This Time, What Will Result From Testing? We’ll Find Out Soon

Daytona Preseason Thunder - Day 1

Activity at Daytona International Speedway is all abuzz, as you might expect during pre-season testing. This year teams have to make numerous changes to their cars to comply with several NASCAR rule changes. How this will affect competition, and what NASCAR still might have to do, is uncertain.

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.


One of the most dramatic rule changes NASCAR made came in 1981 with the downsizing of the cars. It created a very controversial situation, especially when Bobby Allison showed up at Daytona with a car that was clearly dominant over all others.

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.

When The July Daytona Race Was A Casual, Laid-Back Affair

The Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, scheduled for this weekend, is one of the glitziest and most-anticipated races of any NASCAR Sprint Cup season. And why shouldn’t it be?

It is run during a major holiday weekend in one of Florida’s most recognized resort cities and on a speedway many consider NASCAR’s most famous.

It is conducted under the lights and night racing has long been vastly popular with NASCAR fans. It comes complete with speed, the intrigue of carburetor plate racing and there are plenty of fireworks – always a good thing for both night events and Independence Day.

Might seem hard to believe, but there was a time when the race, formerly known as the Firecracker 400, was anything but spectacular.

It was one of the most laid-back races in NASCAR. It wasn’t conducted with a lot of fanfare. DIS officials sure didn’t spend a lot of money marketing the event.

Racing under the lights? Hardly. Instead, the Firecracker 400, always held on July 4, got the green flag anywhere from 10 – 11 in the morning and by 3 p.m., fans and competitors alike were gone – back on the beach.

There was really no need for DIS to get overly involved in race promotion. People were already amassed in Daytona Beach for the holidays and it wasn’t difficult for the track to sell tickets to folks who wanted to smell gas and burning rubber along with salty sea air.

For years it was tradition for nearly everyone to take their summer holidays during the week of July 4. In fact, textile mills, factories and other businesses throughout the South deliberately shut down for a week or longer because their employees were off on vacation.

Beaches were extremely popular as family getaways. Myrtle Beach in South Carolina always did a bustling July 4 business (still does) as did other sand-and-sea sites in the Carolinas and Georgia.

It was, and is, the same for Daytona Beach. But along with an established reputation as a family resort, the city also benefitted from its reputation as the heart of stock car racing, along with the sport’s most famous speedway and race, the Daytona 500.

While it was all about racing and its fans every February Speedweeks in Daytona (no one cared about getting a suntan, after all), when it came to the July 4 holiday, folks could spice up their walks on the beach and dips in the pool with a couple of hours of NASCAR.

And they did. DIS didn’t pack ‘em in like it did for the Daytona 500, but that wasn’t necessary. The Firecracker 400 was perhaps more of a diversion than a singular event and thus never cost the track nearly as much money to produce.

That it was so casual made the race fun for fans and media alike.

In fact, it’s likely the media preferred the Firecracker 400 to any other race on the NASCAR schedule. It was so easy to cover.

Every team and competitor showed up at the track early in the morning and went perfunctorily through preparation, practice and qualifying. Unless there was some type of controversy, which did arise from time to time, it was all simply a matter of getting the work done as quickly and satisfactorily as possible – then get the hell away from the speedway.

There were a couple of reasons for all of this. First, it was hot as hell – the main reason why the race started so early in the morning. Second, drivers and team members didn’t want to stay at the track any longer than they had to. They wanted to get back to the beach, motels, pool and the families they had brought on vacation.

It got to the point where any team spotted working in the garage area around 1 p.m. or so was obviously having problems. Otherwise, the place was almost abandoned. Hardly anyone else was around.

Most of the media wasn’t, that’s for sure. We’d file the news as quickly as possible – didn’t have to do much since the space our newspapers allowed us was drastically reduced because of the holiday – and then get back to the beach as quickly as we could.

Oh, we didn’t shirk our responsibilities. We just met them in a different way. For example, if there was a team or two still laboring after 1 p.m. we had to make sure we knew what was up so it could be duly reported.

Therefore, we appointed one writer, usually a rookie, to stick around and give us a full report when he finally made it back to the motel.

