Not to underplay the importance of testing – it is always vital to team preparation for a coming season – but at times it is more crucial than at others.
What makes some test sessions more significant than others is usually the result of NASCAR rule changes.
Often changes are so dramatic – and there are so many of them – that teams are faced with the monumental task of, basically, creating a new car; something totally different from what was customary.
A good example of this was when NASCAR enforced the so-called “Car of Tomorrow” a few seasons back.
Teams entered unknown territory when they came to test and, if you recall, it took them several months to become accustomed to the new car – well, at least grudgingly.
There have been many NASCAR-enforced changes since and, for 2012, nearly all are designed to accomplish one thing – to get rid of the tandem drafts that are now a part of racing on the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega.
NASCAR has said fans do not like such racing so it’s going to do its best to obliterate it.
To that end, it established several new technological configurations for 2012, and the teams are required to adopt all of them.
It’s a bucket load:
Smaller radiators; two gallons maximum.
Smaller radiator overflow tanks.
Re-location of the radiator inlet.
Softer rear springs.
A smaller rear spoiler.
An increase in size of the restrictor plate to 29/32 of an inch, 1/64-inch larger than in last year’s Daytona 500.
And, finally, the introduction of electronic fuel injection.
Since I’m not a NASCAR mechanic or engineer, I can’t really say how difficult it is to make these changes and I certainly don’t know how effective, or ineffective, they will be.
But I can tell you that some teams are going to adapt quicker than others. Some crew chiefs are going to leave Daytona with smiles on their faces while others will be babbling.
And I strongly suspect that after NASCAR reviews the testing results, it’s likely to make a couple more rule changes before the Daytona 500.
That’s happened many times in the past. But I don’t think testing and its aftermath have been any more controversial than in 1981.
That was the year NASCAR made what seemed to be a rather simple rules change. It mandated that cars now had to have a wheelbase of 110 inches rather than the standard 115 inches.
It sounded simple. But it wasn’t.
It was done so NASCAR could keep up with the times. Detroit had long since abandoned big cars. But the sanctioning body didn’t want to put an economic burden on its teams by making the switch immediately.
Therefore it allowed older car models to compete – some of which were five years old and won races.
But in 1981 NASCAR went to the smaller cars, which meant that an entirely new fleet of models would be introduced.
This was monstrous, because it meant that cars with which teams had competed for so many years were now obsolete. Every organization had to adopt a new, smaller car, tantamount to entering unknown territory.
There were a couple of special test sessions in December of 1980, followed by the regular testing in Daytona a month later.
For the teams, it was a nightmare. The smaller cars were far looser than their predecessors. Drivers said they could not stick to the track as they once did. The new models were all over the place.
Competitors admitted they were scared to run in a pack and many added they were not comfortable at all in the draft.
The reason for all of this: The smaller cars were not as aerodynamically stable as their larger counterparts.
Most of them, that is. The only one that wasn’t belonged to Harry Ranier’s team and was driven by Bobby Allison.
It was a Pontiac Grand LeMans Allison had spotted on a car lot and later tested, secretly, at Talladega.
The car was much more stable due to its sloped rear window configuration.
NASCAR took no action, saying the other teams “just got snookered.”
When Speedweeks began Allison was clearly the dominant driver. He won the Daytona 500 pole and led all but 17 laps to win a 125-mile qualifying race.
Allison’s easy victory was just a small part of that race. There were also incidents that forced NASCAR to make still more, absolutely necessary, changes.
Two frightening accidents took place, the likes of which no one had seen. John Anderson’s Oldsmobile slid down the backstretch and got airborne when it hit the grass, flipping on its roof and cartwheeling five more times.
Later, Connie Saylor got sideways and, unbelievably, his car twisted upward, its nose in the air. It, too, flipped when it hit the ground. Neither driver was hurt.
Worried competitors gathered in the driver’s lounge to watch the replays of the accidents. None could recall a car gyrating like what they saw.
Cars that weighed 3,700 twisted like cardboard in the wind.
NASCAR had a problem and it acted. It began altering rear spoiler sizes by model. The idea was to create more downforce and in so doing, some cars got larger spoilers than others.
Naturally, Allison’s LeMans got the smallest spoiler. NASCAR knew what it was doing. It was attempting to make racing the smaller cars safer, but it was also assuring everyone it wasn’t about to let Allison dominate the competition.
NASCAR did such an effective job that the LeMans was extinct by March.
And, in time, NASCAR’s many rule adaptations helped make the smaller cars more competitively comfortable, which, as you might think, satisfied the drivers.
I don’t believe things are going to be nearly as melodramatic now as they were in 1981, or in a few other years.
However, I do think there will be some ramifications from the changes that have been enforced for 2012.
If so, we’ll find out what they are – and what NASCAR does about it all – shortly.