Aerodynamic Changes Have Produced High-Quality Racing in ’16
This weekend at Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR wraps its version of spring break. All three national series were quiet for the Easter weekend, and many drivers and teams took the time to travel and recharge from the season’s first five races, which featured improved competition and excellent finishes in its flagship Sprint Cup Series.
NASCAR’s early report card is full of high marks made possible by the sanctioning body’s aerodynamic rules changes that have put more of each race’s outcome back in its drivers’ hands. Those changes include a smaller front splitter (a flat plate that extends forward from the bottom of the car’s nose), a reduced underbody radiator pan and a smaller rear spoiler. Those changes reduce the amount of air pushing down on a race car’s body panels (downforce) and force teams to find other ways to make the cars stick to the track in the corners.
For many years, NASCAR had gone the opposite way. More downforce was routinely added to the Sprint Cup rule book until 2015 when it began to trim away slightly from the spoiler and radiator pan. But the 2015 effect was less pronounced because NASCAR also reduced horsepower, a move that seemed to counter-balance the downforce change. NASCAR eventually scheduled a four-race experiment: two events with much more downforce and two with much less. After the high-downforce package produced regrettable races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, the decision to use the lower package was made easy for this season.
So far, it’s been the sport’s best change in recent memory that wasn’t safety-related. Passing is up, and the races have a combined average finish margin (0.367 seconds) after five races that’s the lowest since 1993. Better yet? The drivers are enthralled. “I think it’s significantly better than what we had last year,” said Jamie McMurray. “And I can’t find anybody that thinks differently. You can race a little bit closer. The car in front of you doesn’t mess up your car as much.” The sport’s most popular driver has also been effusive in praise. “Every week has been fun, fun, fun,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. “The cars are fun to drive, slipping and sliding. It’s a good challenge and I’m enjoying it.”
The process to this point hasn’t been all roses for NASCAR. The changes came with a verifiable price. The disappointment of last year’s aerodynamic package changes — and the exceptional cost it dealt to teams — contributed to NASCAR ceding significant power to its owners this season in the form of a team charter system. A sport known to run from a bully pulpit operates much differently these days.
A contributing factor to that change has been how NASCAR CEO Brian France has been viewed by the garage area. France made a significant misstep after the 2015 race Kentucky Speedway — one of the two low downforce experiment races last season that produced glowing reviews on all fronts — when he went on NASCAR’s satellite radio channel and poured cold water on the positive vibes by saying he preferred more pack racing and drafting. It was a statement that seemed both odd (Kentucky or tracks like it have never produced that type of racing in NASCAR’s history) and ill-timed.
Another France misstep this season is the biggest blemish on otherwise great first leg of 2016. France, along with current and former drivers, appeared at a Feb. 29 rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to offer what was later characterized as a personal endorsement. The move brought into question a decision last season by NASCAR to move banquet events out of a Florida resort owned by Trump after NASCAR sponsor Camping World objected to remarks from Trump about Mexican immigrants.
Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis publicly criticized France’s endorsement in a tweet. France, when interviewed later by the Associated Press nine days later, claimed surprise that he would be questioned for the endorsement — an explanation that Lemonis called “typical Brian” in an ESPN Radio interview. “I’ve seen this happen before,” Lemonis said. “He doesn’t necessarily have all the facts and he picks up a vision and he does it with enthusiasm and exuberance.”
For France and NASCAR, it seems the good racing on-track couldn’t have come at a better time.
As the drivers return from a brief spring break, it’s worth noting that the quality of the racing so far this season has exceeded even optimistic expectations.