NASCAR Testing Ban: Maybe Good, Maybe Bad

Multi-team owner Rick Hendrick with Jeff Gordon.

Multi-team owner Rick Hendrick with Jeff Gordon.

Professional sports, in general, has long been challenged by the lack of parity in the primary participants: No, not the athletes or competitors, who earn millions in their sport of choice and become the faces of cities, franchises and large fan bases that transcend regional and even national boundaries. The true disparity of professional sports, NASCAR is but one example, lies in the owners and the depth of their purses. Entertainment isn’t free, and it is extremely profitable, thus making the world of pro sports the true playground of the ultra wealthy and elite businessman. It is, after all, first and foremost a business, and like any other business, the measure of success is ultimately how profitable a team or franchise is.

This dynamic creates a slippery slope for the continued functioning of a successful sports league. Teams are managed by ultra successful businessmen who understand that winning drives profits, and to that end will invest whatever necessary to create a team that continues to win. The New York Yankees is an excellent example of this paradigm: a perennial winner who consistently courts the best players with the best payroll in all of Major League Baseball. But what makes the slope slippery is where the line is drawn between good competition – and entertainment, and when being a winner suddenly becomes being a bully because one team is able (and willing) to outspend every other. Going back to the Yankees, one recent season it was noted that the payroll of the Bronx Bombers was more than the rest of their division combined.

We wouldn't expect athletes, such as Tiger Woods, not to practice.

We wouldn’t expect athletes, such as Tiger Woods, not to practice.

Some organizations have combated this through rules and compacts, such as salary caps offset by revenue sharing through collective bargaining in the NFL, with the argument being the better quality of competition for all teams at all (aka ‘Any Given Sunday’) is good for the entirety of the sport. While imperfect, this has had a positive effect for the longevity and popularity of professional football as a whole.

NASCAR, to a certain degree, has been addressing similar issues in recent years. Their business model is somewhat different, but as technology has advanced the separation of teams and quality of funding has become more pronounced. NASCAR has attempted several cost cutting measures in the last 15 years, one such example being the now (thankfully) defunct COT, which was supposed to minimize car production cost by standardizing the entirety of the chassis and body, thereby reducing the number of cars a team needed in its fleet to compete for a full season. Other measures include limiting the amount of tires teams can use during an event and testing limits.

Display of money and power, horsepower. Hendrick engine line.

Display of money and power, horsepower. Hendrick engine line.

Testing, by and large, is a huge and arguably unnecessary expense. NASCAR has moved and tweaked their testing policy multiple times, yet with the same results. When testing limits were first introduced, limiting teams to a finite number of testing sessions at sanctioned tracks on the schedule, they inadvertently created the behemoth of powerhouse teams. Up to that point, there was no advantage for race teams to share information with one another.

Example: Jeff Gordon could test as many times per season at as many tracks as possible, and there was no reason or incentive to share that information with any other team, whether or not they were under the Hendrick umbrella or not.

But once NASCAR limited the teams to 5 per season, now the savvy business owners saw the value in creating strong bonds within their own organizations. For example, a single team may be limited to 5 tests per season, but with 4 teams under one team owner, that number becomes 20, far more tests than necessary to compile competition data to share among those teams.

Further, in the name of parity and helping the smaller teams, NASCAR has continued to find that line between competition and bullying, yet the teams with better funding have skirted the spirit of the rules by testing at tracks that don’t have Sprint Cup dates.

With multiple teams, the advantage grows exponentially in information gathering.

With multiple teams, the advantage grows exponentially in information gathering.

This gaming of the system makes NASCAR’s decision to ban all testing outside of approved Goodyear tests a very curious one.   You can be sure drivers don’t lament this decision. Testing is tedious, boring and time consuming. Yet those tests provide invaluable data that teams parlay into results on race day.

Much like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson hit far more golf balls on the range than in tournaments, the fine-tuning of car mechanics and driver practice provide a competitive edge in a sport where the margin between winning and losing is becoming smaller and smaller in terms of technology.

But in a larger sense, Pandora’s box was opened a long time ago. The teams at the top are at the top for a reason: Because they’ve earned their way there. Auto racing, in and of itself, is not a profitable sport. No professional team can afford to stay competitive, nor even operational, if their sole source of revenue is the proceeds of the race purse. That’s why corporate sponsorship is the driver behind the business, and the teams with the best sponsors are the teams that will win. Conversely, the teams with the best sponsors are the teams that have already proven themselves winners.

The seven post shaker rig with the internals buried beneath the floor.

The seven post shaker rig with the internals buried beneath the floor.

So, in NASCAR’s quest to help the little guy, they are, in a sense, handicapping them further. Teams like Hendrick and Penske, Roush Fenway and Stewart Haas, already have the internal processes and people with experience to find ways to advance their programs. For example, when testing bans were truly enforced, the top tier teams simply invested in 7 post shakers, and ran simulations in-house. The same holds true now. The top teams have the resources to find the advantages and use them while the smaller teams do not, which will only reinforce the gap between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Not’s’.

In the movie ‘Days of Thunder’, Randy Quaid’s character was modeled after Rick Hendrick, a local auto dealer who wanted to break into racing. Fast forward 30 years or so, and this feel good story of success is now the exception rather than the rule. Single car teams have not been consistently competitive for two decades now, and as success continues to favor the multi car organization, so will sponsorship dollars.

Money follows winners following money, after all. Now it seems the model is reversed: Build a winning race team, and THEN put your resources into an auto dealership (Rusty Wallace). So, the more roadblocks NASCAR creates, the more creative the ones with resources will be to continue their winning ways. Sponsorship has its advantages, but also its expectations: Win, or lose funding.

The argument can be made that now is a perfect time to try this newest ‘Grand Experiment’. By reducing horsepower (through tapered spacers, so thankfully teams don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel – er, motor) and chopping 2 inches off the spoiler for 2015, all teams are theoretically starting off on a level playing field, as they’re all starting the season with the exact same car. However, just as the New England Patriots continue to find ways to win, so will the Rick Hendricks and Roger Penske’s of the racing world, who have the business acumen and experience to remain competitive no matter what the rules are.

Yet, just like other sporting leagues, there is no perfect solution. Too much tampering and the product on the track suffers, yet not enough, and the same occurs. Perhaps this ban will achieve the desired results, whether temporarily or permanently, though if past experience tells us anything, it will simply further separate those that have from those that don’t.

As an upside, no testing in Daytona means more time for fans to think about things like this.

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