Does NASCAR Need Practices?

The COVID crisis has forced us to think outside the box. Three months ago, we wouldn’t have considered midweek races, racing without fans or racing without qualifying or practice. Now, those things are not only possibilities, they’re necessary.

Last Sunday at Darlington — the first race back from the COVID-induced break — was widely hailed as a success. Although the second race was marred by rain, both races went fine, even without qualifying or any practice.

Which raises the question: If the Darlington experiment was so successful, do we really need practices?

Does Darlington Prove We Don’t Need Practices.

You hear me tsk-ing, right? Because you know how I feel about making arguments based on one race, or even two. But the reason we can’t make the argument based on Darlington is even strong: These were far from typical Darlington races.

That’s not to say they weren’t successful. We were ready for racing and even non-NASCAR fans decided to give it a try.

The problem is that both races were run under extraordinary circumstances, and the circumstances were different. The first race back came after drivers and crew had long layoff periods (plus no practice or qualifying).

  • The first race back came after drivers and crew had long layoff periods (plus no practice or qualifying). Teams were working in shifts that didn’t allow for their normal routines
  • The second race was delayed, then rain-shortened, which always adds a little extra sense of urgency and puts more emphasis on strategy.

The Data

You can look at yesterday’s post for the data, but here’s how these races differed from an ‘average’ Darlington race. ‘Average’ is being in the middle two quartiles of races from 2000-2020

  • Higher percentages of cars finished on the lead lap: 60% vs. about 42%
  • Sunday’s race had a smaller-than-average number of drivers who led the race, which Wednesday’s race set a record for most number of drivers leading.
  • Green flag passes per lap were on the low side Sunday and much lower than usual on Wednesday.
  • Wednesday’s race set a record for percentage of race run under caution: 26%. The average is 14% Sunday’s race was 19.5% cautions.
  • There was only one green-flag pass for the lead that wasn’t during a restart on Sunday vs. 5 on Wednesday — and Wednesday’s race was shorter.
  • If you thought there might be more accidents and spins Sunday because it was the first time back in the car in awhile, you’d be wrong.
    • There were 5 accidents and 2 spins on Sunday
    • Versus 7 accidents and 1 spin on Wednesday, despite being more than 100 miles shorter. That’s a record for accidents per mile at Darlington.
The numbers of accidents and spins at Darlington 2000-2020. The last two races had no practices.

Neither race makes a strong case for — or against– eliminating practices. But there are other reasons. We’ll look at the pro side first.

Reasons to Eliminate Practices

The two biggest reasons for eliminating practices are to save money, and because they don’t add anything to the racing.

Money

Cost-cutting was a priority in NASCAR before COVID. They’ve introduced ‘enhanced schedule‘ weekends and limited the number of people each team can bring to the track. They’ve also instituted limits on wind tunnel testing and on-track testing tests, and trimmed Speedweeks.

Saving Money on the Road

Dave Caldwell estimated that it takes 2000-2500 people to put on a NASCAR race without fans. If we take the middle of that range (2250 people) and assume an average hotel room rate of is $100 (which a low estimate, but some people share rooms), staying one less night would save almost a quarter of a million dollars. If you could do that for half the races (18), that’s $4M dollars saved.

A side benefit of fewer nights on the road is that you’re saving wear and tear on your people. Constant traveling is exhausting.

Saving Money in the Shop

Eliminating practice eliminates practice crashes. Without practice, there’s no need for a backup car. That save the owners money on cars and personnel.

Racing Quality

If practices don’t improve the racing, why have them?

Technology Does Everything Practice Does

I’ve written a lot about the technology that has become commonplace in NASCAR. Tools help engineers devise optimal setups for different tracks, crew chiefs determine pit strategy and drivers prepare for tracks they’ve never run before.

The simulator at the Ford Racing Center in Charlotte, NC
  • High-quality simulators give drivers a near-reality experience. Programs can be tailored to each track and each driver’s style. Data from previous races helps drivers understand what works for them. And what doesn’t.
  • Computer modeling tools range from computational fluid dynamics for aero to suspension simulations that tell you how the racecar will handle in any corner.
  • Hardware simulators, such as seven-post rigs, engine dynos and wind tunnels give real, hands-on measurements that can validate the computer simulations.
  • Artificial Intelligence strategy programs are starting to become common because they can take the entire history of the track and every can on it and give you probabilities of how far you’ll get ahead if you take two tires vs. four.
  • History. Teams get so much data from their own notes, plus access to everyone’s data from the track. They are accumulating terrabytes of data and computer specialists to analyze it.

