Opinion: NASCAR’s Restart Problem – What Would Einstein Do?

Sigh.

So instead of talking about a couple great races this week, we’re focusing on restarts.  Again.  Everyone, from pundits to drivers, is questioning  NASCAR’s decisions to not call penalties on the critical restarts of both the Nationwide and the Sprint Cup races.

The rule is that the leader of the race controls the restarts.   Lines on the racetrack walls delineate a box.  The leader may choose to start the race (that is, accelerate) anywhere within the box.  If he/she has not by the time the cars reach the end of the box, then the flagperson starts the race.

NASCAR:  Balls and Strikes

The problem is that this creates subjectivity.   NASCAR has made exceptions when they’ve deemed that the leading car spun its wheels and thus it was okay that the leader didn’t cross the line first.  I’ve already written how, if one car spins its wheels, a car going at constant speed can look like it’s accelerating when it really isn’t.

Another problem is that the drivers  look at the lines on the wall from different perspectives since they are in either the inside or outside lanes – you could get a sort of parallax error.

Robin Pemberton addressed the restart issue in the driver’ meeting before the Richmond Sprint Cup race.  NASCAR’s position is that restarts wouldn’t be an issue if the drivers would just obey the spirit of the law and “do it right”.  In the absence of common sense from drivers, Pemberton warns, it leaves NASCAR with a subjective decision:

“As many of you may have some questions on restarts tonight, I would remind you there are a few things we still have to have a judgment call on, OK?” he said. “There are balls and there are strikes. Sometimes you don’t like the call; sometimes we don’t even like the call we have to make.”

HT to Nate Ryan at USA Today

Why Technology is a Bad Idea

There have been a number of suggestions on how to solve the restart problem, ranging from telling NASCAR to “do a better job” to using an in-car technology that would simultaneously tell all the drivers to ‘go’ at the same time.

In-car technology has been used in a number of other series – but not for restarts and there’s a good reason why.  Everyone accelerating at exactly the same time works perfectly – if everyone starts accelerating at the same time and accelerates at the same rate.

What if the guy behind you is quicker on the gas than you are?   The green light goes on and he accelerates right into the back of your car.

And do you really want a driver watching a light in the car instead of the car in front of them?

Add to that the potential for tech problems (It’s not that unusual for a driver to have a radio not work properly during a race) and you’ve got the makings for The Big One at every restart.

What Would Albert Do?

NASCAR could  turn for advice on this issue to Albert Einstein, who said, simply:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

In other words, don’t create a ton of fancy gadgets and dohickeys when a couple of gallons of paint would work.  Don’t make it a subjective call when it  doesn’t have to be.  There are no subjective calls about who exits Pit Road first, are there?

As a first attempt to solving the problem, let’s just paint a line across the track and make it the drivers’ problem.  The nose of the leader’s car has to pass the line first.   An overhead camera (or a side mounted camera similar to the one used to show the exit of pit road) would be a definitive arbiter of “strikes and balls”.  If the first car isn’t the first past the line, there’s a penalty in store for the second-place driver.

An overarching principle in NASCAR has been that intent doesn’t matter.  From speeding on pit road and fines for rules violation, NASCAR doesn’t car if there’s a legitimate reason why you broke the law.  You broke it.   Your tachometer wasn’t calibrated correctly?  Tough.  Your shock broke and your car was too low in post-race inspection?  Sorry.  We drew a line and you crossed it.  (Okay, we have to admit that sometimes NASCAR draws some pretty fuzzy lines sometimes – but this doesn’t have to be one of them.)

There’s nothing subjective to who gets off pit road first.  Yes, you could probably use  transponders to determine who reaches the finish line first – but fans can’t see it.  That just leads to people complaining that NASCAR is manipulating the race to ensure that (insert driver name here) wins.

A line and making the decision based on which car crosses the line first transfers the hassle from NASCAR to the drivers.  Sneaky drivers (you know who you are) will try to out-psych their competitors – but I guarantee you it is going to backfire on them sometimes.   Sometimes, you’re going to be stuck in second place next to someone who is horrible on restarts.  He/she spins their tires and you beat their car to the line.  You’re just going to have to be more careful when you’re next to someone who doesn’t restart well.

It was heartbreaking to see Brian Scott fail to win the Nationwide race Friday night – it would have been his first ever win and he had such a dominant car.  You never know when you’re going to get a car like that again.   On the positive side, I bet he pays a lot of attention to the physics and the psychology of restarts in the future.  When he gets to Cup, he’s going to be even more of a challenge.  You know he’s not going to forget this for a long time.

9 thoughts on “Opinion: NASCAR’s Restart Problem – What Would Einstein Do?”

  1. I’d go even simpler, leave it up to flagman only, he watches the field line up, he’s happy,drops the green, race on, not happy, stay yellow n go another lap,if someone still not cooperating,black flag em. I agree with you that less rules n gadgets is better

  2. I’m With @Brian – and Einstein – Keep It Simple Stupid – Flagman controls the re-start, period, end of story. There should never be controversy about the start/restart, if it looks good, he drops the flag. Being 1st in line, either lane, just gives you a great opportunity. You respond early, you do a pass-through penalty. Quite simple.

  3. Yeah, I’m with you on it seeming easier to let the flag control the restarts – but you’re still going to have accusations that one person jumped the flag, just like we’ve got now. My motivations on making this more objective are in part because it’s frustrating to hear people focus on rules and fair/unfair instead of on racing. Thanks for both your comments.

  4. If the flag man is good enough to START the race, then why isn’t he good enough to start the restarts. Jump the start, black flag the car and send him to the back. To heck with who gets to the start/finish line first..

  5. This issue came up at a local 1/4 mile paved oval in years past. Their simple solution: the flagman starts the race/restarts the race. If there is something about the restart he didn’t like, he waved it off, threw the yellow, gathered them back up and tried again. If someone kept jumping the start, they were put to the back.
    That said, I believe NASCAR leadership/management is in disarray these days and I don’t expect sound, simple solutions to be suggested or implemented.

  6. The control tower could’ve asked the flagman if it looked like either driver jumped the restart. But in NASCAR, they try to take the flagman out of race procedures for some reason. A quick question by people high in the tower to people down “on the scene” would improve officiating. No other sport asks people in a booth to make ball & strike calls that should be made on the field of competition.

  7. All of the Sprint cars have telemetry on them these days so it’s easy enough to see someone jumped the start based on acceleration. I’m not sure if the telemetry is fast enough to catch RPM spikes indicating wheel spin, or in the case of Saturday Bowyer intentionally spinning.

  8. I totally agree with Brian, we should leave it simple,that is leave it to the flagman,if he can start the race then certainly he can restart it too, and as it is he who closely watches the field line up and knows better who jumped the flag..Green,red,yellow or black flag, only he will know better which flag to show.Being in the first or the last lane may seem like an undue advantage but that depends on the reaction of the driver.

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