Racing in the Rain

It’s a time honored tradition. Nascar fans and drivers converge on the track for the weekend and eagerly wait for the race on Sunday.  That is, until Mother Nature intervenes, washing out the race and postponing it until Monday. This scenario plays out 3-4 times a year without fail; and each time, race fans inevitably ask why the drivers simply can’t run in the rain.

The answer depends on the tires on the car. Nascar tires are not normal tires. They have no grooves or tread, enabling them to get the most grip possible on dry pavement. These tires, called slicks, would not be able to hug the ground under rainy conditions. A film of water would form between the tire and the road, causing the driver to hydroplane, lose contact with the ground, and spin.

However, times are changing. Nascar introduced rain tires in the Xfinity Series, using them on 3 separate occasions at road courses. Drivers are able to race with grooved tires on these courses–the lower speeds create far less wear on the treads. On high-speed tri-ovals, however, rain tires would be worn out and ground down within a few laps. Nascar has rain tires on standby for Sprint Cup road course races, although they’ve never been used. Look for them the next time it gets damp at Watkins Glen, Sonoma, or even a short track like Martinsville.  

Learning From Nascar’s All-Star Race

Nascar’s All-Star Race had all the right ingredients to be a fantastic event. The racing was fantastic, the new aero package worked well, and Nascar’s young guns were at the forefront of the racing. Rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney battled hard in the Sprint Showdown, third-year driver Kyle Larson barely lost the main event to Joey Logano, and sophomore Trevor Bayne made a daring last-lap pass to advance to the main race.

However, as Nascar does year after year, it tinkered with the format of the all-star race, and it ended up hurting the sport. The last 13 lap segment was supposed to feature the first 11 cars pitting and dropping to the back of the pack, forcing them to fight their way through traffic to the front of the field. However, after Matt Kenseth failed to make a mandatory pit stop, half the field was trapped a lap down with no way to get back on the lead lap, creating a disjointed, confusing finish.

Although the racing was exciting, the confusing format was difficult for fans, drivers, and even the announcers to follow. Forcing part of the field to pit is an interesting idea, but for the future Nascar must clearly define and standardize its rules to ensure everyone is on the same page. Nascar keeps getting its decisions 90% right–it will need to clear that last 10% to truly reestablish its standing among fans.

The Last Frontier: Getting Women in Nascar

The UConn women just capped off a historically dominating dynasty with their fourth straight national title. The WNBA’s ratings grow year after year. US Women’s Soccer has reached greater heights than the men’s team. For years, women’s sports have been relegated to an afterthought, marginalized by large segments of society. Now, however, as they continue a slow and steady march into prominence, the sports where women lack representation face greater scrutiny. Nowhere have women been less able to break down the gender barrier than in motorsports. A look at NASCAR, America’s most popular form of auto racing, can help us learn why.

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NASCAR has exactly one prominent female driver, Danica Patrick, and the amount of criticism she has faced has been disproportionate to her driving ability. A look at the comments on any Facebook post about her makes that evident–there’s a consistent chorus of complaints that Danica is unqualified, that she’s only in her car because she’s a woman. However, when you look at her racing stats, she’s been driving fine.

Her racing pedigree is solid–she’s raced go-karts since she was 10 and placed top 10 overall in the IndyCar Series 6 times. Danica hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire since she switched to NASCAR, but in 2015 she finished ahead of 2-time Nationwide Series champ Ricky Stenhouse, former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, and her boss, 3-time champion Tony Stewart. None of these other drivers have faced the same level of criticism Danica has–Bayne and Stenhouse have been similarly underwhelming, but no one says they have their rides “only because they’re men.” Danica Patrick faces an excessive amount of criticism from the fans, but the problem doesn’t lie just with them–it’s part of NASCAR’s overall culture.

RIDGEWAY, VA - APRIL 07: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, leads a group of cars out of turn four during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP Gas Booster 500 on April 7, 2013 at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

NASCAR has a demographic problem which has been long overlooked by the sport’s leaders. Most NASCAR viewers tend to be older, white men–while most sports make their bread and butter from attracting 18-45 year olds, NASCAR’s viewers are dominated by 46-65 year olds. An influx of younger, more diverse followers will make the fanbase more accepting of women and minority drivers in NASCAR. While older fans who grew up watching the sport in the 1980’s and 1990’s are accustomed to the all white and male racers, younger fans would respond to a more diverse group with more enthusiasm.

However, for there to be female drivers at NASCAR’s highest levels, there have to be girls racing at its lowest. Most NASCAR drivers get their start racing go-karts or sprint cars around dirt tracks–many begin when they’re just 6,7, or 8 years old. However, if you attend these races today, the vast majority of the kids racing are boys. It’s tough for girls to break into a sport dominated by boys.

This is where NASCAR, which has often been criticized for being behind the times, has made significant progress. NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has begun to develop a crop of very capable women and minority drivers. It trains and publicizes female racers across the nation. It’s gotten women’s organizations and minority community leaders involved in the sport. Most importantly, it’s begun to change the culture of the sport, opening it up to new participants and fans. NASCAR has a very long way to go to get women in the sport, but when it does, it will be better for it.

