NASCAR tests ways at MIS to make racing better

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. — On the highways and byways, in an automobile, speed yields to safety.

In NASCAR, on the track, high speeds can be safely attained with care, and if all the cars have about the same capabilities.

Sometimes a safer car actually goes a bit faster. And if the cars are all getting too fast, it is important to systematically slow everyone down.

Figuring it all out, while producing some of the greatest auto racing in the world and holding on to the interest of fans, sponsors and broadcasters requires designing, engineering, building and testing.

And then listening a heck of a lot to precisely what the drivers say about simulating racing with the new concepts.

So, 17 hours after the last fans left the stands at Michigan International Speedway, and as a long promenade of overnight campers still snaked their ways home on U.S. 12, 10 drivers went flying around the awesomely fast track again, simulating race conditions and trying-out potential new “packages” for the 2015 season.

“Fans have said they like a lot of passing, they like a lot of side-by-side, they like a lot of lead changes, and so that’s what we’re endeavoring to do,” said Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR vice present of innovation and development.

How about installing some fabricated metal, vane-shaped pieces called “dive planes,” on the front of the front fenders, in an effort to “clean” the “dirty air” left by a leading car, so that a trailing car can follow more closely, in potentially far better control, for easier passing — and, overall, potentially more speed?

How about installing a system that will allow the drivers to make even significant adjustments to the suspension and handling that are now attainable only in the pits, mostly during yellow flags or, with occasionally ruinous results, under the green?

Six configurations, or “packages,” some including those enhancements, were on tap when the drivers hit the speedy two-mile track at about 11 a.m., and continued testing well into the afternoon.

On Sunday, two days after setting a new MIS track record of 206.588 on a day when seven new track records were set, and just before winning the Pure Michigan 400 from the pole, Jeff Gordon spoke eagerly of the possibility of adjusting a car’s handling so significantly out on the track during the race — in effect, simultaneously with feeling the need for the change.

“That would be great,” Gordon said, of making track bar adjustments while racing. “I’d love to know how much adjustment you’re going to get.”

Whether that change, or any of the packages tested Monday are in the 2015 cars remains to be seen.

“”We’ve been somewhat hesitant to throw all kinds of adjustability on the car,” Stefanyshyn said. “We like kind of the pure, historic form of our racing, so we march very cautiously here, careful as we do these things.

“There’s a technical piece of it, but then there’s the human piece of it in the drivers and how well they feel.”

NASCAR may well be intent on slowing things down, a bit, after some changes in recent years that are resulting in consistently higher speeds in the series. Those intentions might make for slower racing at the big tracks, especially the super-speedy MIS, while leaving the high speeds at the intermediate tracks unaffected.

Meanwhile, more passing would add the excitement.

“Well, I think we’re trying to figure that out, still,” Kahne said in his garage as he walked away from members of his crew examining his jacked car. “We definitely don’t have a direction on what’s better, yet. We’re looking at all those options today.”

Meanwhile, Kahne, Gordon and other drivers have commented that one recent improvement to the NASCAR racers that compete is Sprint Cup, the increased downforce that has provided for increased speed, also makes them more difficult to handle in the so-called dirty air.

Kahne talked about the impact of air spoiled by a car in front of him, hitting his car as he tries to race.

“This morning, I ran about five laps by myself to make sure the balance was a good balance to start off the (simulated) race. I had a really positive front end.

“Ten minutes later, we got in a pack with new tires. It went green, and my front end would not turn, getting it in to the corner. And I had the exact same setup. The air temperature and the track temp, everything was the exact same, and I couldn’t turn.”

The dirty air stymied him.

“The car in front of you takes away the air that you need on the front of your car to turn,” he said.

“So, how do we find ways to make sure that isn’t such a big deal, and such a loss to be in second or third or fourth or to be even farther back?”