Early on a cold January morning in 1992, Richard Petty and I were sitting in a quiet lounge area at Philadelphia International Airport talking about the glacial pace of change in NASCAR. The King thought for moment, and began to speak.
|King Richard in his 1992 Pontiac Grand Prix. Fuel injection? Don't hold your breath...|
"To me, NASCAR's done a good job because our cars – and we've still got the basic car that we had eight or ten years ago - it's got the same wheels, the same brakes, the same suspension, the same weight, the same cubic inches. They haven't changed any of that stuff.
“The V8's with the carburetors… They might eventually go to an injection system and control our horsepower through the injections. They could do that, and that's a very feasible method. They could give every one of us a chip to put in the fuel injection and they could control the fuel. But I think that as long as it's feasible for us to have carburetors, that's what we'll be running.
“We're going to be the last thing to change,” Petty concluded. “We still run a carburetor, and there ain’t a car made in the last five years that's got a carburetor. You can talk to people now and they'll say, 'What's a carburetor?' 'Oh, that's something they used to use,' you know? But we're still using that...”
Petty was right – NASCAR was the last to change. Twenty years after having that conversation – two decades later – only now is NASCAR incorporating fuel injection into its Sprint Cup Series.
|Holley's EFI throttle body, controlling air flow to the engines. NASCAR engine builders probably see this image in their dreams.|
And it’s been a hot topic, and perhaps rightly so. But while everyone has weighed in on the controversy over a new method of delivering fuel to engines – well, new to NASCAR - it’s the changes to the cars themselves that are having the greatest impact as the first days of Speed Week 2012 play out. Thank goodness it did not take decades for these alterations to hit the track.
While NASCAR has conducted its usual rounds of off-season testing during the winter doldrums, Saturday night’s Bud Shootout may well have been the most important test, a window providing a clear view at how these cars will really perform and handle under the heat of superspeedway competition. And to my eyes, the view is just fine.
For the last several years, I’ve been less than thrilled with the state of superspeedway racing. If the decade-long need to have a shoving partner to make any on-track progress wasn’t bad enough, the two-cars-are-faster-than-a-pack pairings of last season marked a depressing change for the worse.
|Johnson at the point in the Bud Shootout, followed by an ever-shifting pack. So long, two-by-two...|
But on Saturday night, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a return to real racing: an actual pack of cars, surging, drivers moving up and back in the running order. Bump drafting was still in evidence, but it looks like the “strategy” of walloping each other down the backstretch of Daytona now bears true consequences if carelessly applied. The dreaded pairing off never occurred, and Kyle Busch successfully made a dramatic move to claim victory in a manner that a year ago would have been highly unlikely.
Granted, there is still much that could be improved. Though the Car of Tomorrow is finally beginning to actually look like a real race car rather than a boxy IROC car, it still looks nothing like the vehicles it's supposed to impersonate – we remain a long way from the days when the eye could instantly differentiate a Thunderbird from a Lumina, a Grand Prix from a Cutlass.
But let's give NASCAR credit: reducing the spoiler heights and restricting communication among drivers have been solid steps in the right direction. As for other steps? Well, change in NASCAR takes time – sometimes, a lot of it.