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Sports & Fitness // Hot Air
Steve Murray

We’re Racing!

Inspired by the post-Civil War bounty hunter who hunted a Mexican bandit in Italy, here comes The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of NASCAR.

The Good: Access

Whereas most organizations punish their participants into boring sameness, NASCAR lets drivers be. At least they are not fined for speaking outside the corporate line, such as when Dale Earnhardt Jr. slammed Goodyear for what he feels are quick-wearing tires. One can imagine Roger Goodell’s actions should an NFL player utter an unkind word about Nike.

In no place is this freedom more obvious than in the communications between driver and crew. Fans can even rent headphones to listen in. What they hear is hardly MLB approved.

“I guess we get to get into a fight afterward because I’m going to go (expletive) that dude’s (expletive) face up,” said Kurt Busch to his crew as he and Brad Keselowski traded paint several times at Martinsville, including a pit row collision that cost Keselowski both his front fenders and hood.

Things only got better after the race. “That’s a punk-a** move and he will get what he gets back when I decide to give it back,” said Bush. Keselowski appears ready. “I’ll remember that when it’s lap 50 and he needs a break and he’ll find his a** turned around in the wall just like he tore my car up,” he said.

The Bad: Less Power

NASCAR has announced a plan that would reduce horsepower by the 2015 or 2016 season. Current setups create between 850 and 900 horsepower, which is enough to push cars past the point of human control. At several large tracks, NASCAR requires the use of restrictor plates (pieces of metal put between the carburetor and intake manifold to limits air and fuel flow, and therefore speeds). Two weeks ago at Fontana, Calif., cars hit 205 miles per hour. At that speed, they are traveling 299 feet per second. Prior to the use of restrictor plates, they went even faster.

In 1987, Bill Elliot topped 212 miles per hour (311 feet per second) and 214 miles per hour in practice at Talladega. That’s impressive, but fast racing is not necessarily good racing. NASCAR isn’t F1. Cars don’t race single file.

Its success is based on approachable athletes, (relatively) affordable cars and racing three wide. Too much power can destroy that careful balance.

The plan makes sense. Technology allows for higher speeds and better fuel economy from fewer ponies, but it just seems unAmerican. NASCAR was born of heavy cars featuring tons of horsepower. I’m gonna miss that. But if it makes for better competition, then boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go racing! (Add Darrell Waltrip’s famous call to “The Good” side of the ledger.)

The Ugly: Tires

Drivers think it’s a problem. NASCAR and Goodyear say there is no problem.

There is a problem. The first six races of the season produced six different winners, which is great unless equipment failure is the reason for those finishes. Jimmie Johnson was leading at Auto Club Speedway until a flat with seven laps remaining cost him the race. Jeff Gordon took advantage of the opportunity to take the lead but then he too went soft. Clint Bowyer’s flat caused a caution with two laps remaining that led to Kyle Busch’s last-lap victory.

NASCAR’s Gen 7 car is different from last year’s model, and race teams are convinced a corresponding tire change is also needed. NASCAR says it’s the cars’ set up, and not tires, that is the problem. Unless the tires are found to be unsafe, one has to side with the boss. Racing is about adapting to the rules, tracks and technology, especially where it comes to putting horsepower to the pavement. Each week, teams must adjust camber, caster, toe-in, toe-out, air pressure, stagger and temperature to most effectively transfer grip and power. That’s a lot things to take care of, but something crews have historically done very well, even with tires that were later proven to be crap.

Last week (at Texas), Goodyear provided its new multi-zone right-side tires that supposedly will provide better grip on the outside while providing more durability on the inside of the car. Left-side tires will remain the same as they have since 2011. We’ll see if that makes a difference.

smurray@midweek.com
Twitter: @SteveMurray84

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