NASCAR gimmicks? Not so much…

ShortAxle is back! Yes I know, it’s a terribly long time since I last posted here. But hopefully from now you should see more regular posts, coinciding with the launch of my new website at www.andrewcharman.co.uk. There will also be a new theme to this page soon to better sit alongside the website.

As I write this we are 24 hours away from the real start of my motorsport year– Mrs C is in the kitchen starting work on meatloaf, mudslide pies and the like, as it’s the Daytona 500 tomorrow and we always have a bit of an American-themed day to mark the arrival of the NASCAR season.

No doubt tomorrow’s race will be described by some as ‘the start of a new era’ for NASCAR, not just because of a new aerodynamic package with significantly less downforce, but the wholesale change in race formats, on which I will go into more detail shortly.

No rest come winter

NASCAR has had a few of these ‘new eras’ in recent times. I used to enjoy my annual catch-up with the sport’s technical types when they came over for the symposium staged each year in January by Race Tech, one of the magazines I write for. But these guys haven’t been able to join us for a while now because each winter they’ve been too busy getting their heads around the latest wholesale rule changes, as NASCAR tries to address a major issue – significantly fewer people are watching the sport.

Personally I don’t think the blame for a decline in spectator numbers over recent years can be completely levelled at NASCAR – the whole world knows Americans have been feeling less than comfortable and when you don’t feel comfortable you don’t spend money. But it’s sad when TV pictures show tracks such as Bristol only half full. Bristol! Where once races sold out to the degree that one went on a waiting list in the hope of getting some tickets in a couple of years time. A place very much on this writer’s bucket list.

So NASCAR can’t simply accept such declines, it has to try and arrest the slump, which is why we’ve got used to major changes between seasons. Even so, I couldn’t quite believe the reaction to the latest changes from one leading US motorsport correspondent.

NASCAR Bristol

When the great bullring of Bristol can’t sell out its race, NASCAR has to take notice – and it is. Photo courtesy Toyota Racing

Three times the winners?

In brief, under the new formula NASCAR has not cut the length of the races, as some suggested, but instead split them into three sections, and made points available to the top ten finishers at the end of the first two sections – along with bonus points to segment winners who make it to the end-of-season play-offs, what we used to call The Chase.

Matters are still very much biased towards the race victory – win either of the first two segments and you get 10 points, win the last segment and you get 40. Each segment is split by a caution period, so the way a race pans out is potentially not that different to previously, except that drivers have a reason not to trundle around until the last 50 laps or so, instead ensuring they are in position to snatch what could prove to be crucial segment points.

Well this did not impress Robin Miller, a lead writer on the series long pitched as NASCAR’s big rival, IndyCar. I’m not one to have a go at the media, especially in America where nowadays they have a President who does that, but Miller, banging home his view that the NASCAR changes were good news for IndyCar, indulged in a level of vitriol towards the stock car side of US motorsport that shocked me.

He suggested the changes could be seen as “desperate, confusing, hilarious or totally necessary to try and keep people engaged for (NASCAR’s) weekly marathons of pit stops, speeding penalties and commercials.” He added that the sport’s management had realised “what many of us have thought for a long time: It’s B-O-R-I-N-G,” and laid into NASCAR’s “phantom caution flag” culture.

Now Miller is not the first to make that last argument, and we’ve all been incredulous at the reasons for some of the cautions before, but it seems too that NASCAR is trying to do something about this – witness another new rule, stopping beaten-up cars returning to the track and dropping bits all over the place.

IndyCar can benefit, Miller says, because unlike NASCAR it is pure racing, where 20 cars can often be separated by a second and the fastest usually wins out without gimmicks such as lucky-dog cautions and such like to aid them.

Well firstly, I think one will struggle to find any completely pure circuit racing these days, apart from club events of just a few laps. All top series use safety cars, and safety cars close up the field. Even in Formula One a driver can build up a massive lead over several laps and see it completely disappear with just a few laps remaining due to a safety car period. In that respect NASCAR is no different in format to any other series, including IndyCar.

NASCAR, however, doesn’t have push-to-pass. Miller glosses over this anything-but-pure feature of IndyCar as “just extra power that each driver has to manage smartly so he’s got some at the end of the race and it helps overtaking on a narrow city circuit”. Hmmm… In NASCAR, each driver knows he has the same car package, the same tyres, as every other driver around him, from front to back. He doesn’t have to think how many more squirts of extra horsepower he has available, when he passes someone he has to do it properly. Which is the more pure?

And while we are describing as ‘gimmicks’, the awarding of extra points, we should remember that IndyCar came up with a double points finale. Score consistently all year and then get overtaken by someone who gets lucky in the final race. Though to his credit Miller does insist that this concept is not needed in IndyCar.

Yes, NASCAR has made lots of changes, but gimmicks? The latest ones, what do they do? They encourage the drivers to race harder to get results, without giving them buttons to help them overtake. Is that a bad thing?

Despite its recent issues, the fact remains that NASCAR still attracts, week after week, significantly larger audiences than IndyCar – the stock car fans that have gone away aren’t going to watch the single-seater formula instead.

This is not really the point, though. I enjoy watching IndyCar Racing, just as I really enjoy watching NASCAR racing, The stage is certainly big enough for both, without proponents of one feeling the need to take pot shots at the other…

Now, roll on the Daytona 500!

IndyCar Series

We like IndyCar but it doesn’t fill the stands either. And its proponents should not have a go at other series. Photo: IndyCar

 

 

Advertisements

Rekindling my passion for a raucous pocket rocket

More car manufacturers these days are staging drive days for journalists, not attached to the launch of a specific model but instead gathering all the most recent new cars together for the invited hacks to drive as many as they need, or wish, to.

