What has happened to automobile racing? Like many professional sports it has become focused on the individual instead of the team. The drivers have become personalities where it is almost more important for them to showboat than it is for them to drive. In American football you had ball carriers that would dance in the end zone and spike the football to draw attention to their accomplishment. Now you have drivers climb the chain link fence to wave at the crowd, or do summersaults off their cars, or do doughnuts on the track after a race.
Maybe this is the result of the fact that most professional racing has become spec series racing. How can you focus on a car’s marquee if they are virtually all the same? NASCAR was once known as stock car racing. For those of you unfamiliar with their origins, that means that the race cars used to be made from the same car you could buy off the showroom floor. They started on dirt tracks and evolved to tarmac circle tracks so that the fans could get the best view possible. It is important to remember that the early stock car drivers got their training eluding Federal revenue agents on winding back country roads in heavily modified cars that looked like plain Jane road cars. What we would call “sleepers’ today.
In the early days the competitors brought all this to stock car racing. They brought their talent for driving on the edge as well as their talent for finding creative ways to work around the rule book.
Today all the NASCAR cars have the same tubular frame chassis and body work. Only stickers and decals try to make them look like a Pontiac or Dodge. Sure the engines are unique, sort of. They are “brand” specific, but bear little or no resemblance to what you will find when you open the hood of a car in a dealership showroom. Carburetors? You would have a hard time finding a dealership mechanic that would know how to adjust or rebuild a carburetor. You won’t find an ECU or fuel injection in the Car of Tomorrow that circles the NASCAR tracks today.
At one time the Indianapolis 500 was “the” racing event of the year. It was where drivers from all over the world would compete just to enter. These were drivers from Formula One racing as well as American drivers. The same went for the cars as you would find front engine roadsters competing with the new European mid-engined cars. It was a magnet for technology change right from the beginning when a team decided that it would do without the extra weight of a mechanic sitting beside the driver an installed the first rear view mirror.
Today you look at the IRL (Indy Racing League) series and find that everyone uses the same car. They use the same engine. Teams don’t even own the engines. They don’t get to touch them and tweak them. That is the province of the Honda tech with the laptop. The tires are also provided from the same source. Practice and race days you can watch as stacks of wheels and tires are mounted and distributed to the teams only to be gathered up and returned for analysis by the manufacturer after they have been used. The analysis is done by the tire company, not the race team. About all that the race team can do is make some chassis adjustments and wing adjustments. Everything else is dictated by the rule books.
I remember when Indy cars all looked pretty different on race day. Some teams would sport a set of aerodynamic devices that no one else had thought of before. Sometimes these worked and sometimes they were a handicap that the drivers had to fight their way through. You would find years of dramatic changes such as the introduction of turbine powered cars and all wheel drive. There were Indy race cars that had six wheels and tires. They even had diesel engines. Superchargers and turbochargers were tried on four cylinder engines and V8’s.
The drivers were innovative as well. You would find them in all kinds of racing. The same driver that raced on weekend in a stock car could very well be found on a dirt track racing a midget and then be belting into and Indy race car a few days later. These guys drove at Le Mans as well in Formula One. Today drivers are seen as crossing the line if they move from IRL to NASCAR. You don’t see them get in different kinds of race cars at all. They are specialists.
So what changed all this creativity? Why don’t we see this innovation today? The reason I have been given is that all this innovation ended up turning the sport into a game where whoever had the most money would win. Constant aerodynamic improvements required wind tunnel time and high paid engineering talent. New engine designs sucked up millions of development dollars. Sponsorship was so vital that the days of cars painted in a country’s colors interrupted by only a circle with a number in it were gone. Cars became brightly colored billboards selling every square inch for a price.
Suddenly hospitality lounges became a necessity so that the sponsors could be entertained, not by their car roaring across the finish line, but by big screened TV’s and food and drinks served by smiling cuties in a private enclave where the drivers, now personalities, would laugh at their sponsors jokes and prepare for their next interview that would be conducted by an ex-model turned sports commentator.
So is this what we have to look forward to as the future of car racing unfolds? Cookie cutter cars, and drivers that could part-time as fashion models? I hope not.
I think there is hope for a racing environment where there is innovation and ingenuity as well as talented drivers that can strap themselves into just about anything and provide lively competition that race fans can enjoy more than the tailgate party in the parking lot.
How about a racing formula where competing teams are not constrained to participate in a spec series and yet, don’t have to prostitute themselves for enough sponsorship dollars to stay in the running? Is that even possible? I think so.
Just take a look at Grassroots Motorsports 200X Challenge for a model that could bring racing back to where it should be. The concept is pretty simple. Limit the amount of money a race team can spend in procuring and preparing their race car. That’s it. Basically no other limits.
The 2007 Challenge show just how creative and competitive this can become. The budget is limited to $2007. You can recoup up to half the budget by selling parts from their build and putting the funds back into the project. They compete in autocross, drag racing, and are judged on how attractive and well engineered their entry is.
The Challenge isn’t about cars as much as it is about how resourceful and clever the build team can be. Labor is free so the budget is primarily a parts budget. If you want a good example of just how clever a build team can be then take a look at one of this year’s top entries.
They found a Corvette C4 in Auto Trader selling for $2000 and talked the price down to $1400. The Chevy V8 was given a boost by the addition of a pair of T25 turbo chargers. These turbos are known by the DSM (Diamond Star Motors) crowd as the T-too small turbo that came on the second generation Eclipse GST and GSX. They were just the right size to provide a five pound boost and more horsepower for the C4. But that was just the start.
The name they gave their entry was the “Cheaperral”. That is your hint. In a brilliant move of creativity they obtained a used snowmobile engine for $182.50 that would provide the drive for and exhaust blower from an M1 Abrams tank purchased for $26.50. Those items were installed in the passenger compartment and with some ducting they were able to generate 1000 pounds of downforce at all speeds.
While this was without question the most dramatic example of budget ingenuity, it was not unique. All of the 2007 Challenge competitors found ways to stay within the budget and yet campaign some very impressive rides.
So why not expand this concept to the other forms of “big time” racing? How about an IRL series that simply limits the budget allowed to be spent on car construction and development? How about a NASCAR where real showroom obtainable cars can be raced?