As fast as we could get back to the comforts of the beach, drivers and crewmen, who were splashing in the water by the time we arrived, nearly always beat us there.

Perhaps the perfect example of all this was the Firecracker 400 of 1979.

It was a very fast race that took just over two hours to complete and thus allowed everyone – competitors, fans and media – to get back to the beach with plenty of sunlight remaining. As far as everyone was concerned, it couldn’t have been any better.

It had been a tumultuous year for Wood Brothers Racing. That February, with driver David Pearson, it had barely lost the Daytona 500 to Petty Enterprises in one of the most historic finishes in NASCAR history. The Woods fell short of winning the first race ever broadcast flag-to-flag by a national network.

In the CRC Chemicals Rebel 500 at Darlington in April, a pit-road miscue, caused when Pearson drove away before a four-tire change had been completed, created a crash at the exit of the pits and ultimately ended the Pearson-Woods relationship.

The Woods hired Neil Bonnett, who had shown promise driving for Hoss Ellington and Kennie Childers, among others.

Bonnett first won for the Woods at Dover in May. Then, on July 4, he was scheduled to compete at the track on which his predecessor had performed so admirably so often.

When the race began, Bonnett drove as if he knew he had big shoes to fill. He powered his way into the lead and kept his foot firmly planted on the throttle. If he knew anything about caution or finesse, he had forgotten it.

It reached the point where the Woods, concerned about the survival of their car, sent Bonnett a message via the pit chalkboard: “EZ.”

On the final laps Bonnett was leading Benny Parsons when the pair came up on a group of 10 cars. The daring Bonnett thought he spotted a hole just big enough to slice through, which he did to win the race by one second over Parsons.

Once his post-race interview was complete, Bonnett disappeared from the speedway. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where he had gone.

The media’s work done a couple hours later, it was time for most of us to get to poolside. It was just mid-afternoon.

When we arrived in our bathing suits, sure enough, there was Bonnett.

He was stretched out on a lounge chair, resplendent in his sunglasses and shorts. He had popped the top on a cold one.

He gave us a puzzled look.

“Where the hell have you guys been?” he asked.


He Doesn’t Own A Computer, But Petty Understands The Internet

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – I was standing by a stack of tires in the garage area at Daytona International Speedway during a break in the racing activity when Richard Petty sauntered up to me.

I knew he wanted to chat.

This has happened, I’m privileged to say, several times over the years. We’ve had pleasant conversations about everything from politics to football. We seldom talked racing.

Instead of his usual greeting, which is, “Watcha doin’ bud?” Petty said, “What are you doing now?”

I understood his intent. He knew that my long career in motorsports print journalism had come to an end.

“Well, Richard, although I have been part of it for a long time, I’m now fully in cyberspace.”

He understood.

Then he looked at me and said, “I don’t even own a computer.”

That didn’t completely surprise me. While some senior citizens – and others – have embraced computers, many don’t care to know a thing about them.

Petty, 73, may not have visited cyberspace, but he was well aware of its impact.

“I know about the Internet,” Petty said. “Because of the Internet people now get their news instantly. When you read a newspaper what you are really reading is history. It’s stuff that happened 24 hours ago. Everyone already knows about everything.”

I told him something I think he had already realized. Newspapers, magazines and other publications have struggled because they have lost readers and advertising to the Internet.

“That’s not surprising,” Petty said. “The deal is even newspapers have gone to the Internet. They don’t have a choice because that’s what everyone uses to get their news.

“Our little paper in Randolph County (N.C.) has done it. But I still get it at home and read it. Well, make that I read the funny pages.”

As much as Petty realized the power of the Internet, he also knew how modern technology has evolved to the point where gadgets and gizmos unimagined years ago have become a part of people’s everyday lives.

“I stand around and watch fans wave their little cell phones around, taking pictures,” he said. “You couldn’t envision a cell phone a while back, not to mention one that took pictures.”

As if to emphasize his point, a couple of groups of fans walked up and asked Petty to pose for pictures, which they took with cell phones.
He willingly posed for all of them flashing his famous smile.

