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The American Road: Driving in Circles

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The American Road: Driving in Circles

Bill Crittenden
April 2014

The American Road is a series of articles written by an American author for a British audience...

Why NASCAR Deserves Respect

American motorsport, whether it be open wheel cars or "stock cars," we sure do love to watch them drive in circles.

Based on the comments I've read from overseas NASCAR seems, from the European perspective, a brain-dead simple sport for brain-dead simple people. Based on some of the folks I've seen drunk & shirtless at the racetrack, there's enough anecdotal evidence on Instagram to support that stereotype if you go looking for it.

But the guys who actually follow it, NASCAR is precise, technical, and very, very difficult.

See, on the surface it seems so easy. The tracks usually have two wide turns, sometimes a third curve at the start-finish line. They drive big cars without the aerodynamic effects of multiple adjustable wings tailor-made to the circuit being driven. There's not much for electronics in the cars to monitor beyond the tachometer. A lot of the folks talk in the same southern drawl that Hollywood usually associates with backwoods stupidity.

How hard can that be? Well, just look at Juan Pablo Montoya's NASCAR career, for starters.

A little over 7 years of racing yielded this 7-time Grand Prix winner a highest finish of 8th in Cup series points, with just 2 wins...both on road courses. Counting his support series races, he won three out of 276 races, all three coming on road courses. In those 276 races he had just 25 top five finishes, a little less than one in ten. He's most well known in the stock car side of motorsports for obliterating a jet dryer at the 2012 Daytona 500.

Now, you might expect someone who went wheel-to-wheel with Schumacher at Spa and won the Monaco Grand Prix to think of a track like Martinsville as beyond easy. And it is, if you're just trying to remember the course layout. Left turn, left turn, back to the start-finish line. But just as easy as it was for Montoya, it's also pretty easy to remember for the other 42 guys sharing that small space.

That's where NASCAR gets interesting, because when the track is just over a half mile with two sweeping turns at each end, each turn being run 500 times in laps just over 20 seconds each, being as perfect as possible on every inch of that track matters.

Not that you have very many inches to work with, whether it be cramming 43 cars into Martinsville's oval or running in the pack at Talladega, there's constantly traffic to work around. Or with.

It's all being done in 1600+ kilogram, relatively low-tech cars, and somehow most of them can run within a half a second of each other lap after lap. Even with 30 guys and one gal charging across the start-finish line a blink of an eye from each other on the timing charts, the top teams always seem to have that extra tenth of a second lead. It's not luck, that's the hard work of guys like Chad Knaus, the mastermind behind Jimmie Johnson's six championships (and whose hometown is just a couple hours from mine, a rare Illinoisan in NASCAR's top ranks).

Racing in machines that only adopted fuel injection a few years ago, whose aerodynamics are not only closer to bricks than formula cars but also very tightly controlled by a sanction allowing for almost no creativity, and yet two dozen team & crew chief/driver combinations have such razor-thin margins between them shows just how technical...and difficult...the sport really is. Going for that extra two hundredths of a second a lap in a car based on 1960's technology, and nailing the result, has got to be like performing heart surgery with a butter knife.

Sure, there are a hundred kinds of racing because everybody likes something different, so I don't expect folks from around the world to actually like NASCAR. Heck, not even all of America likes NASCAR, which is why we have the NHRA, IndyCars, World of Outlaws, United SportsCar Racing (formerly Grand Am & ALMS), and quite a few Formula 1 followers to round out the bunch.

So keep watching what you want, but I hope you see past the accents and the small-town North Carolina headquarters the teams have and see "driving in circles" in "low-tech" cars as a bit like the Chinese game of Go: the simplicity on the surface obscures a depth of strategy that can take a lifetime to master, a level of difficulty that can, and often does, thoroughly embarrass anyone who underestimates it going in.

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