Saturday, September 27, 2014

NASCAR Bans Innovation

Maybe NASCAR should bring back Petty, Superbirds
NASCAR released its 2015 rules package on Tuesday, bragging about more than 60 “enhancements,” primarily aimed at reducing horsepower and downforce and – most of all – saving money.  All in the name of better racing.

One thing NASCAR didn’t mention.  The new rules also ban innovation.

For nearly two years NASCAR had talked about a new “Engine of Tomorrow.” Everything was supposedly being considered, including V6 and even V6 turbo engines.  It was an opportunity to make NASCAR relevant again, to put it at the forefront of the development of not only tomorrow’s racing engines, but also tomorrow’s passenger car engines. 

The auto industry will undergo the biggest changes in its history during the next 10 years as a result of mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that are set to nearly double by 2025, to 54.5 miles per gallon.  That’s easily the biggest increase in standards since they were first established in the early 1970s.

Currently only the Toyota Prius and similar hybrids, meet the 2025 standards.  The V6-powered Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Impala or Malibu will have to nearly double current mileage ratings.  V8 engines such as the one in Chevy SS will disappear.  The manufacturers say they will make extensive use of 4- and 6-cylinder engines and turbocharging to meet the standards.  You may be able to find a V8 engine in a Corvette in 2025, but you’ll pay a huge premium for it.

To meet the new standards, the industry will undertake a decade of development and innovation unmatched in its history.  One Toyota executive says the industry will see more changes in the next 10 years than it has in the previous 100.

But instead of being part of this development and innovation, NASCAR has decided to take a back seat and watch the world pass it by.  The series is going with the “Engine of Yesterday,” taking a page from its truck and Nationwide series by adding a “tapered spacer” to the existing 1970s-era V8 engines to cut horsepower from about 850 to about 725.  If you like restrictor plates, you’ll love “tapered spacers.”  Gear ratio reductions will limit engines to about 9,000 RPM.

We may never see another engine failure.  And that’s good, because the only V8 engines you’ll be able to find 10 years from now may be those running around in circles in NASCAR races.  It will become a form vintage racing.

And just to make sure some team doesn’t get ambitious and actually try to develop an edge on the track, NASCAR banned all testing.  Teams will be hard-pressed to develop something new during one or two test sessions the day before a race.  To enforce the ban the organization put in place its most stringent penalty ever, a loss of 150 points, minimum $150,000 fine and six-week crew chief suspension.

The series made it clear the new rules were developed in collaboration with “the race teams, the drivers, our manufacturer partners and Goodyear” and I don’t doubt that for second.  I was hoping NASCAR, the race teams, drivers, manufacturers and Goodyear might dip into that $8+ billion treasure chest of new TV money in the name of moving the series forward, but I should have known better.  It’s all about maintaining the status quo.

It’s pretty much impossible to find anyone in the garage area who isn’t raving about these “enhancements” for 2015.  Unlike the botched rollout of the Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR obviously did its homework with the teams and had everyone signing from the same hymnal.

Maybe, just maybe, NASCAR is on to something with the retro engine package.  Afterall, vintage racing is the hottest form of motorsports at the moment.  The next step is to bring back the body styles from the ‘70s; the Super Birds, Talladegas and the Chevelles.  Heck, maybe we can even get Petty, Pearson, Allison and Yarborough back in the cars.

Now that would be a race worth watching.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Time For Tony Stewart To Speak Up

Stewart just days before his world was turned upside down
It’s time for Tony Stewart to step up and tell his side of the story about what happened the night of Aug. 9, 2014, when the race car he was driving struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in Ontario County, N.Y.

After a month-long investigation, the decision by district attorney Michael Tantillo to send the case against Stewart to the grand jury was predictable.  Tantillo could have thrown the case out after receiving the Sherriff’s report, or immediately charged Stewart.  Either action would have been controversial.  Instead, he decided to punt.  By putting the ball in the grand jury's court, the elected official avoided taking a stand on what must be one of the most politically sensitive cases the area has ever seen.

"I have made the determination that it would be appropriate to submit the evidence to a grand jury, for their determination as to what action should be taken in this matter," read Tantillo’s abdication.

The next step is for the evidence to be reviewed by a grand jury, a group of 23 people, something of an expanded trial jury.   There is no timetable for the hearings other than “soon” and they are confidential.  The evidence is presented by someone in the district attorney’s office, expected to be Tantillo himself.  But there is no judge, no defense attorney; no questioning of evidence or witnesses, beyond questions the grand jury itself may submit.  Stewart’s lawyers won’t be present unless Stewart is called to testify.

