@NASCARRealTime, @TheOrangeCone and @CircleTrackNerd had an interesting dialog when the 2015 rules were announced. They were debating whether the track records that are now standing are going to be essentially locked into history. The debate ended with an appeal to me and Goody’s Headache Powder.
When the Gen-6 car was introduced in 2013, new track speed records were established at 19 of 32 qualifying sessions. Yes, that’s more tracks than we run, but the record at Martinsville, for example, was broken in the spring and again in the fall. Another way to look at it is that out of 20 tracks where there was an opportunity to break a track record (meaning we exclude Dega and Daytona because their records are pre-restrictor plate, plus rainouts) – it happened at 16 places.
Why? The primary change was the much lighter car – they took 150 lbs off relative to the Gen-5 car while maintaining the same engine power and increasing downforce.
That changes in 2015, as one of the new rules NASCAR announced is a 1.170″ tapered spacer that will reduce power by about 125 hp. Gene Stefanyshyn (senior vice president of innovation and racing development for NASCAR) expects this is only going to decrease speeds by no more than 3-4 mph in most instances.
That seems like a weird trade off, right? 125 hp = 3-4 mph? Well, that’s because the engine isn’t the only place they’re making changes. They’re going to decrease the spoiler size to six inches, which will take away about 300 lbs of downforce, but will also reduce the drag on the car.
Here’s the theory: racing on ovals is won and lost in the corners. The primary impact of horsepower (all other things held equal) is determining maximum straightaway speed. In the corners, you’re not (except for plate tracks) using all the horsepower you have – you’re more limited by your lateral grip, which is determined by downforce.
Any driver can mash the gas coming down the frontstretch. What makes a difference is how soon they get off the gas/onto the brakes coming into the corner and how soon they get onto the throttle coming out of the corner. Let’s say you have to slow to 180mph to make a corner. It makes a difference when you start braking if you’re going 210 mph vs. going 200 mph.
You may actually be able to take the corner faster if you aren’t slowing the car down quite so much. A number of the drivers and NASCAR officials have stated that slowing down the cars a little (and remember, we’re talking 3-4 mph) should give drivers more options in the corners and thus make for more exciting racing.
But What About the Records?
Yes. A lot of records were broken in 2013. But a number of those records have been broken this year. The overall trend of pole qualifying times is up. Even when a rules change or a track change decreases the qualifying time, the next year, it starts creeping back up. I plotted qualifying times for a couple tracks to show this. Everyone’s been talking about these records being broken as if the speeds were stuck and then suddenly they jumped up. Not at all.
So here’s Charlotte. There are year-to-year oscillations, but the overall qualifying times have ben nothing but increasing. On average, over the last twenty years, they’ve increased by about 0.7 mph each year. So let’s assume that speeds are down across the board by 3 mph. In four or five years, they will likely be right back where they were before. You see a big jump in the slope of the curve (how fast it’s getting larger) from Gen 1 to Gen 2, but after Gen 2, it’s been pretty consistent.
I put each of the car generations on the graph to see how much difference changing car models actually made, but the track condition also makes a huge difference. Let’s blow up the last twenty years.
So there was a big jump after the 1994 repave. Then remember 2005 when we all learned a new word: levigation? They diamond ground the track, which made it very rough. Pole speeds jumped and the fall race that year was an unmitigated disaster, with tires blowing left and right. They did a formal repave in 2006.
And if you really want to see what a different track surfaces make, take a look at Kansas.
After the re-pave, the pole speed jumped from 176 mph to 191 mph. There’s almost no history to rely on, but the following year, the fall speed was 4.3 mph slower than the spring speed.
In addition to major changes in the track, you get year-to-year oscillations due to things like weather and the tires Goodyear provides. One of the goals for the new set up is to allow Goodyear to make grippier tires that wear out faster, which could have a big impact on qualifying and (more importantly) racing.
So are the track records safe? Probably for a couple of years. But I’m not betting for much beyond that. The guys designing the race cars are just too clever to let little things like rules keep them down. The impressive thing is going to be if they figure out how to make the cars faster while also making the engines more reliable and longer lasting.
A final note. In the end, we judge drivers on race wins and championships. Poles may help you win a race, but I guarantee you if you give a driver a choice between a win and a pole, they’re going to choose the win.