How NASCAR’s “Enhanced Schedule” Affects the Race Teams

NASCAR’s enhanced schedule compresses three days on on-track activity into two. It’s designed to save teams time and money, but how will it affect the racing?

What is an “Enhanced Schedule”?

If you’re wondering why NASCAR used the moniker ‘enhanced’ for compressing what used to be three days of Monster Cup activity into two, it’s because they’ve added additional events and opportunities for fans to meet drivers and enjoy other entertainment. Although Cup racing is all done in two days, tracks point out that they offer a full weekend (or more) of activity.  This week, Chicagoland had an ARCA race Thursday, Trucks race Friday and XFINITY races Saturday.  The enhanced schedule doesn’t give the drivers an extra day off, but it does shorten the weekends for crew members — which saves the teams money on hotels, meals and rental cars and gives the crew members one more night at home with friends and family.

NASCAR tested the ‘enhanced schedule‘ at four races in 2017.  Twelve races feature the ‘enhanced schedule’  in 2018. Ten out of twelve weekends on the enhanced plan have only two of the three main series running, which makes it a little easier to compact the schedule. The exceptions are Chicagoland and Kentucky.

The tracks that have enhanced schedules in 2018

Chicagoland is the fourth enhanced-schedule race this year and will be the first on a Saturday-Sunday schedule. Richmond and Kansas were Saturday night races and Martinsville was snow delayed to Monday. The enhanced schedule shifts qualifying from Friday to after the XFINITY race Saturday, which allows fans who might only have seen the XFINITY race to see the Cup drivers qualify.

While the changes on-track are minimal, the behind-the-scenes changes are not. To get a clearer idea of how the ‘enhanced schedule’ affects the teams, I made a graphic to compare the 2017 Chicagoland Cup schedule with this year’s.

How Will the Schedule Change Things?

Let’s break this down by looking at how the enhanced schedule changes each of the elements: practice time, garage time, overall time, and the impact on inspections

Practice Time

Teams are losing their Friday practice, so they’ve got 2 practices instead of 3; however, the Friday practice was 85 minutes and neither of the remaining two practices were lengthened.

Comparing minutes of practice time in the standard and enhanced schedules
Comparing minutes of practice time in standard and enhanced schedules

Teams have lost 46% of their practice time.

  • A team can’t test as many setups. If they’re having problems, they have much less time to try to figure out why
  • They no longer have a practice that can be dedicated to qualifying. They’ll have to prioritize: Is it more important at this track to get a good qualifying position or to tweak the race set-up?
  • Teams with less experienced drivers will be impacted more than teams with veteran drivers, especially given limited on-track testing opportunities.
    • Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch have 17 Chicago races each. Figuring 3 hours for the race and 185 minutes for practice, that’s over 100 hours of track time (not including any testing, which all of them must have done).
    • Su├írez and Jones each have 1 race at Chicagoland, which corresponds to a little more than 6 hours of track time. The loss of 46% of their track time will impact them much more than the veteran drivers

Practice Time Doesn’t Matter — Because Computers

I’ve heard the opinion expressed this week that lack of practice time doesn’t matter because everyone relies on computer simulations (and the drivers on advanced racing simulators). 

Teams have invested in computer simulation programs, especially since NASCAR cut back on-track testing. I’ve talked about the advanced simulators drivers use to prepare for races, but engineers also rely heavily on computer simulations: vehicle dynamics, aerodynamics, engine and even tires. These are incredibly complex programs and they’ve come a long way, but people often give them much more credit than they deserve.

Simulations Are Not Magic

Cars are complex, nonlinear systems. And that’s without even considering the chaos that is turbulence. Here’s a diagram with just some of the parameters you need to describe the motion of a car.

A few of the forces acting on a car

These forces aren’t calculated by simple equations like y=mx+b. Oh no. You need differential equations. Below are the equations for two components of just one of the forces shown in the diagram above.

The differential equations used to calculate one of the forces on the race car

And each track presents its own unique quirks and challenges (bumps and seams). And everything is impacted by the weather (rain, heat) and how it’s worn the track. It’s very difficult to fold those types of high-variable, time-dependent elements into a computer program.

GIGO

A computer simulation requires input data. The universal principle of GIGO (Garbage in = Garbage out) applies here.

Garbage in = garbage out applies to race car simulations, too.

So even if simulators were perfect, they would only be as good as the data being input. The input data comes from the racetrack. The reduction of on-track time impacts how accurate the simulations can be. The reduction of overall time at the track decreases how many times simulations can be run, thought about and analyzed.

Some of the input data is readily available, like the parameters of your shocks or the size of your springs. But simulations use feedback. You test out a set up and check the laptimes against what the simulation predicts and the simulation can then include the new information. Without actually comparing what the model says against the actual lap time, you can’t make the model better.

