Wrecks ... and Effects
Leave it to Ryan Newman to cut to the core of the issue.
Always quick to remind everyone that he earned an engineering degree (Vehicle Structure Engineering, to be precise) from Purdue University, Newman sometimes has a way of talking down to questioners. He just can't help himself, forgetting that said questioners wouldn't be asking him questions in the first place if they knew as much as he did.
But on the topic of what's happening at Daytona International Speedway right now, there really is no better source and there were no wiser words spoken by anyone else in the aftermath of last Saturday night's Bud Shootout victory for Kurt Busch. Working almost exclusively in two-car drafts much of the night -- as expected -- but for much longer stretches and at much higher speeds than anyone anticipated, Busch's No. 22 Dodge edged Newman's No. 39 Chevrolet and others at the finish line in the non-points event that officially kicked off the 2011 Sprint Cup season.
For safety reasons, and also because going faster could affect insurance policies some tracks have in place, NASCAR has long strived to keep top speeds below 200 miles per hour. Last Saturday night at Daytona, however, cars were clocked going as fast as 206 mph.
That raised a legitimate question. How fast is too fast?
Newman was ready with a legitimate answer.
"One ninety-five [mph] versus 206.5, I don't know that you could feel it," he said. "But I've always said the most important thing is we keep the race cars on the race track. So whatever we've worked on with our liftoff speed, if the car is going backwards, sideways, whatever else to keep the cars down, that's what NASCAR needs to focus on for making the race safe.
"If the cars get airborne at 140, we'd better not cross 139 -- so I don't know what that number is. I don't know if there is a true number out there, but if we were doing 212 and the cars were safe and we could keep them on the ground, then that's fine with me."
It didn't take NASCAR long to respond to Saturday's high-speed action. They mandated subtle technical changes to the cars on Sunday that most of us neither fully understand nor care about.
Once again, Newman was right about that. Most fans and media don't want to hear a whole lot about all the technical mumbo-jumbo that make these cars go fast -- or about all the technical mumbo-jumbo that is supposed to slow them down when they go too fast. They just want to see a good show. They also want to see a show that is safe without seeming so, one that pushes the boundaries just to the edge of real danger somehow without crossing it.
It's one of the complex appeals of racing, and the one that is the most difficult to attain. It is the proverbial fine line, and NASCAR walks it every day of every season.
Asked about why a two-car draft suddenly is working so well on the newly repaved Daytona track following Saturday's Shootout, Newman deadpanned to the assembled media: "You want the technical answer? Sometimes you guys don't want that, so I'm asking."
Then, as everyone chuckled, he added: "I can make some stuff up and you might believe me."
He went on to politely explain why the two-car draft works, and how. Try to stay with him for it.
"The front car gets the clean air, the motor," he explained. "The back car takes the air off the front car's spoiler. Even though he gets the air taken out of his motor, he's still pushing the car in front of him and he's getting that help. If there was that third car, he basically doesn't have the air in the column to help propel him forward, so the front car has got the biggest motor, the second car is just helping push along -- and the way the drag works out, even going through the corners you can just barely feel the car behind you kind of tap you sometimes. It's right there."
See, that wasn't too bad. Most of us even understand it.
But doing it at 206 mph is too fast, and NASCAR was right to react to it by making some changes that they hope will slow things down just a little for this Sunday's Daytona 500. As romantic as running above that 200 mph line is -- Kurt Busch called it "fun as hell" and many fans are enamored with it -- it's flirting with disaster.
Smart to slow down
Defending Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray said prior to Sunday's announcement of changes that he expected them and "there's not going to be anybody upset because it's not going to make the racing any different if you make the runs you get at 199 or 206. You can't feel a difference, and it's not going to change anything for anyone."
It might, however, make just enough of a difference if someone gets turned sideways in the wrong place. Saturday night's race featured a field of 24 that included mostly the best and most experienced stock-car drivers in the business. Sunday's Daytona 500 will feature a full field of 43 cars and some drivers who are unfamiliar with the full scope of the biggest event in NASCAR, not to mention without much of a clue about the nuances of properly executing this new two-car draft.
That means there could be a wreck at the highest of speeds if someone bobbles down a straightaway -- as opposed to Saturday's only melees coming at lower speeds in the corners when, for one reason or another, the bump drafting in the two-car trains got off-kilter and sent some cars spinning off into the night.
Spinning off into the night is OK and expected. Flying through the air in recent years during races at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway has become all too expected, but is, as Newman and others have long argued, unacceptable.
"Ultimately the cars have to stay on the ground for it to be safe," Newman said. "We're going to have crashes, we're going to bounce off the safety barriers, guys are going to blow tires. It's racing. But the car staying on the ground is what is the most important thing."
Maybe there never will be a way to completely ensure that cars going at high speeds and getting hit inadvertently from behind or the side will stay on the ground at these race tracks. But one thing is for sure: until someone thinks they've solved that problem, having the cars go faster and faster wouldn't be smart. More importantly, it wouldn't be safer.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.