Wednesday, November 12, 2014

NASCAR Spins Out Of Control

Harvick and Logano sporting "Mad Max" flares
NASCAR is in danger of losing control.

I’m not talking about the weekly episode of NASCAR Drivers Gone Wild.

It probably didn’t seem like much at first.  Just a little tug on the lower front opening of the rear wheel well.

No big deal.  Except now it could have a major impact on the outcome of the Chase.

And it’s symbolic of a bigger problem.  NASCAR has been losing control of the garage area, where it once ruled with an iron – if sometimes ham-handed – fist.

The most visible evidence of the loss of control can be seen on every Sprint Cup car after the first pit stop during a race, the flared bottom of the rear quarter panel, in front of the wheel opening.

The flaring rose to prominence in the opening race of the Chase, Chicagoland, when the winning car of Brad Keselowski featured pronounced flaring of its rear skirts.  No problem, ruled NASCAR, probably just the result of contact on the track or running down on the apron, which happens a lot at Chicago. 

But those in the garage knew better. 

Presented with high res video evidence that the “flaring” occurred as part of carefully choreographed pit stops when a crew member nonchalantly reached down and gave the fender a tug to improve the car’s aerodynamics, NASCAR elected to turn a blind eye towards future violations.   

“You can only go so far until it doesn’t make a difference anymore,” Robin Pemberton, senior vice president of Competition, said of the flaring.  “Right now, the rules are what they are. We’ll continue to run out the season policing areas that we police the way we do and areas that we don’t police the way we don’t police them.

“It’s not anything new. It’s just something that there’s more evidence out there than ever before. I can’t remember when it hasn’t been done. Everybody starts the same and that’s our goal.”

The flaring escalated at each subsequent race, sometimes with comical results, the side skirting occasionally being completely pulled away.  A perfectly pulled skirt now resembles something out of the Road Warrior, a tire shredding weapon that would make Mad Max proud.  Ironically, while it was contact with Keselowki that cost Jeff Gordon at chance at winning at Charlotte, it was shredded tire, very likely caused by the flared skirt, that cost Gordon a spot in the Chase.

“It is definitely getting a little bit out of control,” Gordon said of the flaring before Phoenix.  “NASCAR is probably looking at it as 'OK, we have two races left. Let's address that next year.’ I don't think they are really in a position to address that right now.”

The fender flaring, however, is just the most visible indication that NASCAR has lost control.  Crabbing also has crept back in the picture.

“The amount of cheating going on in the garage has reached new levels,” said one NASCAR insider.  “It’s out of control.”

He pointed to NASCAR’s new management team that has been moving into position during the past two years, as facing a steep learning curve.   

‘They’re good people, they’ll get a handle on it,” he said.  “But at the moment, they’re overmatched.”

Brent Dewar, a former sales and marketing exec at General Motors, took over as NASCAR’s Chief Operating Officer at the start of the year.  At the same time, Richard Buck was named managing director of the Sprint Cup series replacing John Darby, who had held the position for 12 years.  Buck was vice president of racing operations for the International Motor Sports Association, and he held several NASCAR technical positions prior to that.  He’s also a former Indy 500 winning crew chief. 

Meanwhile, NASCAR’s well-respected and longtime leader in the garage area, Mike Helton, has taken on an increasingly lower profile.  

In a move to shift top management closer to the action, Steve O'Donnell, the heir apparent to Helton, was recently named executive vice president and chief racing development officer and is moving his office moving to Charlotte, where he has also assumed management of the Research and Development Center.  

Gene Stefanyshyn, another former GM exec who joined NASCAR in May 2013 and is responsible for the Racing Development and Innovation group, now reports to O’Donnell, as does Pemberton.  Both men previously reported to Helton. 

All of which should help – next year.

For now, NASCAR is facing two nightmare Homestead scenarios. 

First, Ryan Newman is the top finisher and is crowned NASCAR champion, without winning a race all season.

Second, someone loses the race as the result of a shredded tire from a flapping fender flare.

“Everyone is taking advantage of what is there as they should,” Said Joey Logano, one of four finalists.  “I don’t blame anyone. Obviously the consequence is you touch each other and you can get a flat tire, but that’s all part of it. We all know it. We can see it. We know if we touch each other we’ll have an issue because of everyone being so aggressive in that department, but that’s the name of the game right now.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.


  1. I don't subscribe to that thinking as NASCAR has not said it was illegal, yet. And many make it sound like teams that are doing it (and it seems most are) are in the wrong and somehow "cheating"..bologna. Nascar has bigger issues at this point. Seems something somehow happens to a HMS team, and it is just racing, and a driver like Jeffery makes a mistake it becomes a problem because of another team, and Nascar MUST address it. I think they got bigger problems then the whiners who cannot prove a "skirt" did them about Nascar touting the "emphasis" on wins and you got Newman with 4 top 5's and 41 laps led and you got Dega Denny with one win, low stats that don't even register on Chase or traditional points.. competing for the Championship...they got bigger issues but are too dumb to notice.