Along with the Internet, gizmos and gadgets aren’t part of Petty’s life, although some have tried to change that.

“I read a lot,” Petty said. “I don’t read fiction. I like biographies and history. I like to read about the lives of people, their ups and downs. I like to read about where we came from.

“My daughters bought me, what’s it called? A Kindle? It’s supposed to let you read thousands of books.

“The girls told me I could take the Kindle on the bus or the hauler and read whenever I wanted. When I finished one book I could push a button and get another one.

“I don’t even know how to turn it on.”

He does know how to turn on his television. But, of course, technology has created sets that are far removed from those old boxes with “rabbit ears” – or even basic cable.

“I have a satellite TV,” Petty said. “Sometimes I hit the wrong buttons and it will go blank. So I call the six-year-old grandkid and ask what buttons to punch. I’ll get the answers, press some buttons and then the TV turns back on.”

Petty realizes what most do – that the younger generation has a quicker and fuller understanding of technology and the personal products it creates.

“And it all advances so fast,” he said. “I’ll bet if I did buy a computer, by the time I got it home it would be out of date.

“I’m glad I came along when I did. But if I came along later, like many of today’s drivers, I would be part of an entirely different society.

That’s what all of this has become.

“Take Kyle, for example. He’s crazy about all this computer stuff. He goes to something called ‘tweeter’ or ‘twinner’ or something like that.”

Cope Admits 500 Victory Gives Him Some Clout

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Because NASCAR dramatically changed eligibility requirements for the Budweiser Shootout, old-line driver Derrike Cope, and some others, were afforded what Cope called “a golden opportunity.”

The special event used to be reserved only for pole winners from the previous season. But in 2011, NASCAR expanded the eligibility requirements. One of them declared that past Daytona 500 winners could compete in the Shootout.

Cope is one of them. He raced in the Shootout in Larry Gunselman’s Toyota and finished 14th of the 14 cars remaining in the race.

Cope was eligible for the Shootout because he was the winner of the 1990 Daytona 500 in one of the most improbable finishes in the race’s history.

Dale Earnhardt, at that time winless in the 500 although he had earned victories in every other race at Daytona International Speedway, was leading the last lap in Richard Childress’ Chevrolet.

Everyone believed he was at last destined for victory.
Cope, driving for the fledgling Bob Whitcomb Racing team, also in a Chevrolet, ran second. It was going to be a good day for him.
It got better.

As the two cars sped down the backstretch, Earnhardt suddenly slowed and drifted low on the track – allowing Cope to pass. Something was wrong.

Cope, as stunned as everyone in attendance, had only to keep all four wheels on the track to secure the victory.
Earnhardt suffered a cut tire after he ran over a piece of bell housing. Cruel fate had denied him again.

Dutifully, the media reported Cope’s victory. But not one of them thought it was anything less than a fluke – even though Cope, in second place, had run very well.

Earnhardt probably received more attention than Cope simply because the man known as “The Intimidator” had failed to win the Daytona 500 – again.

Cope was in only his third full year of Sprint Cup competition when he won the 500. Later in the year he won at Dover, which was not a fluke.

Those are the only two victories of Cope’s career.
He hasn’t raced full-time, or something close to it, on the Cup circuit since 1998.

But he still races now and then. And, except for a three-year period from 2006-2008 during which he didn’t compete, he’s always shown up for the Daytona 500.

However, the last time he actually drove in the race was in 2004. It’s been rough going since. He failed to qualify three times, in 2005, 2009 and last season.
He’ll try again this year, again in Gunselman’s Toyota.

The fact that he’s continued to simply find rides, much less race, amazes some. They reason he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of his Daytona 500 victory.

Cope heartily agrees. He believes that any driver with a 500 victory has some power – bargaining and otherwise – that can produce benefits.

“Well, it got me to this dance (the Shootout) didn’t it?” Cope said. “You bring a lot to the table when you put ‘Daytona 500 winner’ next to your name.