The simulators narrow down the parameters the crew chief can change at the track — the springs, shocks, caster, camber, toe., Ackerman, trackbar, weight distribution, etc. But they have to test out those parameters to see which ones are best.

Decreased practice time = decreased input data for the simulations.

The Unmodel-able Parameter

Here’s a diagram from a Ph.D. thesis on creating a program for modeling car dynamics. Focus on the leftmost blue box. The one labelled “DRIVER”. 

A flowchart showing some of the elements that must be considered in a simulation program

Drivers are human. (Yes, even Matt Kenseth.) They don’t behave reproducibly or sometimes even predictably. A driver who wrecked his primary car is going to have a different attitude than one who didn’t. A driver who’s P1 in practice will have a different attitude than the driver who is P36. A large part of practice time is the crew chief figuring out the driver: his mood, his receptivity for feedback, his attitude toward the track, his physical state, how the teething child is affecting his sleep. I’ve said it before, but it beats repeating: the crew chief’s jobs is just as much about managing the driver as it is managing the car.

Loosing practice time gives the crew chief less time to gather data about the driver and that affects everything from the ultimate set up he picks to how he calls the race.

Garage Time

Let’s compare the hours the garage is open.

Comparing the hours the garage is open 2017 vs. the enhanced schedule in 2018

While the team members get one more day home, they’re going to have a very, very long day Saturday. The garage will open at 7:30 Saturday morning and won’t close until 9:30 that night. The teams have to be back the next morning at 9:30 for a long, stressful race day that may conclude with a late airplane flight home.

The garage was open 24 hours last year vs. 18.5 this year, which is only a difference of three-and-a-half hours.

But that’s a little deceiving because cars are impounded after qualifying. Teams can perform only very limited adjustments (tape, tire pressures, etc.). So even though the garage is open, the actual time the team can work on the car is much shorter. NOTE: I’m counting up until 2 hours before the race start because cars have to pass inspection and get out on the grid.

Comparing the total time to work on the car in 2017 vs. the enhanced schedule in 2018

  • The crews have about 50% less time to work on the car
  • They have to multi-task because they have to worry about qualifying and race trim.
  • They lose the opportunity to work on the car after qualifying, as the next graph shows

Comparing the time to work on the car between qualifying and the race in 2017 vs. the enhanced schedule in 2018

Thinking Time

The compressed schedule also decreases the amount of time the team has to THINK about working on the car.

Don’t underestimate the importance of thinking. Answers don’t come easily to complicated problems.  When I’m stumped, I go for a walk or do something else and let my subconscious work on the problem. You can argue that sleeping time doesn’t count, but but when I was in graduate school, I often fell asleep thinking about a problem and woke up with, if not the answer, a new way of attacking the problem. So let’s look at the time from when the garage opens to the last time you can change something on the car. Again, I’ve counted only up to two hours before the race.

Comparing the total time to think about the car in 2017 vs. the enhanced schedule in 2018

The crew chief now has 17% of the time he used to have to ponder his car. Nine hours instead of 52

  • He’s got only an hour (instead of overnight) to digest the results of the first practice before there’s a second practice
  • The crew chief has to multitask (qualifying and race setup), so he’s thinking about more things during less time.
  • There’s a psychological toll. How frustrating will it be for the crew chief to realize Saturday night that changing a spring or tweaking a shock could solve all the problems they had in qualifying?

Expect More Unforced Errors

People make mistakes and they make more mistakes when they’re tired, hungry or in a rush. There will be few opportunities for crew members to take breaks on Saturday. How many times have we seen a driver get a pit road speeding penalty because someone screwed up the tachometer calculations? Or something fell off the car because a crew member was in a rush? The most-disciplined, most organized teams will have an advantage.

Inspections

What’s not obvious from the schedule are the changes in inspection. Compacting the schedule required NASCAR to eliminate one inspection.

  • The usual ‘welcome to the track’ inspection remains the same. NASCAR checks all safety features, the engine and fuel system, the chassis and runs them through the OSS.
  • There is no pre-qualifying inspection in the enhanced schedule. The teams have only four hours between final practice and qualifying. There’s an XFINITY race during that time, the teams need to switch from practice setups to race set ups, and they won’t be able to touch the car after qualifying. It would be tough for the teams and for NASCAR to get all the cars inspected in the time available. So some time that would have been used up in 2017 going through inspection is now available for working on the car.
  • The pre-race inspection will be done immediately after qualifying and the cars impounded.
    • If you fail the post-qualifying inspection, you start at the rear
    • If you fail the post qualifying inspection twice, a crew member is ejected
    • If you fail the post-qualifying inspection three times, there’s a 10-point penalty

Conclusion

So there it is: A quantitative analysis of what changes under the enhanced schedule and my opinion on how it’s going to affect the teams.

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Also published on Medium.

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