Views from the Grandstands

Racing Report Card

At mid-season, things aren’t looking so great for all your favorite racing series’ grades

School’s out and summer’s here, but the midpoint of the racing season seems like a good time to take out the red pen and assign some grades to the new rules in the various racing series I love.

Well, I declare: Before the season started, NASCAR drivers had to declare whether they were running for the championship in the Sprint Cup or Nationwide series, a move made to keep Sprint Cup stars from again dominating the Nationwide point standings. Returning the Nationwide’s focus to developing young drivers is a great idea, but I’m not sure this does the trick.

Sure, Cup standouts like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin can’t win the championship anymore, but they still can — and do — win races. In fact, through the first 11 races of the season, Sprint Cup stars had won all 11! That’s good for the sponsors and maybe even for the fans, but it devalues the championship. Grade: C

It’s the pits: In the IndyCar Series this year, pit selection is determined not by qualifying or point standings, but rather by how a driver finished in the last race at the same type of facility — meaning street course, road course or oval. Some might view this as change for change’s sake, but I say what the heck.

The IndyCar Series is trying hard to play up the different styles of racing it offers, even going so far as to crown a road course champion and an oval champion along with its overall champion. This is just another small way to accentuate those differences. Grade: C

The case is closed: New rules in the American LeMans Series have reduced the capacity of the engines in the top-of-the-line LMP1 category and cut the number of over-the-wall members to two per pit stop. This means a big boost for closed-cockpit cars because their aerodynamics can more easily make up for the loss of horsepower, and the difficulty in changing drivers out of a closed cockpit is less of an issue because pit stops are longer.

As a result, the LMP1 class is accelerating its shift away from open-cockpit cars like the Audi R15s that dominated for several years and toward closed-cockpit models like the Peugeot 908, the new Aston Martin and the brand-new Audi R18. These new roofed rockets are the most gorgeous racing machines in any series in a generation, and I can’t wait to see their numbers grow. Grade: A

Starting times: One of ­NASCAR’s new mandates is that if Sprint Cup qualifying is rained out the starting spots for the race are based on practice speeds. This rule’s flaw was exposed at its first application at Dover in May.

Practice is not all about who’s going fastest. It’s for shaking down your car and working on set-ups. If practice becomes just another race, then it’s defeating the purpose. I know this will only come into play a handful times a year at most, but any is too many. Let practice be for practice so the competitors will be at their best during the race. I say dump this rule and, in case of a qualifying rainout, set the field according to the current points standings and let the teams draw randomly for pit stalls. Grade: F

DRS and KERS: The biggest rule changes in Formula 1 this season are inter-related, with the reinstatement of the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) and the introduction of the drag reduction system (DRS) on the cars. The Red Bull team has dominated the first half of the season, but the racing overall has been better than I can remember in a long time.

The KERS captures and stores the energy created by heat generated during braking. The driver is then able to reuse that energy to get a brief horsepower boost by pushing a button on the steering wheel. Used efficiently, a driver can pick up as much as 0.4 seconds per lap.

The DRS is just a movable rear wing — at certain points on the track, the driver is allowed to open the slats on his wing to reduce downforce and go faster. The slats are closed the rest of the time, providing slightly less speed but improving the car’s grip.

I love both of these innovations — the KERS again puts F1 way out front in terms of innovations that ultimately will end up in our street vehicles, while the DRS makes it easier for one car to pass another. My only gripe is that drivers are allowed to use the DRS only on specific sections of each track — I say let ‘em use it whenever they want. Grade: B

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

 

LOOSE LUGNUTS

Multi-tasking I’m a big fan of drivers like Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon, who love to compete in a variety of racing series on a number of surfaces. My new favorite is NHRA Funny Car pilot Ron Capps, who loves to drive anything and everything. Capps, one of the few straight-line drivers who competes in Stewart’s popular “Prelude to a Dream” all-star event at Eldora each summer, has spent part of his downtime this spring competing in an IMCA Modified car on a third-mile clay oval and a Super Late Model car on a dirt track near his Southern California home. He loves mixing with the fans, he says, and especially appreciates that driving these different cars helps him become better prepared for anything he might encounter in his Funny Car.

Where is everybody? Because of the economy, we’ve all gotten used to seeing empty seats at racetracks large and small in recent years. But I have to say I was shocked at the sheer number of unoccupied seats at the Sprint Cup race at Dover in May. I swear, the place looked less than half full.

The weather was a little iffy that weekend, and of course gas prices are high. But Dover is a great track that always produces compelling races, is close to a lot of big cities and even has a casino on the grounds! With the worst of the recession behind us, I’ve been expecting better crowds for all the race series this year, but that sight really has me wondering whether motorsports as a whole has bigger problems to address.

Happy ending In this column, I’ve beaten up on the Sprint Cup’s new practice-qualifying rule, questioned its changes to the Nationwide Series championship eligibility and pointed out that Dover had a lousy turnout. But I love NASCAR racing and want to end this month with some great news, especially for us longtime fans. STP, long known as Richard Petty’s primary sponsor, is returning to racing in a big way this summer, starting with sponsorship of the Sprint Cup races in Kansas and Chicagoland. This new promotional program also touches a variety of racetracks and series including NHRA and World of Outlaws, but it warms my heart to see the company that forever transformed NASCAR sponsorship returning to the Sprint Cup to build on a groundbreaking 40-year legacy.

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