“It indicates competitiveness and the ability to perform at racing’s highest level. So when you are in a boardroom, applying for some money, it’s the kind of thing that can put you right back at Daytona, so that’s a good thing.

“And you can keep racing here and there.”

Over the years Cope has established a successful shock absorber shop and has been a television commentator. He’s also run some Nationwide Series races.

Starting at Daytona, he’s scheduled to do so again in Jay Robinson’s cars.
So he keeps on racing.

Since Cope is now 52 years old, that he keeps on truckin’ begs the question, why?

“I physically love to drive a race car,” Cope said. “At places like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Atlanta and Charlotte – the fast places – the speed is just the draw for me.

“You get challenges like the one here at Daytona with the new pavement. That’s just another aspect you want to experience. You want to absorb everything you can while you can.”

So when does Cope cease the absorption process? It’s not likely to be soon.

“Mark Martin and I talked last night,” Cope said. “And we agreed we aren’t going to let anyone else dictate to us when we should retire.
“We are going to keep doing this as long as we want to keep doing it. We are going to absorb it for as long as we can.

“And, when it comes time to make that conscious decision, then that’s when we’ll do it.”
Looks like Cope is going to put a few more miles on that 1990 Daytona 500 victory.

NASCAR: On Restriction

NASCAR’s Preseason Thunder tests start this morning and may run into Sunday if the rains come in on Friday, as predicted. Michele Rahal of The Motorsports Channel and thinks that NASCAR may actually reduce the restrictor plates even more after today’s test.


The Shootout Likely Won’t Go Away Soon

Recently I had the privilege of being on Sirius Radio with Dave Ross and Buddy Baker. One of the topics of conversation was qualifying. Specifically, the guys said no one seems to be interested in it any longer and was there a way to get more fans to attend?

One suggestion was that perhaps it would be good for the pole winner to receive championship points. That might provide some motivation for the competitors and give fans a reason to go to the track.

In days gone by drivers had motivation. A pole winner earned the right to compete in the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway the next season. That meant more money, sponsorship exposure and track time in an “all-star” event.

I can’t tell you how many times an excited pole-winning driver said, “Hey, we made the Shootout!” in his post-qualifying interviews.

The Shootout began as the Busch Clash in 1979. Because it was open to pole winners only fields were usually small. In 1981, for example, there were only seven cars on the grid.

Few complained, however. It was considered an elite event open to those who had to earn their way into the field.
But things changed when Anheuser Busch brought an end to its Bud Pole program, which, of course, meant that the format for the Shootout’s starting lineup had to be changed.

For a time drivers representing the four manufacturers were selected for the Shootout. But Dodge dropped to only three teams and the method had to be scrapped.

It was recently announced that eligibility for the Shootout has changed again – and it’s the most convoluted ever.
The field will consist of the drivers in the top 12 in the 2010 point standings, past Sprint Cup champions, past Shootout winners, past winners of the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero 400 and the Sprint Cup Rookies of the Year from 2000-2010. Whew!

Given these eligibility requirements the starting lineup for the Shootout will be sizable, perhaps as many as 30 cars.
But at the same time there are eligible drivers who either don’t have rides – John Andretti, for example – or who are not

currently competing in Sprint Cup racing – among them Sterling Marlin, Geoff Bodine, Ken Schrader and Derrike Cope.
It seems to be a bit a stretch, doesn’t it?

I understand – at least I think I do – what NASCAR is attempting. By enlarging the Shootout field with drivers who have, under the criteria, earned their way in is an effort to make the race interesting, not to mention more appealing for fans, whose favorite drivers are almost certain to be competing. Yep, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of them.

It’s been suggested that the Shootout be scrapped. It’s an exhibition event that clutters a season that runs from February to November. Many have already said the Sprint Cup schedule needs to be shortened. So why not do so with the elimination of a meaningless race?

Point well made, but it’s not going to happen.
The Shootout will certainly remain as long as Budweiser forks over the sponsorship money.
Let’s face it, the drivers aren’t going to complain about a chance to earn additional income, get more track time at Daytona and the opportunity to score bragging rights.

