Monday, February 25, 2013

Daytona -- Part 2

Last night's post was a little more about my impressions of Daytona as a fan, one that came while I was still wrapped up in the moment and the excitement of the weekend. But there have also been a couple of other things on my mind from the weekend that I wanted to share my thoughts about as well.

One of course is the horrific crash at the end of Saturday's Nationwide race where Kyle Larson's car went into the catch fence and spewed debris into the stands. It was one of those racing-gone-bad moments where the worst possible thing that could happen (short of a fatality) actually did happen.

First of all, good thoughts to everyone involved, especially the fans that are still recovering in the hospital. I think all of us who go to races understand in the back of our minds that there is an element of danger for the fans and that something like that could happen. It shouldn't, but even the best planning and safety features in place won't keep us 100 percent safe, just as is the case for the drivers.

Short of radically changing the way the barriers are built, it's hard to say what could be done to eliminate this happening again. However, Larson's car did shred through a part of the fence that opens up so fans can go in and out of the infield (or "ballfield" as it's called at Daytona), and that can be fixed. Really, there shouldn't be any sort of break or compromise in the catch fence anywhere near the fans.

I know that part of the experience for many fans is the chance to go onto the infield for pre-race festivities, or just a quicker way to get in and out of the track. I know Indy has something like that near turn 1, which gives fans the chance to enter and exit the infield area, but it's also a chance to walk on the track and is a cool photo spot. I took advantage of that last May.

I get that, but maybe it's time to find a different way for people to move about.

What happened Saturday is a direct result of the restrictor plates and the pack racing that follows. I have to admit, it was pretty exciting to watch a couple dozen cars race that close together, because it looks way different in person. It takes some serious skill to do what they do, and at times they are so close together it almost looks like a parking lot moving at 190 miles an hour.

Again, there is no hard and fast solution. You can't take the plates off, because that would add so much speed to the car the forces involved in a crash would make things seriously dangerous. It's one thing for an IndyCar to crash at 220 mph, and a completely different thing for a car weighing 2 1/2 times as much doing the same. Like Saturday's crash proved, you can only fight the laws of physics (which is what much of racing is based upon) for so long, and at some point when you fight the law, the law will win.

The other thing you are fighting is the fan base. NASCAR created this...they created a series based on speed and danger and crashes. They tweak the rules -- like green/white/checker finishes -- that set up the potential for wrecks and chaos. And it works. Most of the incidents in Sunday's race happened right in front of me, and there was lots of cheering going on when they did.

The fans expect three hours of constant excitement, and are disappointed when it isn't given to them. On Thursday I was waiting in line for some food and I heard a fan behind me complain about how boring the first race was until the crash happened with less than 10 laps to go. They must have been really pissed about the second duel, which went green from start to finish.

The plate races are some of the biggest and most popular races of the season, and I'll admit that I get hooked on them too. Most of the time, they certainly aren't boring!

It's just that there is a level of expectation that can't be attained week-in and week-out for 36 weeks. Just like in the NFL you don't get excitement in all 16 games, and baseball? Over six months and 162 games, there are a lot of clunkers in there. But you have a portion of the fanbase that gets really hot and bothered when they are not entertained like it's the Roman Coliseum.

I enjoyed yesterday's race because I have followed the sport for a long time, and being there gave me the chance to watch a lot of things that you don't see on TV. For instance, at one point about 2/3 through the race, Jimmie Johnson was stuck all alone on the bottom of the track and was absolutely getting freight trained heading into turn 1. He needed to get up to the high side, fast, because otherwise he was going to end up at the back of the line and would be in a world of hurt.

Just then, his spotter found him a hole in the top side that wasn't much bigger than the car. Johnson slipped into that spot, and looking back I think that was one of those little things over the course of a race that made a big difference. At the time, I filed that away, just as I do during a baseball game when a guy hits a ball to the right side to move a runner to third, who later scores on a fly ball. No matter the sport, little things add up to big things, and that is how you win.

Another thing I found interesting was the constant chatter and strategy of the pit stops. Whether teams wanted to take two tires or four, or just take fuel, or even who to come in with and who to work with on the way out. There was a ton of good stuff to find out of yesterday's race if you knew where to look.

That's the kind of stuff I like, but on the NASCAR side, folks like me are in the minority. That isn't being critical of the stock car fan base, at all, it's just that they have been conditioned to expect something different. I believe it is because the fan base is so big and diverse in terms of their knowledge that they have to find a middle ground that appeals to everyone. So they focus on the bootlegging roots of the sport, the banging and fighting and the personalities and the drama.

Hey, it is fun. The people in and around the sport are great (the folks I met over the weekend were insanely friendly), and it is all about the fans, and it especially caters to families. I still prefer IndyCar -- because open wheel racing is beautiful and fast and the drivers have to be so well-rounded -- and I always will, but it was pretty amazing to spend time around a series that has its crap together and cares about the fans above everything else.

Holy cow, that is a whole post in itself. Could a Part 3 be in the offering? Yeah, maybe.

Anywhoo, I wanted to also talk a little about the Gen 6 car. From a looks standpoint, it is way better than the COT, which gets a thumbs-up from me. At speed I still couldn't tell the difference between the makes of the cars, but I'll figure that out soon enough.

How it races? That's a big TBD. To be determined. The problem with yesterday's race is that the only line that consistently worked was the high line, which made the race look more like Darlington than Daytona. Some drivers were able to make the bottom line work for a while, Johnson being one of them, but with track position so critical, few wanted to take the chance and go down there unless they absolutely had to, like Dale Earnhardt Jr. did on the last lap.

Many people are talking about Daytona's racing surface, which has been in place for two years, and how it has to age a little bit. Unfortunately they can't speed up that process, like spending a couple of months a year buried in snow, but that might have something to do with it. Not on that, but it's about the tires, too. Goodyear brought a tire that was crazy bulletproof, and in both the Budweiser Duels and the race many teams either went with two-tire stops or just double-stinted all together.

Sunday, Danica Patrick only took fuel on her last stop, meaning that she went right around 60 laps on her final set of tires. I'll have to watch the race again to make sure, but she only stopped five times and did a four-tire change twice. Call me old school, but a racing tire should not last for 150 miles! I'm sure other drives did the same. The Gen 6 was designed with putting the car in the driver's hands a little more, but when the tires don't go down and they don't actually have to drive it, what's the difference?

We saw how getting a tire to fall off the right way worked at they IndyCar race at Texas last year, and lo and behold, the race was won by one of the more technically sound drivers in the series (Justin Wilson). Fontana was a lot of the same, and was won by one of the better oval drivers in the business in Ed Carpenter, who might be good for at least one oval win a year for the rest of his life. Of course, under that criteria, Johnson probably wins yesterday anyway, but if I could ask for anything in the sport to end, it's flat out, foot to the floor racing.

Somehow I have the feeling NASCAR will get this figured out as the season moves along.

1 comment:

  1. The accident was horrible; let's hope future Nascar races will provide the excitement but without the accidents.