I like these events, because from one day out of the office you can get a lot of potential copy, and sometimes you get some major extras too…

1405VX220cSuch was the case with a day organised this month by Vauxhall. Tooling all the way down from mid Wales to Luton doesn’t exactly excite me – it’s a long way to travel to drive in a part of the country where there’s too much traffic on generally unexciting roads. But this day was to be based at the heritage centre – I’d never been there, and it sounded interesting.

A half-million pound car...

A half-million pound car…

As indeed it was. Vauxhall clearly takes its history seriously and crammed into an innocuous building are many historic cars and just as much memorabilia. PR Man Simon Hucknall clearly loves talking about the heritage centre, and he eagerly pointed out the pre-WW1 Prince Henry (“that’s a half-million pound car…”) and the 1913 30-98, described as the first 100mph production car – not sure I’d like to go 100mph in it…

Possibly just as exciting for many of us was the fact that outside, lined up with the current Cascadas, Mokkas and Merivas, were a host of heritage machines for us to drive. Not the really old stuff, but stretching back to the 1950s with names such as Cresta, Viva and the like…

1405VXR220cFor me, however, the big attraction was much younger – I remember writing about its launch, and I’m not THAT old… It’s called the VXR 220, and the various incarnations of Vauxhall’s go kart on steroids have over the years given me some very distinct memories.

The original VX 220 was launched in 1999. Vauxhall intended to get away from the dull image conjoured up by such cars as the Vectra, and mercilessly stoked by that man Clarkson on Top Gear. The answer was a stripped-down roadster, developed and built in Norfolk by a firm that knew all about building such cars – Lotus…

1405VX220a

The VX 220 – first of a memorable line…

I loved the VX 220 the moment I drove the thing. It had almost 150 horses but weighed just 870 kilos. This was an adult go-kart and even Clarkson admitted it was a better bet than a Lotus. When, around three years later, I was invited to the launch of the Turbo version, I was seriously excited. Closer to 200bhp, 4.7-second 0-62mph time, what was not to like? And the launch was to be held in Spain, with track driving on the Jerez GP circuit, and British Touring Car Champion Jason Plato there to offer speed tips…

And then the day before the launch I was driving to work and the phone rang. It was Maureen from Vauxhall. “Are you nearly at Luton airport?” “But it’s tomorrow…” “No, today…” I – was – seriously gutted…

And then the stories began to emerge. Stories of accidents, wrecked VX Turbos. Several wrecked VX Turbos, into double figures. Even today Vauxhall’s brand guy Stuart Harris appears to shake a little when recalling the firm talking to he had to give the gathered journos. And I had missed all this…

Then just a year later, Vauxhall launched its performance sub-brand, the VXR that we have come to know and enjoy. And the first VXR model was a special edition version of the VX Turbo, dubbed the VXR 220 and just 60 examples of it built. It had another 20bhp, shaving that 62mph sprint to 4.2 seconds in something as stiffly suspended and corner carving as a race car. I had to have one on test…

It was delivered to my office in Orpington. Vauxhall’s delivery driver departed with a cheery “Have a fun week, they all come back crashed…” And I proceeded to drive it home.

1405VXR220bFive miles from my house, there was a Focus in the mirror, manically flashing its headlights. Must be something amiss I thought, so I pulled into a layby and Focus pulled in behind. Out of it stepped a young female who proceeded to run over to my car, bend down and gush excitedly; “I’ve got one of these! I thought mine was the only one in the south of England…”

In the ensuing explanation and conversation, it transpired that she and I actually lived only a few streets from each other. Eventually bidding a cheery farewell, I escaped and drove home, parking the car out the front of my house and thinking no more of my encounter.

Half an hour later and Rosemary, Mrs C, was calling me, with a suspicious expression on her face. “There’s some woman at the door asking for you…” Said woman had gone home, got her VXR 220, and brought it round to show me. You couldn’t make this up…

I did have a fun week, and I didn’t crash it, so several years later, back at the Vauxhall drive day, rekindling my relationship with this particular car was a must. I did all the work-related duties, driving the modern stuff, in the morning, deliberately leaving the expected pleasure to close to the end of the day…

1405VXR220eInitially, it was humbling. It’s not that long ago since the VXR 220 was a production model, and I haven’t got that much older, but getting in and out of the thing, across the wide monocoque sills, is not at all easy, and very undignified. Too much good living in Wales? Possibly…

I briefly forgot how to start the thing, until I remembered that this car was one of the first to have an adrenalin-fuelling start button, rather than a turn key. Said button is an an innocuous little chrome dot on the dash rather than the big ‘Engine Start’ moniker we see on cars today. Still, at least I didn’t set the alarm off, unlike an esteemed national newspaper colleague…

Out on the road, and the car was everything I remembered – basically evil. Its throttle was point, squirt. Braking was face squashing, the ride bone-jarringly stiff. The fat tyres followed every bump, mound or indentation in the tarmac, ensuring that one’s hands stayed very firmly gripped to the squat little steering wheel just to keep the thing pointing in a straight line – this was not a car you could cruise in, concentration needed in large amounts at all times.

1405VXR220dBut you know, it was every bit as much fun as I’d remembered, and I’m only disappointed I’ve never had a chance to drive a VXR 220 on track – there it would no doubt be even more memorable, and I promise I wouldn’t crash it…

No matter – if ever I get my dream garage, there will always be space in it for Vauxhall’s pocket rocket…