* NOTE: Since this blog was posted, NASCAR has tweaked its rules regarding engine-cooling. Beginning with this weekend’s races at Bristol (Ten.) Motor Speedway, teams will each be allowed one cooling unit and drivers will be prohibited from making engine-cool-down laps during qualifying. Details here
Auto racing is a dangerous sport; there’s no question about that. But in recent years, most racing sanctioning bodies, NASCAR included, have taken measures and established rules to increase safety for drivers and others involved. But with NASCAR’s new qualifying format, has that sanctioning body unintentionally made one aspect of the sport more dangerous? According to at least some of the drivers, yes.
Actually, the danger isn’t because of an action mandated by NASCAR; rather, its being caused by driver/team response to a NASCAR rule.
During the new two or three-round “knockout” qualifying procedure, teams aren’t allowed to utilize engine coolers on pit road. As a result, drivers are spending time between qualifying runs making laps at slow speeds in attempts to get air to the engine to cool it down. What makes that so dangerous is that it’s being done while other drivers are making full-speed qualifying runs.
“We don’t have impact data on 170-180 mph differential impacts,” Brian Vickers said during qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Friday. “If I hit someone with those speed discrepancies, that’s going to be really bad for everyone.”
Vickers also went on to say that the new qualifying format is the “most danerous thing I’ve every done in racing.”
“It’s not safe,” Ryan Newman said. “It’s not safe.”
NASCAR realizes that slow cars and fast cars on the same track at the same time is very dangerous. After all, that’s why competitors aren’t allowed to race back to the start/finish line when a yellow flag is displayed anymore. That’s why NASCAR now reverts back to the running order over the last scoring loop for cautions nowadays.
According to NASCAR, teams aren’t required to put so much tape on their grilles, creating the overheating problem that leads to the need to cool engines on the track while others are qualifying. So, according to NASCAR, that one’s on the teams.
Even if you buy into that argument, there’s at least one other speed variance issue. There’s also the matter of cars getting up to speed while other cars are already at full speed as drivers enter and leave the track throughout each round of qualifying. I’m not thinking that’s one teams can really do anything about, unless everybody entered the track at the start of each round and stayed on track until the round ended, unless they elected to stop attempting qualifying laps early and don’t plan on returning to the track that round, once they peel off.
The brings me to pit road. The way NASCAR has pit road set up for qualifying isn’t safe, either, according to reigning and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
“That initial roll-out is very sketchy and I think we’re going to start crashing cars just backing out, because you’ve got guys at various angles trying to back out and guys backing out before the clock strikes zero and the track is green,” Johnson said. “We need to clean it up a little. I think the format is awesome. It’s great for the fans, it’s great for the teams, but some of the logistics and flow on pit road could be addressed.”
You see, NASCAR has teams park their cars facing the pit wall, requiring drivers to back out to head down pit road and onto the track. There’s also not pit road speed during qualifying. Maybe a good spotter would remedy this problem, but still, it’s, maybe, setting things up for something nobody in their right mind wants to see.
Here are some idea to make things safer. Keep the current idea of this qualifying format, but make a few tweaks. For one, let teams cool their engines on pit road with engine coolers. That would solve the issue of some cars getting up to speed while others are already at speed, but it would go a long way in cutting down on the problems. Besides, the cars that are getting up to speed are faster than those practically at a coast, cooling engines, and they are on their ways up to full speed.
Secondly, find another way to park cars on pit road. At first, I was thinking that maybe each should be parked in a pit stall, facing the same way they would be facing during a routine, in-race pit stop. Then, I realized that there may not be enough pit stalls for that if there are more than 43 cars attempting to qualify. Maybe have the cars facing away from the pit wall would work. It would require drivers to back into their spots after qualifying runs, but I’m guessing drivers would accept that minor inconvience in the name of safety.
I don’t know if these are the answers, but one thing’s for sure. Some tweaks do need to be made. Aside from the safety issues, I’m liking this new qualifying method, but like the drivers, I think there are some changes to be made to make it safer for everyone involved.