And I suspect NASCAR believes it can’t lure fans by taking something away from them.
Yes, the Sprint Cup schedule needs to be shortened and that’s going to take imaginative thinking. Lopping off points races won’t happen because tracks – and NASCAR – need the income. But there may come a day when we see races run during the middle of the week.

And there may also come a day when the Shootout is eliminated, something some have said should happen quickly.
As I’ve said, point well made. But I think it’s more likely to happen later than sooner.

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Driver Test Raves Are A Boon For Daytona

The folks at Daytona International Speedway have to be deliriously happy. NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers have done a marvelous public relations job for them and, in turn, that might just sell a few more tickets for the Daytona 500.

Drivers who took on the new asphalt at the 2.5-mile track last week, in what was officially a Goodyear tire test, gave it their rousing approval. They experienced few, if any, problems as the surface provided excellent grip and allowed them to race in packs of three and sometimes four cars in the draft.
They say the prospects for good racing are excellent.

They compared the resurfaced track to the other restrictor-plate tri-oval on the schedule, Talladega Superspeedway, which provides close racing in tight packs and, almost inevitably, big wrecks.

The drivers contend that competing in the Daytona 500 will be similar to any race at Talladega. Everyone is going to run very close together, as they did in testing, and that means just one small mistake could trigger “the big one.”

Kurt Busch, the veteran driver for Penske Racing, said it most succinctly: “Big packs, big action.”
Those are words Daytona officials love to hear. When the drivers themselves sing the praises of a track – and say the competition is going to be, perhaps, greater than ever – that converts into marketing and public relations gold.

I daresay many fans and members of the media are more anxious to see what transpires at Daytona in February 2011 than they have been in years.
Now, not everyone likes Talladega-style racing – and that includes some drivers. The potential for mayhem is greater at the 2.66-mile track than any other.

Some competitors contend that restrictor-plate racing at Talladega is maddening. It’s simply a matter of survival; just stay out of trouble until the end and hope you can find a needed drafting partner that will help you get as far to the front as possible – which doesn’t always happen.
When racing in tight packs lap after lap all it takes is for someone to slip up. The result is smashed sheet metal or worse.
Even so, in one man’s opinion, fans still greatly anticipate races at Talladega. And, given all they’ve read or heard by now, I suspect their interest in the Daytona 500 has significantly increased.

A couple of points here. DIS is still unto itself – which it should be. The repaving, which started last July after the track came apart in places during last year’s 500, did nothing to alter the banking from top to bottom, for which drivers were thankful. Bumps are gone as well as the infamous pothole.
Pit road has been widened, which is a contribution to safety, among other things.

By all reports, Goodyear did a masterful job in preparation for the tests. Among other things, it applied research conducted at Talladega, which was repaved in 2006, and that helped create a tire compound that displayed little wear – something the drivers considered another positive.
In short, this is all very good news for Daytona.

Routinely when a track is repaved tire grip is dramatically improved and speeds increase. Both are so for Daytona and, given higher speeds, NASCAR has said it might reduce the carburetor plate size for the 500.

But sometimes repaving or any other treatment to a track surface does more harm than good – as it did with that “levigating” thing (I think that’s what it was called) at Charlotte a couple of years back when tires were shredded in short order during the race.

While Daytona doesn’t have to do much to promote the potential excitement the track’s repaving may provide – the drivers have done that – over the years speedways routinely touted surface alterations to promote their races.

Years ago, to avoid the high cost of repaving, some speedways would apply a special sealant to fill cracks and holes in the asphalt.
This substance, disdainfully called “bear grease” by competitors, usually made the surface much slicker and the speedways capitalized on that. They would have a driver or two conduct a “test” – usually for a fee – who would then say in press releases that the track was so skittery drivers were sure to crash everywhere.

The tracks hoped that “news” would help sell more tickets.
It didn’t always succeed. In fact, the practice became so common the media ignored it.
They, and the fans, can’t ignore what the drivers have learned and enthusiastically reported from tire testing at Daytona.
Of course, what happens in the 500 and its supporting events remains to be seen.
But the first returns have been good and Daytona International Speedway has to be delighted about that.

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