NASCAR could have one-day practices when a track repaves or re-configures, but otherwise, teams have plenty of tools to use to set-up the car. And they could be given the chance to make changes after qualifying.

Eliminate Practices? Yes.

So there you have it: Eliminating practices would save everyone money, would save stress on people, and, because we have so much good technology, the racing will be just as good.

Reasons to Keep Practices

Now let’s take a look at the arguments on the other side.

Money

It’s hard to argue with saving teams money, especially now, but let’s look at the impacts of those savings. Teams may have to let go some employees, but the impact outside NASCAR is significant.

Fewer Opportunities for Interaction

Less time at the track means fewer opportunities for sponsors to hold events. Television time is an important component of why businesses sponsor NASCAR, but it’s not the only one

There would also be less time for fans to meet drivers. NASCAR prides itself on its accessibility, but there are a finite number of things you can do in a finite amount of time.

Impact on Tracks

LVMS to provide unique, gluten-free food items during 2016 ...

Less time at the track decreases the amount of money tracks can make from food and beverage sales, and camping rentals. It’s less money for the people who work at the tracks.

A number of tracks have invested money in areas that give fans access to the garage without getting in the way of the work. There won’t be too much to watch if there are no practices..

Souvenir haulers will have fewer hours for sales.

Impact on Local Economy

Decreasing the amount of time at the track also takes money from the local economy. That might make cities and municipalities less welcoming.

Less need for hotel rooms might decrease the prices, but might also drive hoteliers near some of the more remote tracks to shutter their doors.

Racing Quality

I can’t argue with the appeal of showing up and ‘racing what you brung’. It’s old school in the best way. But there are some other considerations

Team Sports Need Practice

Say you arrive to play doubles tennis in an important tournament and, instead of your regular partner, you’re suddenly playing with someone you’ve only played with a few times before.

That’s Chad Johnston and Matt Kenseth. Or any new crew chief/driver combination, including rookies. Crew chiefs manage drivers the same way drivers manage tires. There’s a big difference between talking strategy over lunch and the pressure of a race.

Some drivers really do become different people when they put on their helmets. Crew chiefs become different people when they’re up on the pit box, too. No practice means no time for drivers and crew chiefs to develop a relationship. It favors established teams and puts new ones at a disadvantage.

You wouldn’t send a group of guys who’d never worked together out to pit a car. Why would you take the same kind of risk with the rest of the team?

Cars Need Shake Outs Before Racing

Martin Truex, Jr. ran only 41 laps of the 2018 Indianapolis race before his left-front brake rotor exploded.

Remember the Speedweeks when the vendor-supplied coating on engine parts failed and Hendrick Motorsports had to replace all their engines before the 500?

Practice laps gives a team a chance to make sure there are no big problems. In addition to it being a safety issue, imagine the frustration for fans. You aren’t going to be happy if you wait all year to see your favorite driver and he or she crashes out on lap 1 because someone forgot to tighten something.

Even without race-ending parts failures, do you want to see races where winning is determined by how well you set up the car before you leave? If you’re one of those people who wants races in the hands of the drivers, the best race is one where each driver has the car he or he wants.

Computers Don’t Race: People Do

Every race engineer or crew chief has a story about setting up the car to be maximally fast according to the computer and it isn’t. Maybe the driver doesn’t feel confident enough in the car to push it. Maybe the driver just hates loose racecars. Every driver has different preferences — some which change on a week-to-week basis. A large part of practice is adjusting the car, not only to the track, but to the driver.

Larger Teams are Less Impacted by Eliminating Practice

Smaller teams can’t afford custom-developed suspension simulations and computational fluid dynamics. They also have less access to manufacturer resources than the larger teams.

The more racing depends on technology, the further behind smaller, newer teams will fall. That’s not a recipe for attracting new teams or manufacturers.

Innovation

Teams find new ideas from computer simulations and wind tunnels and such. But they rarely can afford to take a chance testing a new idea in a race. There’s too much at stake. Computer output is only as good as the person who wrote the program and the data input. Sometimes (gasp!) even computers are wrong.

So The Answer Is…

The Darlington races, enjoyable as they were, don’t prove that practices are unnecessary. But they weren’t disasters, either, so they didn’t prove that practices are necessary.

The answer is (as in boringly common) probably a compromise. There’s probably a schedule in which there is one practice, and then qualifying.

Although the SiriusXM morning show guys this morning were talking about whether qualifying is necessary…

TO BE CONTINUED…

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