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Bringing Back Nascar’s Roots-Heat Racing at Bristol

On Saturday, Bristol will become the first Xfinity Series race in over 40 years to bring back one of Nascar’s most old-school traditions–the heat race. Heat racing was once a staple part of Nascar, and continues to find a home in the Saturday night dirt bullrings across the nation. In the days of 75 car fields, where half the racers showed up in their family cars, heat races were an exciting way of getting local racers involved and getting the local crowd excited before the feature. Now, the heat races serve another purpose. They aren’t just bringing the Xfinity Series a little closer to its roots. They’re also generating interest in Nascar’s up and coming racers.

The heat races are part of Nascar’s Dash 4 Cash series. At four races throughout the spring and summer, Xfinity drivers will run heat races to set the starting lineup. The top two Xfinity drivers in each race will be entered into the Dash 4 Cash contest. The highest finisher out of these four receives $100,000, and repeat winners can boost the amount of cash they earn. Nascar has made a good move by bringing back the heat races. They’ve taken a classic part of Nascar’s history, and are using it to shine attention on the young drivers who will someday be the faces of the sport. It will get fans interested and create some exciting racing.

Nascar’s New Rules Package

Nascar racing is at the best its been in years. Here’s why.

After last year’s season, which had great storylines (Jeff Gordon’s retirement, Kyle Busch’s comeback, etc.) but mediocre racing, Nascar experimented with changing the rules package, modifying the car-building specifications to make the racing more exciting. The sport’s first attempts at change, a high-downforce package which saw track time at Indianapolis and Michigan, were disastrous. The racing was sluggish–cars hugged the ground and were unable to pass or do much of anything, for that matter. But Nascar finally hit on something in Kentucky. The rules package they rolled out there would be the basis of the one used in the 2016 season.

Nascar debuted a low-downforce package that created more exciting racing. Downforce is an aerodynamic term, referring to how well the car sticks to the racing surface and can be controlled without sliding. Cars which generate a lot of downforce are easier to control, but drive faster in clean air and are harder to pass. By creating a low-downforce package, Nascar put cars on the track that slide around more; they’re harder to keep steady, which keeps the field close together and the cars easier to pass with. The result has been some of the best racing we’ve seen in years, including two photo finishes in the first five races.

However, Nascar cannot rest on its laurels. As time goes on teams will figure out ways to increase downforce and get around the new package. Nascar’s rules have to keep evolving, reducing the downforce on the car’s to keep the racing fast and exciting. The old adage “If you build it, they will come” has never had more weight for Nascar. If it consistently puts out a good product on track, the fans will start coming back to the sport.

The Wood Brothers and the Charter System

At the start of the year, Nascar and its teams announced a major overhaul in the sport’s structure. The group implemented a charter system, whereby 36 teams receive guaranteed spots in the starting lineup and access to better prize money, while other teams must race their way in to fill out 4 spots in the 40-car field. The move was designed to make owning a Nascar team similar to owning an MLB or NBA franchise, with guaranteed race appearances and payouts. The guarantees are meant to help teams attract sponsors looking for stability. Teams can also sell their charters on the open market, providing an out should owners decide they wish to leave the sport. With the cost of competing nearing $25 million a year (Bloomberg Businessweek), drivers and teams need all the help they can get to stay afloat.

Like any change in Nascar, the charter system sparked a lot of controversy. The Wood Brothers racing team, one of Nascar’s most historic franchises, was denied a charter spot. Although Nascar’s reasoning was that the group had only run part-time over the past few years, the team and its fans were enraged, especially since the team will be running full-time this year with rookie driver Ryan Blaney. Now, the team which once raced David Pearson and Dale Jarrett will have to qualify on speed each week while full-time backmarkers such as Go FAS Racing are locked in. The charter system is locked in for the next 5 years–if the Wood Brothers don’t purchase a charter from another team, it could be a long time before they’re locked into the race.

Now we come to the crux of the issue–was this fair? The Wood Brothers have not run a full-time schedule since 2008, but every time they put cars on track they’re competitive–they even won the Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne. They’ve put out 25 top 20’s in the past 5 years despite running a partial schedule, something a lot of other full-time teams can’t say. The Wood Brothers are Nascar’s oldest team, having competed in races since 1950. It would be a shame to see them left out of the new Nascar.

Nascar’s Kickoff

Despite the Daytona 500’s exciting finish, the rest of the race, and Speedweeks as a whole, felt lackluster. With the absence of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the  truck series caution clock, and the excessive commercials during the 500, the whole week was lethargic. Here, we take a quick look at what did click during the first race of the 2016 Nascar season.

While Fox’s broadcast went a little heavy on the ads, the addition of Jeff Gordon to the booth was a win-win for fans and the network alike. Viewers saw Jeff once more, and the network kept Gordon’s fans interested in watching the race. Although Larry McReynolds scaled back his role to make room for Gordon, the 4-time champion showed a lot of potential in the press box. Jeff’s commentary was insightful and provided an insider’s perspective on the garage. Although Gordon still needs time to develop chemistry with his co-announcers, it was great to see the Nascar legend maintain a presence in the sport after 22 years on track.

The rookie battle was exciting at Daytona as Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott posted strong performances. Elliott, the race’s polesitter, ran up front early, leading the first 3 laps before an unlucky wreck sent him to the garage on lap 18. Ryan Blaney had some better luck, placing 19th in the Wood Brothers Ford and showing serious speed at times during the race. Both drivers turned in excellent performances (3rd for Blaney and 5th for Elliott) at the first Can-Am Duel; their battle for Rookie of the Year looks to heat up even more as the season progresses.