Car technology takes toll

Posted: Thursday, June 06, 2002

LONG POND, Pa. -- The competitive edge that once separated the NASCAR Winston Cup Series from other forms of racing has been lost in a mountain of geometric quotients and engineering projects.

The drivers and the sanctioning body agree: The cars are so refined, so exact, they can't race.

Body designs created by computers, not Detroit, and mechanics armed with laptops, not wrenches, have developed a stock car that is so dependent on unobstructed airflow that the competitive nature has been engineered out of the sport.

Cars have been twisted and contorted into speedsters with more aerodynamics dependencies and gadgets than a Boeing 747, and neither jets nor stock cars manage well following in the wake of unsettled air.

The term ''aero-push'' has become the buzzword in the business. It's what allows the lead car to pull away to easy wins while everyone else wrestles with the frustration of an ill-handling car.

The lead car has the benefit of getting air on the front air dam to create downforce to the front wheels. The air passes over the rest of cars in a vacuum created by the lead car. Without clean air on the front hood, there is no downforce to create traction to steer the car.

When a car won't turn, it's known as a ''push.'' When the problem is created by aerodynamics, it becomes an ''aero-push.''

''A push is when you try to run into a corner, and the car doesn't want to turn,'' said Terry Laise, lead chassis and aerodynamics engineer for General Motors. ''Aero-push can be identified because as you go faster, this becomes worse. Aero forces go up as the square of speed. The force is the square of the speed change, so the faster you go, the worse the aero-push would be.''

By any definition, it's the plague that threatens the sport.

In 13 races this year, only one has had a pass for the lead in the final 20 laps under green-flag conditions. That came March 3 at Las Vegas, when Sterling Marlin bypassed Jeremy Mayfield with seven laps 10.5 miles to go.

Two weeks earlier, Ward Burton took the lead with five laps remaining at the Daytona 500, but he assumed the lead under caution when Marlin was ordered onto pit road for a black flag.

Since then, races have been decided long before the checkered flag.

Tony Stewart led the final 23 laps at Atlanta, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Talladega, Ala.) and Johnson (California) both led the final 24 laps.

The rest of the races were even less competitive down the stretch, including Kurt Busch leading the final 56 laps at Bristol, Tenn.; Bobby Labonte leading the final 55 laps at Martinsville, Va.; and Marlin leading the final 43 circuits at Darlington, S.C.

''It's pretty much the same at all the tracks,'' Johnson said. ''You're doing everything you can to drive the wheels off the car, but the lap times are slow (in traffic). When you're up front in clean air, you can let off 10 car lengths early and just cruise back into the throttle and drive up off the corner.

''It's not something real big that you can feel in the car, but looking at the times on the computer, you're here one lap (as the leader) and if you're back in the traffic, you're zero.''

John Darby, NASCAR's director of competition, said the goal is to make cars more dependent on the skills and experience of drivers and mechanics, not their place in traffic. At the same time, he said a solution is more complicated than raising the front air dam, lowering the rear spoiler and taking away some of aerodynamic advantages.

''If the first-place car, the leading driver, ultimately has the clean air, and that clean air makes him faster than everyone else, in our world the 10th-place car, if it's his day and he's on his chassis setup and everything else, he should be able to run him down and pass him,'' he said. ''That's what the reduction of aerodynamics will promote.

''When you change the aerodynamic characteristics of the car, it also affects the chassis setup, it affects the tires, it affects everything the teams do. Before we can make a substantial change in the cars, we're going to take time to research and test everything to the absolute best that we can.''

One of the pressing issues at the research and development center in Conover, N.C., is to find a way through rules and templates to eliminate aero-push.

Until then, the Winston Cup Series is likely to remain a sport that's missing its competitive edge.

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