Thursday, July 13, 2006

NASCAR's Taking Over

The racing world is in a buzz about Danica Patrick’s signaling of a future move to NASCAR. As Juan Pablo Montoya has made his move into NASCAR with Chip Ganassi, why the heck shouldn’t Patrick want to move into NASCAR? Everyone who has a license to drive anything with four wheels on it wants to move into NASCAR. Why? Well, if you read that article about Montoya, you’ll see that it mentioned, “The elite F1 community tends to look down its nose at NASCAR's relatively unsophisticated style of racing, so Montoya's migration will give the series an air of credibility.”

As much as even I love Juan Pablo Montoya, NASCAR will never gain anymore credibility with me than it already has. The real reason for this is because at heart I am a nerd. Please, someone tell me of another motor sport where the website goes into
this much detail on what EACH team is doing. Not only that, but Formula 1 has something that NASCAR, the NHRA, and the IRL (and Champ Car) will never have, the world. It should be no secret that the US secludes itself in everything sport related.

Formula 1 has the un-enviable task of living up to itself every year. The historic past of the series continues to force every team to pump in as much money as is humanly possible in order to be crowned the best team and best driver in the series. Even many of the test drivers continue to hang around while they could be in another series as a #1 driver. Olivier Panis, Ricardo Zonta and Pedro de la Rosa come to mind as excellent examples of drivers who understand the prestige in being part of Formula 1. Yet, in the US, NASCAR has become the Hansel to Formula 1’s
Derek Zoolander.

So, what holds back Formula 1 in the US? A couple things really. First, let’s start with the cars. The typical F1 car looks nothing like a street car, and therefore seems to be less applicable then a stock car from the Nextel Cup. The caveat to that perception is that Formula 1 cars through the years have made more headway for the cars that we drive today on the road. Stock cars in fact still use carburetors. In fact, let’s take this
excerpt from Wikipedia:

The cars are rear-wheel-drive, high-powered, low-tech hot rods with a roll cage chassis and thin sheet metal covering, and are powered by carbureted engines with 4-speed manual transmissions. The engines are limited to 358 in³ (5.8 L), with cast iron blocks, one camshaft and a pushrod valve train. However, significant engine development has allowed these engines to reach exceedingly high levels of power with essentially 1950s technology.

Excellent, so this further proves that the racing that is done is for a nostalgic value. Essentially, it’s all about hot rods from the 50s and 60s. Meaning that, present day application is only applicable for people who like to work on their 50s and 60s hot rods.

Crashes are a big part of NASCAR. And even though there’s a rubberneck blood lust to crashes themselves, I still would like to see motor sports without them, as it creates fewer cars finishing the race, and obviously an inherent danger to the drivers. Yet, while it’s a COMPLETE faux-pas to touch another car in Formula 1, many tracks in NASCAR (Bristol being my favorite example) allows for a race paradigm that has cars bumping each other out of the way inherent to that track’s ideology. More exciting? Great, then why don’t you decide to “bump” that Ford Excursion next time it cuts off your Nissan Maxima on the highway?

I have a perfect example of the difference in paradigms. In NASCAR, Robbie Gordon was talked down to and made fun of by drivers for MULTIPLE seasons before he was finally relinquished of duties for the #31 Cingular car. On the Formula 1 side of things, famed Japanese race-driver, Yuji Ide, was taken out of his race seat after only four races this season for the Super Aguri team. The rumor mill had that the
FIA (the governing body of Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship) stewards politely asked the team to demote Yuji Ide until he gained more test time to become comfortable in the car.

It all boils down to excitement and ratings. But I don’t believe that the interest in NASCAR is in any way “simple” because their points system is about as complicated as the technical regulations for Formula 1. I believe the over-the-top points system in NASCAR is also one of the reasons why no one really cares at the end of the year who the champion is. Another reason why NASCAR fans may feel latent to the eventual champion is because the season itself lasts too long (over thirty races scheduled in 2006). Then again, why don’t they take off the restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega so that we can stop having those enormous wrecks?

As much as I worry about the future of Formula 1 in America, I am thankful in finding out that even if America finally goes ahead and completely rejects it, the motor sport will still exist in large part because of the rest of the world’s support for it. I just hope a cable network still carries coverage of the races when that happens.
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