Crew chief Greg Zipadelli: the 'old school' in him says it's a bad rule. But as expensive as the sport is today..... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
The new rule requires teams to submit not only all car parts for pre-race week inspection at the sport's Concord, N.C., R&D center but also to submit all 'tweaks' in designs.
The rule is in part a response to:
-- one, the oil-pan issues the Joe Gibbs teams had in June at Michigan, where all three teams showed up Friday with a new oil pan design which NASCAR officials didn't like. The teams were required to change engines that weekend before being allowed to practice.
-- two, the Clint Bowyer/2010 playoff controversy over the chassis design of his Loudon, N.H. race car. Bowyer won the opening race of the chase that weekend, but in post-race inspection NASCAR officials discovered chassis tweaks they didn't like. And Bowyer and his team were heavily penalized.
-- and three, the possibility that a team could slip into the chase with a good run at Richmond (the last race of the regular season) by using a car with unapproved modifications not discovered until well after the race…while NASCAR's marketers are parading the 12 chase drivers around the country, creating a potentially embarrassing situation.
Crew chief Greg Erwin: the technological box gets even tighter, and NASCAR's control of the sport tighter too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The new rule further tightens the technological 'box' that Cup teams must work within these days. And teams have long complained about how tight that box already is.
Some crew men are griping about the new rule, saying it's the latest example of NASCAR officials taking the 'racing' out of racing, by yet another layer of limiting rules. "What are they trying to do?" one irate team engineer asks in frustration. "This isn't racing any more."
But NASCAR Cup director John Darby says "It's just a better way to do business – before a car owner has to invest a lot of money in a part, we can approve it, because they make the big investment.
"They can bring us models of a part, copies of a part, designs of a part, plastic, whatever.
"All we do is look at it and understand the direction it goes, and we can approve it or disapprove it. And once we sign off on it, then teams can go ahead and produce the parts, knowing they can use them.
"The other aspect is our inspectors see fewer and fewer things in the garage that they're not already aware of. So they don't have to hold up the inspection process for a team by asking a bunch of questions. The teams can roll through inspection; it just expedites everything."
Darby says We started this process three years ago, and we've upscaled it every year since.
"If the part is legal, and we think it's a good idea, and we approve it, then the team has the confidence that NASCAR isn't going to be letting that new idea get out to the garage.
"It's not NASCAR's position to take that part and show it to everybody in the garage.
"But as teams come up with new things, the lifespan of something new that nobody else knows about is probably two weeks. Twenty years ago you might be able to hide it for six months."
NASCAR's John Darby: just good business (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It may seem straightforward. However teams here say it's about more than just parts and pieces themselves, but about gray-area design tweaks too.
Greg Erwin, crew chief for AJ Allmendinger: "It's related to the oil pan problem the Gibbs cars had….but nobody is excluded from that issue – we've had parts that we fully assumed would be okay to run, that after running for a month, or two, or even three months of running it, NASCAR comes back and says it's not happy with what you did.
"On our operation, it was a very minor modification of an existing part. So anything you're going to draw up, design and build in house, they would like t have a 'sample' of it at the R&D headquarters. And if they don't have a sample of it, they get irritated.
"The past few years we have, in December, had our pre-season meetings -- crew chiefs, competition directors and team managers getting together (with NASCAR officials) – and they say 'All new parts need to be submitted.'
"The problem with that is, if we decide to move a shock mount or truck arm by half an inch, is that a 'new part' or a modification of an existing part?
"If we decide to change the bottom part of a truck arm, from a bigger bushing to a smaller bushing, and change the leading edge of our trailing arm, is that a 'new part'?
"The area we are all playing in is extremely gray, and it has been very difficult for team competition directors and crew chiefs to know what is considered a 'new' part and what is considered a modification of an existing part.
"In the oil pan situation at Michigan, I think that was a little extreme (modification). I think that part certainly needed to be looked at.
"But there are other things – like minor changes in lower control arms, you make the bucket a little larger, or you change the leading edge of the control arm by an eighth of an inch, or you put 30-thousandths more wall material in one of your suspension parts – is that still the same part?"
Crew chief Slugger Labbe: "It's a good deal." (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Erwin says that, he feels, backs every team even deeper in a technological corner.
And, from an outsider's perspective, who is to know which teams are being allowed to change what parts like that, and which teams might not get an okay? And does that raise potential issues of fairness?
Yes, these teams are required to work on their cars every weekend in the open view of rivals, who can see many of any such modifications.
But not every modification is an obvious one.
Erwin concedes there could easily be skepticism about things. "But we are parked next to each other in here for a reason….and this sport is very self-policing," Erwin says. "And if there were somebody parked next to us who had a part that we had tried to get submitted, well, that wouldn't last very long."
Of course the Michigan oil-pan situation and the Bowyer-Loudon chassis situation are two examples where rivals could not see any such modifications.
And there is naturally a potential for skepticism among fans in the stands. "But it's like that in all forms of racing," Erwin says.
Is this new rule a 'pre-emptive' strike in advance of the playoffs, which open Sept. 18th in Chicago?
"People do have special cars for the chase," Erwin says. "And 'pre-emptive strike' is probably a good way of putting it."
What the new rule may well do is make the Cup series even more of an 'IROC' series, with drivers forced to run essentially identical cars. "When we get 300 laps into Saturday's race here, look at P2 or P3 through P20, and there won't be a tenth (of a second in speed) difference," Erwin said. "That's kind of what they (NASCAR) really wants to see.
"And every week it gets closer and closer…."
Denny Hamlin's crew changes engines at Michigan in June, after NASCAR vetoed a new engine oil pan (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Fellow crew chief Slugger Labbe, still basking in that Brickyard 400 win with Paul Menard, and now running the lead dog team in the Richard Childress pack, working to make the playoffs, is somewhat circumspect about the new rule:
"If you look at the rulebook now, compared to what it was 10 years ago, it's a lot thicker," Labbe says. "Everything is more defined….and that's because of smart mechanics (working the gray areas).
"It's our job to be creative and innovative….and it's their job (NASCAR) to make sure we don't go too far.
"This thing about having your car going back to the tech center for more detailed Tuesday inspection if you win on Sunday is relatively new.
"All NASCAR is telling us is this: 'We want parts submitted, so when we tear down your car on Tuesday, the parts that are on your race car are also sitting on our shelf.'
"So if you modify a lower control arm, you'd better bring it up to NASCAR so they can sign off on it, so we have no problems on Tuesday.
"Say I need to win the race at Richmond to make the chase, and I bring an illegal car to Richmond, but they don't discover that till Tuesday….makes you wonder if they would kick somebody out of the chase for that….after they'd done all their chase stuff (marketing).
"I know that we just took a bunch of stuff to NASCAR to get it all approved, even before this rule came out, because it's not worth getting in trouble for. Just take it over to NASCAR and get it all signed off.
"When they first came out with this COT, we were all told to bring everything to NASCAR to get it approved. But as time has gone by, everyone's gotten more lax about that. And they (NASCAR) finally said 'Hey, we've had enough. What we've got sitting on the shelf, compared to what you're racing, is different. Better bring your stuff to us.'
"A lot of it goes back to the Gibbs car at Michigan, with that oil pan; it probably would have been passed if they'd submitted it, but they took a chance and didn't submit it. NASCAR didn't want any more of those issues."
"I'm okay with it, because it's fair for everybody.
"There will probably be some people getting caught.
"And it may be harder on the Nationwide teams, who buy their parts and pieces from Cup teams and might not have everything 'submitted.'
"The hard part of this for us, though, is if you see a part on a competitor's car, was it approved for them and not for us. And if you see something on somebody else's car, you might wonder 'is that approved or not.'
"So NASCAR is saying 'If you want to run it, we want to know about it.' That's all they're asking; so I think it's a good deal."
Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for the Joe Gibbs-Joey Logano team, sees both sides of the debate:
"As a racer, it's a bad rule," Zipadelli says. "We don't want people to see what we're doing.
"But the way the system was, you didn't know what had to be (approved) and what didn't have to beat. So it's a great rule. There is no gray area any more.
"What they want to do, for the good of the sport, is make sure everybody has the same stuff.
"It's actually a very easy process – you take a car over (to the R&D center), or a part, or a drawing, and they either approve it or don't approve it.
"They (NASCAR) do a pretty good job of 'Bang, bang, bang,' getting stuff in and out of there, and telling why they don't want it.
"The thing is they're going to see what areas teams are working on….
"But as long as they treat everybody fair, they've answered a lot of our questions now.
"However, as a racer, I don't want anybody to see anything we've got. I'd want it to go back to the 'old way.'"
That is, whatever a team can get through pre-race inspections on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, is pretty much legal too Monday after the race.
"Do a quick inspection after the race, and let me put my car back together after the race and go home," Zipadelli says.
"But for the system we have now, I think this is better.
"We're not going back 10 years….
"Now I liked it back then.
"But the way things are today, to help control costs, they can say 'Hey, that's crazy. You're spending way too much money, and way too much time, and 'No. You're not going there.'
"So you have to look at it with an open mind, for where the sport is.
"Now, 'old school,' I wouldn't like it. But to help ensure this sport is here 10 years from now, this is probably what had to be done."