It’s impossible for me -- and many others -- to believe Stewart meant to hit or hurt Ward Jr. when the young driver darted towards Stewart’s car.  But did Stewart mean to spray a little dirt on the kid as he drove past and things then went horribly wrong?  That’s a legitimate question many others have.  If the grand jury has the same question at the end of the hearing, Stewart could be charged with second-degree manslaughter or even negligent homicide for "recklessly causing the death of another person."

Once the case is presented, if a majority of the grand jury believe the “evidence is legally sufficient and provides reasonable cause to believe that the defendant has committed the crime," an indictment is handed down.  Stewart would be charged with a crime and a date set for trial.

It’s unclear whether Stewart will be called to testify before the grand jury, or if he will ask to testify.  The grand jury is able to call and question witnesses and one would expect Stewart to be one of those witnesses.  But there are no guarantees. 

At this point, I expect the grand jury will do the same thing as the DA and simply pass the buck.  Give it back to the DA for a regular trial by a jury.

Much of the case in a manslaughter trial goes to intent and state-of-mind.  Only Stewart can answer those questions.  That’s why I believe he should come forward now and talk about that night.  Why wait?  He might even influence the grand jury.

Stewart has refused to answer questions, saying he needed to “respect the ongoing investigation process.”  Well the investigation concluded two weeks ago.

But while the grand jury proceedings are confidential, witnesses are free to discuss their testimony outside the courtroom and so there are no legal constraints on Stewart taking questions.

Although the answers would seem obvious, people want to see and hear how Stewart responds.  Stewart’s short, scripted remarks before the Atlanta race didn’t do the trick.

Of course there’s no requirement that Stewart testify before the grand jury or even if the case does go trial.  That’s up for the defense to decide.  But it seems the only way Stewart can convince either jury - or the court of public opinion - that he had no intent to injure Ward or even just spray dirt on him, will be for him to answer the questions himself. 

So why wait?  

Monday, September 15, 2014

NASCAR’S Billy Horschel Nightmare

NASCAR's Billy Horschel?
NASCAR has a Billy Horschel problem.



Horschel captured the FedEx Cup on Sunday in Atlanta, the Professional Golf Association’s equivalent of NASCAR’s Case, along with the $10 million bonus that goes with it.  The FedEx Cup was born out of an effort by the PGA to give meaning to the final golf tournaments of the season after the last “major” event of the year and the advent of football season.  Sound familiar?  It’s golf’s version of the Chase. 

Three weeks ago Horschel had missed the cut in the opening round of the FedEx Cup and dropped to 82nd in the rankings.  He hadn’t won a tournament all year and had only two top 10 finishes to show for 2014.  Ryder Cup Captain Tom Watson never even considered him for a spot on the team when identifying America’s dozen best golfers. 

Then Horschel got hot, red hot, about as late in the year as possible, winning the final two tournaments of the season and as a result, the FedEx Cup.  In the process he beat Rory McIlroy, everyone’s golfer of the year.  All McIlroy did during the “regular” season was win two of four majors and three straight other big tournaments.  He is the only player to finish in the top 25 in every start for the past two years.

In fairness, McIlroy had his chance.  He was tied with Horschel going into Sunday’s final round.  The season had come down to the final 18 holes for the FedEx Cup.  It was a dream come true for the PGA.  But then the wrong guy won.  Even Horschel left no doubt who he thinks is this year’s best golfer.

"In my mind, he’s (McIlroy) the player of the year,” Horschel said.  “I don’t think there’s anyone who comes close.”

While Horschel was winning in Atlanta, Brad Keselowski was winning in Chicago, his second straight victory and fifth of the season, more than any other driver.  There’s a good chance he’ll win one or two more races before the finale at Homestead.

Yet there’s also a chance Keselowski, and other winners from the NASCAR regular season, could lose the NASCAR championship to someone who doesn’t win a race all year.

Meet Matt Kenseth – NASCAR’s Billy Horschel.

Of course every NASCAR fan knows who Kenseth is.  He won more races than everyone else last year, but has yet to score a victory this season.  Consistent finishes have kept him near the top of the point standings.   And consistent finishes could win him the title this year if everything goes his way, despite NASCAR's emphasis on winning.  Vegas puts his odds at a respectable 12/1.

If Kenseth can parlay a few more consistent finishes into the final race at Homestead, all he has to do is finish ahead of the other in the Final Four.  If he was to finish second to, say, Kyle Larson, with Keselowski (or another finalist) third, Kenseth would be NASCAR’s champion.

Possible?  You bet.

Fair.  No way, and Kenseth would probably be the first to say so.

Of course people won’t be asking “who?” if Kenseth wins the Chase.

But they will be asking “why?”