Sunday, February 19, 2012

Welcoming Change

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.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Attack of the Platypus

In the world of motorsports, there’s more or less a universal consensus that Formula One cars are the most sophisticated racing vehicles to be found in any competition. Sure, every form of racing can point to aspects that indicate impressive performance capabilities; for example, the 7000-horsepower beasts of the NHRA’s fuel classes are mind-boggling, and even monster trucks boast suspensions with fantastic rebound capacities. But when it comes to sheer technical innovation on all fronts at once, Formula One is the name of the game. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate to aesthetic elegance.

2007 F1 Renault, all curves and sweeping lines, wide rear wing assemby, narrow (but complicated) front wing.

In the 2007 F1 season, the cars were visions of swoopy forms, aerodynamic poetry recited through complex air flow studies and an abundance of wings, winglets, and other appendages. But things seldom stay the same in the world of F1, and the FIA ordered new, wider front wings, narrower rear wing assemblies, and less cluttered bodies. At first, the front wings – expanded to stretch the full width of the cars and heavily reliant on straight surfaces - looked awkward, and the cars themselves even appeared somewhat blocky overall. But the eye adapts, and as attention turned to air diffusers and other elements soon the new, across-the-board alterations began to look normal.

But I think I’m drawing the line with the “platypus,” the nickname given to the new drop-nose front configurations being run by some of the top F1 teams in testing this week in Spain.

Oh dear. Body by Tonka? It may look good in the wind tunnel data but...

Basically, the noses on the cars of teams including Red Bull and Ferrari follow a nice smooth slope – until they reach the mid-point of the front tires. At that point, a hideous, prominent bump rises several inches before the body form carries on toward the pilot.

Many F1 fans love to debate technical aspects of the cars, and surely there is a performance-based reason for this unfortunate-looking development (though I’ve yet to see an in-depth analysis), but this is quite distracting and hard to look away from or ignore – imagine a stunning fashion model with a Limp Bizkit tattoo on her face.

"We may lose, but at least we'll look good doing so." McLaren reveals the sleak-nose MP4-27, February 1, 2012.

Thank goodness McLaren has not succumbed to this new trend: their dramatic chrome cars flow gracefully in the face of their hammerheaded competition. While the first race remains more than a month away, it’s safe to say the British team already is a winner – at least from an artistic standpoint. Bravo!