News & Media

New-look cars may revive old-school politicking

January 07, 2013, David Caraviello,

Different templates could lead to interesting results, but level playing field will be sought

When Sprint Cup cars were redesigned for the 2013 season, manufacturers seeking more brand identity had their voices heard by NASCAR. The resulting vehicles feature bodies that more closely resemble those of their production-line brethren, from the front end to the roofline to the rear bumper. When those same cars begin competing on the race track, manufacturers may seek to have their voices heard once again -- but for a very different reason.

The cosmetic differences between the three models debuting this year are stark, and that enhanced brand identity will have an impact all the way down to the inspection line on race weekends. The outgoing “Car of Tomorrow” is a thing of the past, as is the common body manufacturers shared during its run. More brand-specific parts mean more brand-specific templates, which at least opens the door to more brand-specific success -- and the lobbying by other manufacturers that has historically accompanied it.

“If Chevy wins a bunch of races early, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, Chevy’s got an advantage,’” five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “And it’s going to start that whole mess back up again.”

Indeed, the real possibility exists that these new-look cars could revive old-school politicking by manufacturers, something not seen since before the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow and its common body and template in 2007. Before then it was common for carmakers to urge NASCAR for help on the spoiler or some other body part that might improve results, particularly if vehicles of the same nameplate were ahead of the pack. Now the Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet will be almost completely different from nose to tail, and any differences in performance might lead to lobbying in the garage.

"We’ll listen, and we’ll do the best to maintain a level playing field."

--Robin Pemberton

“I think any time there’s opportunity to politick, we’re all going to politick,” said Steve Letarte, crew chief on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car. “I mean, we’re racers, right? And the goal is to win.”

According to Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president for competition, only one element of the new cars is the same across all three manufacturers -- the rear deck lid. Although the claw-like grid that became a part of the inspection process along with the Car of Tomorrow will continue to be used, there are “way more manufacturer-specific templates that are needed,” said Brett Bodine, senior director of racing at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center. “That’s what is really going to challenge the officiating staff, because (the cars’) shapes are so different.”

NASCAR and the manufacturers determined that the greenhouse -- the roof, windows, posts and deck lid -- would be a “common area” where surface area would remain consistent from one car model to another, but differences exist even there. “The roof panels, some of them are in the same shape, but they’re different lengths,” Pemberton said. “Size of noses and tails are different. Windshields are different, back glasses are different. So it’s just that small part of the deck lid … that’s the only thing that’s a common part.”

Teams must still have their chassis pre-certified at the NASCAR R&D Center before taking them to the race track, a process carried over from the days of the outgoing car. Once at the race venue, however, the differences between the three redesigned models will be evident in the templates used to inspect them. And if there are differences in performance on the track, NASCAR expects it will hear from manufacturers seeking help, just as it did a decade ago.

“I do,” Pemberton said. “I think that they’re different enough that there will be times you’re going to hear it, you’re going to see it. When somebody goes to Vegas and one manufacturer runs one through three, somebody’s going to complain. But if you’re getting beat, you should be complaining about something, but maybe it’s internally. But I’m sure we’ll hear it.”

What might be the sanctioning body’s reaction? “We’ll listen, and we’ll do the best to maintain a level playing field,” Pemberton added. “That doesn’t mean every week we’re going to be whacking on the spoiler or doing something like that. But it is our responsibility to make sure that a group is not disadvantaged out there. But I don’t see that really being too big of an issue right now.”

The reason? It isn’t 2002 anymore, Letarte said. Years ago in the heyday of politicking, everything was based off what happened on the race track, according to the crew chief. Now there are more sophisticated ways of determining why and how one manufacturer might be behind another, potentially putting more responsibility on the teams. Rather than trimming a fraction of an inch off one spoiler in an effort to equalize competition, NASCAR might instead be able to eliminate aerodynamic questions, and tell an organization to go back and improve its cars.

“I think that using technology we can prove that the best Chevy, the best Ford, the best Toyota, are close in the wind tunnel. That allows NASCAR to challenge back to the teams and the manufacturers that you need to go to work on other areas of your car. It’s not in the body,” Letarte said. “So is there politicking? There always will be. But I feel that we have the tools and the technology to answer those questions without involving rule changes.”

Although the 2013 cars were designed to heighten brand identity, the goal is still to win. “It’s wonderful that the cars are going to look like the cars they’re born from, but at the end of the day, we have to make sure (results) on the track are not impacted,” said Ford Racing chief Jamie Allison. That responsibility falls on the manufacturers as much as anyone else. And surely, it helps that competitors are on board with the reasons why the vehicles were redesigned in the first place -- even if inspection grows a little more complicated, and politicking raises its head once again.

“This car is a perfect example of technology helping our sport,” Letarte said. “I think we now have three makes out here that, my little boy at 9 years old can tell the difference between the Chevy and the Ford. And that’s the goal, right? That anybody can walk through the parking lot and see a Chevy and a Ford and a Toyota and know that they’re different. So I think that we’ve gained that.”