"I'm gonna give you a bigger fuel line that'll carry an extra gallon of gas..."
So said Robert Duvall to an unfinished stock car chassis in Days of Thunder. But real-life racing innovation doesn't always work quite the way it does in the movies.
In today's NASCAR, the fuel line ploy would cost Duvall $50,000—and get his driver and team owner docked 50 points apiece. That was the punishment handed down to four crew chiefs this week—on top of multi-race suspensions—for trying to make their cars go faster.
Innovation was once a staple of NASCAR competition: He who could come up with a better way to drive ended up in victory lane. Dodge introduced the hemispherical cylinder, and Richard Petty won a lot of races before the change was outlawed. More recently, Chad Knauss and the engineers on the Lowe's number 48 Chevy found a way to mechanically vary the ride height of shocks to improve handling...and the practice was banned the next week.
In a sport that once saw entrants drive their "race" cars to the track, change the tires, compete in the event, then (hopefully) drive their rides back home, the term "stock" car has taken on a whole new meaning.
Today, NASCAR machines are barely reminiscent of their street-legal namesakes. Aside from a couple of decals that resemble the headlamps, grille openings that look similar to those on the showroom model, and the "Fusion" or "Camry" name that's plastered on the front valence, the two versions have next to nothing in common.
Modern NASCAR rides feature specially-built chassis depending on where the car will race: short or intermediate track, road course, or superspeedway. In their infinite wisdom, NASCAR big shots have also invented the "Car of Tomorrow," which along with a number of safety improvements features appearance changes that make a racer look even less like its stock forebearer.
Now, I'm all for going back to the day when NASCAR was about who could make his car go fastest on Sunday. But I'm also all for there being more corporate involvement from the car manufacturers. So here's my idea:
The four makes in NASCAR today would see one change, with the Impala SS taking the place of the Monte Carlo SS. After that, all four entrants would have to be based on four-door street models (the Impala, plus the Camry for Toyota, the Charger for Dodge, and the Fusion for Ford).
The manufacturers would have to make the cars as aerodynamic as possible, and the engines as powerful (within a set block limit) as could be. Keep in mind that it doesn't matter how fast you go if you can't run the distance; reliability for 500 miles is paramount. Teams would build racers with the prescribed safety features—roll cages, roof flaps, fire extinguishers, etc.—but both the shape and the powerplant would be based on the street-legal version of the car.
Of course, this would result in some cars being significantly faster than others, but those discrepancies could be accounted for with spoiler changes or ballast requirements—just to keep things "interesting". Ultimately, though, the onus would be on the manufacturers to find a faster shape and a more powerful engine design. As an added benefit, the new system would reduce costs for the teams—a stated goal of the Car Of Tomorrow—by shifting development responsibilities to the corporate heavies.
Today, NASCAR penalizes teams for making adjustments covered by rules that are far too vague. "Altered aerodynamic piece" and "unapproved modification or part" are the typical justifications for tagging teams as cheaters.
The real story is that Mike Helton and his cronies on the competition committee are looking to turn NASCAR into a 43-car IROC (International Race Of Champions) Series, where all the cars are identical and each race (supposedly) comes down to who is the best driver.
But NASCAR history has been written by those men who innovated their way ahead of the field. And that's as it should be, because all's fair in war and stock-car racing. Think of it like this: How would we like it if the United Nations stepped in and told our American troops they couldn't use precision-guided munitions and night-vision equipment because the enemy didn't have them?
When innovation and creativity are the best ways to gain an edge on the competition, why punish those who think outside the box? Don't hate—just tell your team to get better.
Somebody please 'splain that to me.