Lost amid a blizzard of sports news in the past week was an announcement from NASCAR that will dramatically change the sport.
America’s biggest motorsport organization delivered its 2015 competition package to the teams that make up the three top national series this week. And once again NASCAR has tinkered with its successful formula in a broad but blind attempt to retain the interest of the fans who have remained loyal to the sport, as well as recapture the multitudes who have left it over the past decade.
Series executives announced sweeping changes to the way racing would take place with “nearly 60 enhancements,” including adjustments to the engine, the aerodynamic package and the car itself. This was done in an attempt to give teams more tools with which to operate within the tiny engineering box NASCAR has given them.
A majority of the new changes are aimed at the top-level Sprint Cup Series.
You may have read about some of these changes, like a reduction in horsepower to around 725 from the current 850-plus and lower-rear axle gear ratios. Those are designed to slow the cars down.
But NASCAR didn’t stop there. The rear spoiler, which helps keep the back end of the car on the ground, will be lowered by two inches from the current eight, giving drivers less aerodynamic downforce and making the cars more difficult to drive. Drivers have also been given the option to adjust a part of the rear suspension called the sway bar. Doing this allows them the flexibility to adjust the way the car handles with the reduced downforce.
These, and other rules changes, were, according to NASCAR, designed to enrich competition, improve on safety, reduce costs, enhance product relevance and make the series more environmentally friendly.
If you’re like me, you’re asking yourself what this all means, especially the “enrich competition and enhance product relevance” part.
I’ll admit that my involvement with NASCAR racing only goes back 15 years, although my association with auto racing is much longer than that. I think the majority of fans, like myself, find the racing to be very good right now and winning is tougher than ever.
Still, NASCAR executives seem quite pleased with what they expect their new rules package will accomplish.
“We’re very pleased with the (new) rules package and what it will do for our racing,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “We’re confident it will continue to generate great racing, along with continuous safety improvements.”
Just what is good racing in NASCAR? There seems to be a continuous search for it, like searching for the holy grail. Could it be that NASCAR is trying to hit a moving target in a dark room by continuously changing the rules to make the racing better for the fans?
What is good racing for you? Is it restrictor plate racing in big packs at Daytona or Talladega? Is it short track racing like Bristol or Richmond? Most fans will agree that racing on those tracks is better than ever.
The real conundrum for NASCAR is the 1.5-mile tracks like Charlotte, Kansas and Chicagoland. In an attempt to emulate the style of racing seen at the original 1.5-mile track, Charlotte, too many of those tracks were built in the 1990s.
While the new, 21st century car adapted well to the big tracks like Daytona and the small ones like Bristol, on the 1.5-mile tracks it was a handful. And with half of its 10 Chase races being contested on 1.5-mile tracks, now you understand why NASCAR has continuously been working on making the car better on those tracks.
The changes were also made in part to help improve the financial stability of the sport.
First of all, NASCAR’s business model is in trouble. Costs have skyrocketed over the past decade, while at the same time real value to sponsors has decreased, as witnessed by empty grandstands and declining television viewership.
Team owners are stuck in the middle, not only paying for the regular operation of their race teams but also are forced to absorb the costs for things like private testing, exotic software programs to simulate racing conditions and increased compensation costs. These are all being done to win races.
Team owners responded to this financial crunch by forming the Race Team Alliance (RTA), made up of nearly all the teams in the Sprint Cup Series. Their goal is to find ways to cut costs.
In this new rules package are sweeping changes to the rules, some of which are designed to save money but will in the end cost team owners more dollars as they increase their spending to regain any competitive edge lost by these new regulations.
As I once had team owner Richard Childress tell me, “For every dollar NASCAR offers to save me, it costs me two.”
However, Rob Kauffman, president of the RTA, told Tom Jensen with FoxSports.com that he doesn't buy into that theory.
NASCAR has also eliminated team-initiated private testing by teams, although teams will be invited to participate in organized and closely monitored NASCAR and Goodyear testing sessions. And NASCAR will not have test sessions at Daytona International Speedway prior to the season opening Daytona 500.
Another major factor in the rules changes is the desire to constantly improve driver safety.
NASCAR has changed dramatically since 2001, the year it lost its biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, on the last lap of the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500. His death was attributed to a lack of safety and may have been prevented.
Since Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR has been dedicated to safety. And its safety record since that terrible day in February 2001 has been outstanding.
The first generation of the "designed to be safer" cars, the Car of Tomorrow was an ugly duckling that was tough to drive, difficult for crew chiefs to work with and forced teams to spend millions of dollars to develop even the smallest of advantages in order to again a competitive edge.
What made them so difficult to drive was that behind their ugliness belied an aerodynamic nightmare that made passing nearly impossible, as each car produced an impenetrable wall of air around it.
Over the years, NASCAR continued to work on the design of the car, making it safer, faster, more adjustable and easier to drive but keeping it inside a small and manageable engineering box.
The current Gen 6 car introduced last year is an amazing piece. It is slick in an aerodynamic sense, it produces tremendous amounts of downforce, and with teams and manufacturers continuing to spend copious amounts of money on fine-tuning the engine, it is also very fast.
But these rules changes all but undo those design elements that have made racing with the Gen 6 car so competitive and fan friendly.
Though NASCAR’s changes are well intentioned, in some cases, they are simply trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. While it’s admirable to have a mindset of trying to move the product forward, it’s too early to tell what the results will be and how the fans will react.
“We remain committed to constantly looking to improve it,” said Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR senior vice president of innovation and racing development. “Our fans deserve it and our industry is pushing for it.”
It remains to be seen if, this time, NASCAR got it right.
Except, when will they know that they've got it right?
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis