NASCAR president Mike Helton says there is a “doggone good chance” that Sprint Cup cars will be sporting rear spoiler blades in place of their current raised wings at Texas Motor Speedway next month.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Samsung Mobile 500 scheduled on April 18 will be the first blade race for NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow platform.
The blade was first tested around TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval by Cup regulars Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers during a Goodyear tire session on Jan. 19 and 20. Those drivers represented each of the four manufacturers competing in Cup.
Meanwhile, an open-test on the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway, a sister facility to TMS, is booked for March 23-24. That means NASCAR officials could OK the blade for races on the half-mile Martinsville Speedway on March 28, the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway on April 10 and/or TMS.
“We’re hoping that within the next two or three races we’ll be at a point where we say, ‘It’s time to take the wing off and put the spoiler on,’ ” Helton said in an interview during TMS’ annual Media Day on Monday. “So I think by time we come here in April, we may have a race or two under our belt with the spoiler.”
TMS president Eddie Gossage – who posed the blade question during an easy chair interview with Helton up on a stage at The Speedway Club – is convinced the April race here will be run with the blade.
“Mike danced around it with his answer,” Gossage said. “I knew I was putting him on the spot because I know we’re going to run the spoiler. They tested here a month ago. They’re going to run the spoiler. Among other things, the thing I like about it is that’s what a race car looks like. It’s got a spoiler on it. Doesn’t have a rear wing. Never understood these 4-cylinder cars with a rear wing on it and they’re front-wheel drive. The purpose of the wing is to give you downforce, and you want the downforce on your drive wheels. Make sense?”
Furthermore, Gossage believes the aluminum blade – which at TMS ran 4 inches high and 64.5 inches wide – could upset the current balance of power enjoyed by Hendrick Motorsports, home to four-time and reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and their Chevrolets.
“If you look back, a few years ago, Jack Roush had all five cars in the Chase. He had none in the Chase last year,” said Gossage, referring to the Ford stable at Roush Fenway Racing. “So the tide had turned. And he’ll tell you that the difference is they didn’t develop the Car of Tomorrow as much as everybody else had. They were behind on the COT. So if somebody’s behind on this spoiler thing, then there could be a reversal of fortunes. If Hendrick is behind, let’s say, then Jimmie’s going to have a tough time. Jeff’s going to have a tough time.
“If (team-owner) Richard Childress has got this spoiler thing figured out, then boom, they’re in. It’s that minute a change that can completely upset the apple cart. On the other hand, the good teams are good teams for a reason. So you’ve got to figure the better teams are going to have a better handle on it than anybody. I do know that talking to teams that they have spent a ton of time burning the midnight oil with testing, with computer testing and with their engineers, working exclusively on the spoiler for a couple months now.”
Johnson posted his second consecutive victory of the three-race season Sunday on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, another sister-track to TMS, thanks to a four-tire final pit stop that overhauled Gordon’s two-tire stop down the stretch. Asked about the most recent dominating performance by Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, Gossage said, “It hurts. It’s not good. By no means do I wish anything bad on Jimmie. I really like Jimmie, I think he’s a great champion. But I don’t care who the driver is, it’s not good for a guy to seemingly effortlessly win week after week after week.
“We’ll see. Fans need to know that ‘my guy,’ whoever ‘my guy’ is, has a chance every week. So the answer to that is to call out all the crew chiefs to out-Chad Chad. And to out-Jimmie Jimmie for the drivers. Chad and Jimmie and the rest of ‘em, they just got it going on. So beat ‘em. It’s real simple.”
After an offseason of discussion with drivers, crew chiefs and owners, Helton said NASCAR teams have been “aggressively” testing the blade any time a Cup team has tested tires for Goodyear Racing. The idea is to improve passing and the quality of racing while preventing the COT’s boxy rear end from taking flight in the event of a crash.
The COT, a product of NASCAR’s Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C., made its debut on the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway on March 25, 2007. Among its new aerodynamic features was the raised rear spoiler in place of the traditional blade and a fixed front-end splitter in place of a valence.
Asked specifically about the rear wing, Helton said, “There were some aero studies that we did as we were developing the current car that indicated that the wing might aid in the performance on the racetrack when you kind of tune the aero-push elements that you hear a lot about or the wake that a car would create as it would go around the track with cars behind it. And a lot of that still exists. I mean, the benefits of the wing may still exist.
“The question then becomes is how well-accepted is the wing, and can you do those benefits with modern technology we know today in the R&D Center, if the decision is we’d like to go back to the spoiler. And fans tell us that it’s (the blade) more traditional to them. So if the industry benefits from the fans seeing a more traditional piece and that works for us, can we mechanically do the things that the wing presents as an advantage with the spoiler? And during the course of research we figured out how to do that. We probably could have figured it out seven years ago if we’d been focused on it. We’re kind of coming back around to that. So now it’s a function of taking the spoiler, making the NASCAR car look more traditional, and oh-by-the-way that spoiler produced the same advantages that the wing had but in a more traditional look.”
Helton said driver reaction to the change during testing has been mixed, and not unexpectedly so.
“A lot of it’s mixed because it’s hard to come to a conclusion with a 10- or 15-lap run on different racetracks under different circumstances,” Helton said. “Any change we make, any step we take along the way, the proof in the pudding is we put 43 cars on the racetrack and run a 400- or 500-mile race. And in most cases it takes three or four of those. And oh-by-the-way, you also have 43 different personalities out there who like 43 different recipes of how their car should or should not feel. That’s part of the thing we have to manage, is collecting all that and then making a singular decision for the whole group.
“We’ve done a lot of conversations with all the drivers and the crew chiefs and the aerodynamicists and the manufacturers about how to do this. We get a lot of help on how to do it, but at the end of the day we have to make the decision on how we’re going to do it.”
Cup regular Joey Logano, the 2009 Raybestos Rookie of the Year, said he was interested to see how the blade would affect his car in race conditions.
“I think the spoiler is going to be a good change,” said Logano, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. “I think it’s definitely going to look better, the fans are going to like it, for sure. And I’m sure NASCAR is going to do a great job on making it drive good – on making the balance good and not having us drivers going out there and complaining about it and swattin’ flies in the race cars, chasing the car around. I’m looking forward to getting out there on the racetrack and seeing what it’s going to do. It looks cool. That’s all I know right now.”
Helton believes the spoiler change will play into the sanctioning body’s new-for-2010 “Have it at, boys” racing philosophy. “I think it’s gone over pretty well,” Helton said after a season-opening Daytona 500 won by longshot Jamie McMurray and the back-to-back wins by Johnson at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and last week in Vegas. “The competitors may have kind of looked at us and said, ‘Ok, what’s that mean?’ And time will define that, and they’ll push the envelope and we’ll give ‘em a definition of it. But I think it has gone over reasonably well. We heard from fans, back in the middle of January through the first three races, that they like ‘the feel’ of things.”
Helton said the challenges facing NASCAR in 2010 begin with “keeping the product on the racetrack right. “
“Particularly as we are in a cycle of challenging economic times you’ve got to get creative, you’ve got to help people, you’ve got to listen to people, you’ve got to suggest things,” Helton said. “I do feel good about our future and the reason I do is because we’ve got such a great infrastructure. And I’m not talking about NASCAR as a company based in Daytona Beach. I’m talking about NASCAR as an industry, a lifestyle, a conglomerate of racetracks and car-owners and personalities like the drivers and crew members that make NASCAR capable of being able to survive challenges like we’re all going through right now.
“We’ve got a lot of loyal fans that want to be NASCAR fans. It may be a struggle for them in some way or another, but they want to be NASCAR fans. And our responsibility is to continue to develop a product – and deliver a product – that they stay attached to.”
John Sturbin covered college sports, baseball as well as the NHL and Dallas Cowboys while working at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He was their fulltime motorsports beat writer from 1995 to 2008.