Friday, May 1, 2009

Finding the Formula

Finishing races is important, but racing is more important. ~ Dale Earnhardt

How bad is it going for NASCAR these days? Well, it's hard for me to say exactly since I stopped watching Nextel/Sprint/Whoever Cup races two years ago, but I found a little barometer of note. My son still watches those guys (even though he claims to totally dislike Cup racing) run around Talledega, and he told me about the race and who won (some guy named Kesolowski). Since I don't like the eternity it takes for to load, I wandered over to to check out the final results.

They hadn't updated their article from three hours earlier that only mentioned an early accident. Now that may not be entirely fair, but what caught my attention was the number of linked stories. More importantly, what caught my attention is that the article on the F1 race this morning at Bahrain has twice as many linked stories as the NASCAR story.

More coverage for F1 than for one of the biggest races on NASCAR's schedule on an American sports news web site. Wow. It's almost as sad as seeing ads for tickets to Bristol.

The trouble with NASCAR is multifold. The races are dull; they've eliminated most of the interesting tracks, like North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, and Darlington, in favor of cookie cutter tracks like California, Texas, and Michigan, all of which are modeled on Charlotte --excuse me--Lowes. Because they've removed the skill tracks, they don't have very skilled drivers any more. What they have are lots of wrecks, which is apparently what NASCAR thinks fans want. Finally, NASCAR decided to take a bunch of equally unskilled drivers and give them a cookie-cutter car as well. There is no difference between the cars, except for a logo on the front.

Ordinarily, you'd think that last item would bring the good drivers to the fore. Instead it simply allows whoever has the most horsepower to win the race, as long as he can avoid getting wrecked by the incompetents filling out the field.

What NASCAR has forgotten is that racing is about the drivers AND the cars. In fact, historically, NASCAR has always penalized teams that came up with legal innovations (better engines, better aerodynamics, better mileage) by either making those innovation illegal or finding ways to negate them, such as allowing other teams to have higher spoilers.

NASCAR attendance and ratings are down. People are bored with parade-lap races and wreck-fests, and they're saying so with their feet. Brian France needs to read the handwriting on the wall or the red ink of his racing teams (whose books were scarlet long before the recession started).

What he needs to do is look at what F1 is doing.

A couple of years ago, Formula 1 racing had gotten about as dull as racing can get. All the excitement took place during qualifying, because the qualifying order was pretty much the race finishing order, because no one ever passed anyone on the track. Barring a wreck or a mistake in the pits, one-two-three in qualifying was one-two-three in the race.

To make matters worse, F1 was dominated by two teams: Ferrari's factory team, and McLaren-Mercedes. The four cars fielded by these teams (each F1 team runs two cars) were so dominant that everyone else become irrelevant. When you do that, not only do fans get bored, other teams get frustrated and lose lots of money and quit.

The final insult was that to ensure their supremacy, Ferrari and McLaren were spending obscene amounts of money on their programs. At one point, Ferrari spent $500 million in one season on their two cars. Yes, that's right, they spend half a billion dollars to develop and run two cars. I don't think the total money spent on all the teams that run You could probably fund 30 of NASCAR's teams for that money.

Fortunately, the Lords of the FIA, under whom F1 falls, came to realize that this couldn't go on. There were only twenty cars running each race, and some teams were so non-competitive, it was unlikely that would continue much longer. The prospect of a 12-car field was not impossible.

So, the FIA sucked it up and made sweeping changes. They realized that to keep fans interested they needed real racing. Real racing is combination of driver skill and automotive engineering. F1 had become nothing but automotive engineering. In fact, it had become aeronautical engineering, since more time was spent in ensuring that the car was glued to the track, which lessened the skill needed by the driver.

FIA mandated that the cars would change. They dumped traction control, which helped drivers go faster by making up for their mistakes. They made the rear wing much smaller and forced the removal of the dizzying array of protuberances teams were putting on their cars to increase downforce. Oh, and they aded something called the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), which basically is the same method some modern hybrids use to give the engine additional power when acceleration is needed (climbing hills, getting on the freeway, and so on). The hybrid, though doles out this additional power in small quantities as needed. KERS is designed to proved it in one six-second belt, amounting to an 80 HP increase.

Now, FIA could have mandated KERS, but they did something far more interesting. They may KERS an option. So, you could add KERS and get a power boost once a lap for six seconds, or you could not add it and save the significant weight of the KERS system, so you might be able to have more speed all the time.

Oh, and you might prevent you car catching fire. KERS is a work in progress.

FIA also put in some money-saving features, such as limiting the number of engines and transmissions that could be used in a season and cutting back on testing (something NASCAR has also done).

So what's happened? Well, Ferrari and McLaren are no longer dominant. In fact, they're nowhere near the top of the qualifying charts, and their race finishes are even worse. Ferrari picked up their first point in today's race in Bahrain, in the fourth race of the season. The team to beat has been Brawn Mercedes, closely followed by Red Bull Renault, who is being shadowed by Williams Toyota.

Despite Brawn having won three of the four races (thanks to some clever and perfectly legal innovative design), the season has seen the most interesting racing F1 fans have seen for years. Passing, which was once occurred with the frequency of solar eclipses, is now common. Oh, and F1 threw one more cookie to the fans. Unlike NASCAR, your fuel load during qualifying is the fule load with which you start the race. Well, until the first round of pit stops, you never knew if someone was quick because they qualified on fumes. Now the total car weight is announced after qualifying, so you get to guess how strategy is going to play out.

In other words, F1 has found a way to increase fan interest leading up to the actual race.

Now F1 may not have all the answers, but they've recognized some of their problems, which is more than NASCAR has been willing to do.

Brian France should take note.

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