraction and incur a penalty. And always... always, there is the chance for mechanical failure. There are myriad ways a race can go into the dumper, and it all happens while the race is progressing at high speed.

The ever-present danger that accompanies NASCAR competition brings with it an edge that fans and spectators are hesitant to admit is like a narcotic. While it’s been almost a decade since the last spate of crash-related deaths in the series, the chance for a horrific accident is always there, waiting to snatch the life of an unlucky driver while everyone watches. Having witnessed life-ending race crashes in person, I can speak from personal experience – it changes you.

Remember the comparison I made earlier to the chariot races in Rome? Modern technology has made the racing vastly safer than even 10 years ago, but like Steve McQueen’s character, race driver Michael Delaney, said in the classic movie ‘Le Mans’: “Auto racing is a professional blood sport. It can happen to you. Then it can happen again” When asked why men race and risk death, he responds, “Racing is important to men who do it well. Racing is life. Everything before and after… is just waiting.”

On the negative side of the typical NASCAR Sprint Cup extravaganza, there is a real over-the-top true-blue American carnival atmosphere to the events, and the entertainment aspect has begun to make it seem just a wee-bit saccharine, a tad contrived, a little overly-patriotic. Most of the drivers now have to be clean-cut corporate shills, always remembering to name-check their sponsors while on camera, have cookie-cutter cute blonde wives, love God and country and bow their heads in prayer during the pre-race invocation. Gone are the rough-and-tumble types that built the sport from a strictly regional series. The sanctioning body also has a reputation for meddling with qualifying results and making questionable calls during the races. Yes, sometimes the races can be boring if one team hits the right set-up and runs away from the field, stinking up the joint. All that is true, but overall, it's still the real deal.

The TV broadcasts are another matter. Sometimes the commercialism involved with the sport can be overbearing, with sponsor logos on absolutely everything. In fact, there are times that the racing action is limited to only half of the screen, with the rest taken over by the running order scroll, banner ads, several screen 'bugs' and at least three different sponsor logos. A recent development has the race in a small screen portal with no sound while the commercials are rolling, mostly ads with the drivers hawking everything from auto parts to furniture rental to boner pills. Sometimes we'll record the race and watch it later that day or the next, speeding through the commercials and turning a 3-1/2 hour broadcast into a much more viewable 2 hours. I'm not the type to go bonkers if I find out who won before I watch the damned thing... at least not all the time.

As I write this essay, the 2011 Daytona 500 is only hours away and, thanks to a newly-repaved track surface, race official's meddling and last-minute changes to the cars, it seems as if there will be a very odd type of race, where two cars can 'pair-up' nose-to-tail and run almost 10mph faster than the field. The practice and warm-up races have yielded an unfortunate race strategy, so it remains to be seen what will happen on Race Day. Oh, I'll watch it all right, even though I have a sinking feeling the race will wind up with a bunch of paired-up cars drafting around the track, all keeping their distance from each other so they can make it to the last few laps and then shoot it out for the Checkered Flag.

That's what happens sometimes. I've also seen boring football and baseball games, but methinks even if the Daytona 500 is less than stellar, the next race will see the competition get back to normal.

NASCAR racing is not evil, is not dumb, does not ask the fan to think too hard, but offers limitless opportunities to revel in the classic American sport of stock car racing. Yes, they race at high speed in a circle for hours, but when you have a better understanding of the challenges involved, it creates a drama and excitement that few other sports can equal. Make it a point to give NASCAR racing some of your valuable time, and remember the incredible amount of science involved, the sheer courage required, the risk of death and the reward of finishing First. It might... just... snare you. You're welcome!

UPDATE: As I suspected, the 2011 Daytona 500 turned into a race dominated by two-car drafting pairs, which were able to lap faster than individual cars or an entire pack of them. The drivers were allowed to communicate with each other via their on-board radios so they could set up their strategic pairings while whizzing along at 195mph. Although I was disappointed at this turn of events, the race was really exciting and yielded a surprise winner: 20 year-old Trevor Bahne, racing in only his second Sprint Cup race. Driving the Wood Brothers #21 Ford, Trevor was fast all day, drafted like a champ and held off several veterans to capture NASCAR's crown jewel. It was the first win in 10 years for the Wood Brothers team, who last won the 500 in 1979.

I am not a fan of this new type of 'drafting pair' speedway racing, yet I know it will happen again the next time they visit Daytona in July and during both upcoming races at my beloved Talladega (boo hoo). I reckon I'm old skool in many ways. I figger that every car is out there to beat every other car. When drivers can work together to gain an advantage, whether they're on the same team or not, well... that just doesn't seem to be in the spirit of ANY type of motor racing. The reviews on the race were mixed. I dinna like it. Oh well... that's racing!

'Thunder Road' trailer, Michael Waltrip In-Car Camera clip, 'Ben Hur' clip and 'Daytona 2009 Finish' clip all MUCHISMAS GRACIAS de Talladega image courtesy of

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