    1. I am not a Jeff Gordon fan but he should have been mad at Nascar for throwing the caution flag in the first place. Nobody was going to catch him with 5 laps to go. He was driving away from them but Nascar had to bunch them up again and we saw what happened! Bull crap! They took him out of the chase and that is that!

  2. I remember a time when teams would, during the course of an event, raise or lower the rear spoiler (by hand, with a mallet, etc) to change the handling of the car. I liked that aspect, as it gave all teams an equal ability to change the car's performance during a race. Do you trade down force and cornering for better straightaway speed, for example. Then, in the name of safety, Nascar instituted rules regarding spoiler height and forbid teams from pounding on them during an event to change it. So there is precedent to institute a rule change to stop what teams are doing with the flared fenders. It's basically the same thing in practice, they're bending sheet metal on the vehicle to change aerodynamics and thus handling. I do, however agree, that at this point they may as well let it play out and address it before next season.

    That said, beyond any performance advantage, there is another element to this that concerns me. As it is these cars still travel on pit road anywhere from 40-60 miles an hour, depending on the track, and you have pit crews dancing around them during pit stops. We've seen a number of pit crew members hit while on pit road, either because a driver locked up the brakes, swerved, left too soon, whatever, and we've been fortunate so far that serious injuries have been few and far between. We've seen plenty of close calls as cars brushed pit crew member as well. If these flared fenders can cut tires, imagine what they can do human flesh?

    We don't need severed limbs so that teams can gain an aero advantage.

    - Skoalbandit33

    1. What do you expect teams to do? Mandatory shocks,springs,rear gears,fixed spoiler angle,transmissions,ride heights,etc,etc and now next year restrictor plate engines! I thought it is a race and the fastest car to run 500 miles wins. They have taken all the excitement out of it. I miss the old days with the smokeing tires in the corners and half way down the back stretch and wondering what Junior was going to try next? Remember the table that had all the comfiscated parts on it? Rudds air bags,Juniors shaved bolt heads etc. They have created an IROC series which I predicted 20 years ago when they went to radial tires so Mikey could keep up with Dale,Davey,Rusty,Ernie,Alan and the guys that could figure out what was the car going to do when the tire got bigger. This is my last year of Nascar and I refuse to watch the last race because it has become a Joke! The old point system that actualy reflected all the races would have the top seven in points going for it at Homestead with an actual chance to win it all. Last year you had nine guys with a chance to win it all! Look it up!

  3. They could have stopped this at the onset, and it wouldn't be a problem. Now the Genie is out of the bottle and isn't going back. But this isn't going to be the last thing.

  4. I am more concerned that all the new executives of NASCAR come from General Motors. Maybe there will be lots of integrity at NASCAR in the future, but the track record of this gang doesn't predict such.

    1. Remember when Chad and Jimmey got fined and had points docked, But NASCAR's ruling was overturned by a former GM executive.

  5. I think the fender flares are an obvious flaunting of the rules in an attempt to divert NASCAR's attention away from more sophisticated tweaks. Through simulation, team engineers can now easily determine engine behavior when the drive wheels begin to lose traction. With the computerized fuel injection and electronic ignition boxes, a small programmable chipset could be inserted in their circuitry that would regulate engine power by adjusting the timing and fuel flow based on input from stealthily-mounted, wireless accelerometers mounted over the drive wheels. If you watch Rowdy Busch's #54 JGR car in NNS to see this technology at work. You might notice that it almost never spins the tires (until after the race, when he de-activates it to celebrate). JGR uses Busch's NNS #54 as a development mule, since NASCAR almost never takes a win away from the winner, no matter how illegal it may be and the NNS points championship is not the team's goal. With this work, and the advent of tapered spacers in Cup next year (similar to NNS), look for JGR to be especially strong in the early races since they will have a better understanding of that type of semi-restricted engine package than their competition.

    1. Engine mapping can do a lot of what you're describing without "cheating". Pemberton somewhat let the cat out of the bag by mentioning end of the straightaway settings. F1 has been working with this since the late 70'sat least. You can create all kinds of interesting situations just by changing some settings.
      Whats really happening with the skirts is trying to enhance a diffuser effect. Letting air out from beneath the car. An earlier effort was the oil tank cover that mysteriously fell off inside Carl Edwards car. All about using the air beneath the car to create down force.
      And for those who advocate raising the nose of the car up? Remember that F1 car deliberately raise the nose, to increase the speed of the air rushing underneath.
      A complicated and fascinating subject.

    2. I agree with with your theory about letting air out from under the car for more downforce. The teams not using the flared side skirt, are most likely using a different approach. Remember when Larry Mac had a car on a rottisery, they could turn the car on its side. I wish they would bring back that program segment again. I have for a long time thought Hendrick cars were using traction control. race announcers often say Jeff spun his tires on a restart, but I believe its the control device kicking in and Jeff lose's power to rear wheels. He has an advantage coming out of the corners with a t/c device but forgets to switch ignition systems on some restarts.

  6. It sure would seem to me that a piece of metal sticking out is dangerous for tires on other cars but what do I know?