Krupa: Drivers deserve to be heard on rule changes

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Brooklyn — Maybe they should listen more to the drivers.

Motor racing always has been a balance between how fast one can go, within reasonable bounds of safety, and how much money there is to spend.

In tough financial times, and as racing speeds test what is considered safe on tracks, the tendency is to spend less and slow down.

In many ways, that is the story of motor sports over the last several years.

That is why, for some, auto racing is comparatively lackluster, these days.

Whether it is NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One or other forms of car and truck racing, those who govern the various manifestations of the sport have instituted new rules, sometimes on an annual basis, intended to help control costs, keep drivers, crews and spectators safe and slow things down, a bit.

The result? Well, things have gotten a little boring.

The intent of increasing grip and lowering horsepower was to reduce costs, and better keep the cars on the track while not losing too much speed.

In both NASCAR and Formula One, the effect has been to make passing more difficult and races less competitive.

"I don't think any of the drivers really want reduced horsepower — but, we did it," said Jeff Gordon, the four-time Sprint (formerly Winston) Cup champion, who is retiring from NASCAR after this season.

"We understand there was some cost savings there that teams were looking for. You know, the more power you make the more difficult it gets to run the engines for a long, long period of time without the costs getting really high."

Fernando Alonso, the two-time world champion, said in March that things have deteriorated so much, Le Mans may be more exciting that the august Formula One series — long considered an elite form of racing.

"The cars are slower and heavier," Alonso said, in widely-quote remarks.

With a 10-second lap difference in China, between 2004 and 2015, Alonso said the conclusions are obvious.

"When you drive 10 seconds slower, you don't have the same feelings. It is competitive, because everyone is slower.

"But, in terms of pure Formula One feelings, of course, as a driver, we are very slow at the moment."

As a driver, he said, he tries to have a say.

But the competing interest of manufacturers and other business aspects of the sport make that difficult.

Jeff Gordon, right, who is retiring after this Sprint Cup season, said he was encouraged by a meeting between NASCAR officials a select group of drivers in Dover, Delaware. That group in included Gordon.

Opening up a dialogue

Amid concerns about maintaining television audiences and attendance, drivers were greatly encouraged by an invitation from NASCAR to a private summit two weeks ago, in a hotel in Dover, Delaware.

Intended to develop a dialogue between the drivers and NASCAR's competition committee, the meeting was attended by drivers selected by their colleagues, including Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Tony Stewart.

Gordon called it "one of the coolest things I've seen happen in his sport since I've been in it… I only wish it had happened long before my final year."

Talking about it at Michigan International Speedway this weekend, Gordon said, "To me, it's just about open lines of communication. The communication between NASCAR and the drivers, the crew chiefs and engineers, the team owners, the sponsors, the media, our network partners.

"And I think anytime we can take a step forward, in getting those ideas and thoughts — whether it is on paper or open dialogue in a room, it's awesome. I really love that meeting that we had in Dover, because I feel like everyone was expressing their opinions."

Drivers should be consulted and heeded far more, especially when it comes to the way race cars drive.

Right now, it can be a bit of a mystery for the drivers, as the changes are being contemplated.

As he walked into a news conference Friday at MIS, Gordon was asked about prospective new changes in the aerodynamic designs, and perhaps other regulations, contemplated for the Kentucky Speedway on July 11.

That would be a change from the changes made last year, increasing grip and reducing horsepower.

"Man, I heard about this five minutes ago and you guys already know everything," Gordon said. "I'm amazed, blown away.

"I've heard the same thing, there's a potential. And, from what I've heard — you know, you always want to go and test it and understand — I'm fine with reduction of downforce, if they can bring a softer tire.

"To me, that's the key."

Sounds like sage advice from a veteran, respected racer.

Yet, he heard about the prospect for more changes five minutes before the media asked him.

Working together

NASCAR drivers will get a chance for some feedback on the changes. But, it may not help.

They should have more of a say, more systematically. And what they say should often be heeded.

If the point is to better control both costs and danger, Gordon and other drivers, in NASCAR and other series, think they have a better way.

"If that's the way we're going to go, we want what everyone wants," he said.

"What we want is the same that everybody wants: More passing, a little more lead changes, three-wide racing.

"And how you get that is by communicating and using the technology that's at our disposal now, to benefit the racing. And how we're going to do that is all working together."

Martin Truex Jr., who won last week at Pocono and is starting ninth Sunday in the Quicken Loans 400, said it is all a bit mysterious for the drivers, now.

"You know, I don't know," he said. "I mean, I have as many questions about it as anyone else.

"What's it going to be like?

"Is it going to do what they think? Is it going to do what some of the drivers think it's going to do?"

Those considerations are especially challenging for Truex. A one-car team, Truex admitted this weekend he is looking into the possibility of a new manufacturer to replace Chevrolet, after many years, because he needs more resources if he is to challenge for the championship.

"I'll support whatever puts on good racing," Truex said. "You know, I think everyone's on the same page, as far as that goes. We'll do whatever it takes to make the racing the best we can make it.

"I think that if you have different air packages for different race tracks, it's certainly going to put a ton of extra strain on the teams. You know, they're going to have to build more race cars, have more cars.

"I can't imagine the wind tunnel time and the expense it's going to be to make all that happen, to try to be competitive with each one of them. "

Still limping and taking stairs gingerly, after injuries suffered in Daytona in February, Kyle Busch won his first race back in a car Saturday, the Great Clips 250 Benefitting the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Busch said that what he has heard about a prospective new aerodynamic package is that it may be one of the set-ups drivers tested at MIS last summer. He said many drivers preferred that package to the one eventually adopted for the season.

Why not listen to the drivers?

"I'm optimistic for the package and being able to put more in the drivers' hands," Busch said.

"We're racing 3,500-pound Indy Cars out there, now, the way that we stick to the track. We've got to get the stock back into the stock cars."