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NASCAR execs: To test, or not to test, that's the question. But, gosh, how expensive are these race simulation programs anyway?

  Team owner Jack Roush: open up testing again. And Jeff Gordon and Richard Childress agree. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Here's the question NASCAR executives are facing:
   Would it be cheaper just to open up track testing again for Sprint Cup teams, or to let the technological warfare game of computerized race simulations keep expanding?
   Even Jeff Gordon seems to be coming down on the side of at-track testing more, though not wide-open, like in the good ol' days: "I like the opportunity to be able to go to the tracks that we race on and get data. The 'old' policy of being able to do like five tests, and you'd chose those five.
    "It wouldn't be a bad idea to open it up to a certain level....but I don't think it should be just wide open.
    "I think NASCAR might be looking into some of those ideas."
   When NASCAR banned at-track testing two years ago, as a cost-cutting measure for Cup teams, it created yet a new expense for team owners – highly-technical computer simulation programs, which they have had to buy.
   The cheapest of those simulation programs costs several hundred-thousand dollars.
   The best will cost $1 million or more, according to crew chiefs. Plus various add-ins, which can cost $400,000 apiece.
   Add on the yearly 'subscription' service which the simulation companies insist up....and whatever other extras you might like, and it's a rather expensive substitution for at-track testing – particularly since these heavy stockers are infamously difficult to simulate.
    Tied into the simulations is some expensive equipment too, like those million-dollar seven-post 'shaker' rigs, which simulate the bumps and grinds of a 500-mile race.
    Throw in the Goodyear tire wild card data, and CalSpan tire testing (http://www.calspan.com/transportation/tireTesting.php ) and the whole thing looks very expensive.
    Certainly beyond the means of all but the largest teams.
    One of the companies that provides NASCAR simulations is well-known Pratt&Miller ( http://prattmiller.com/about.php ). That is the Detroit company that Chevrolet teams typically use.
    Teams, however, are secretive about all this, naturally.
    One of the best players in the simulation game is an Austrian company, which the Richard Childress operation is now reportedly using to help engineer its current turnaround.
    A good sim program can describe what the effects will be of things as minute as adding a square-inch of tape to the nose to improve handling.

   Jeff Gordon: open testing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Certainly the Joe Gibbs guys have a great sim program going. They've won seven of the last 11 races.
   And Rick Hendrick's guys too.
   But the gap between them and the smaller teams, like the Woods and Robby Gordon, appears to be growing larger and larger.
   Would half a dozen 'open' tests each season change the equation?
   Before the testing ban, teams estimated it cost about $50,000 for a two-day test.
   So what will NASCAR's Mike Helton decide to do about testing?
   Robin Pemberton, the sport's head of competition, says he and other NASCAR officials have been talking with drivers, team owners and crew chiefs about what to do about testing for the 2011 season, but no decision has yet been made.
   "We're early in the process of talking to the teams and seeing if there's a need," Pemberton said. "We're talking to see what people need to do, if anything.
  "A lot of people like what we're doing now; yes, they're spending money for simulation programs, but they're glad not to see their crews beating up and down the road."
    Are these simulation programs cheaper than just testing at the track itself?
   "I think sometimes they can be," Pemberton says.
   "There's a lot that goes into testing, remember. And sometimes you can go to the track and test, but other times you go to the track and the weather's wrong and you get nothing out of it.
    "It's all about risks and rewards.
    "Plus, some weekends there is not only Cup but Nationwide and Trucks and even Grand-Am and Modifieds.....
   "And even if you went in a day early, you'd still be bringing in extra engineers, and stuff like that.
   "So we're still in the process of digesting all that."

  NASCAR's Robin Pemberton (R) talks with Steve Letarte, Jeff Gordon's crew chief (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And what about the escalating technological gamesmanship in the field of race simulations?
   Pemberton points out that many teams have already invested heavily in that technology.
   Ford's Jack Roush, in fact, is preparing to ante up on his third simulation program, dissatisfied with what he's currently got to work with.
   Roush says his teams' computer simulations haven't been that good this season. "So we struggle through the first hour of practice, and then you have a baseline for Saturday practice....but you're behind the guys who have better simulation programs," Roush said.
    And when Roush talks with Helton about testing options?
    "When I talk to Mike Helton, he's always very interested and very courteous, and he's always interested in what my perspective is, in not only solving my problems but making it better for everyone in the garage," Roush says.
   "He has indicated they are looking at opening up testing. But he has not been specific about what the options are.
   "One of the things I've floated is a system of vouchers, that would let you test (at Cup tracks) before about a third of the races."
   That would be about 12 tracks. The previous testing policy allowed testing at about seven tracks during the season.
   Roush is adding another twist option too: "I'd like to see the tracks open up either Wednesday or Thursday before the race...and you could bring a Doolie with one extra car, and put your data acquisition equipment and telemetry on it.
   "That would save us travel time, because you'd already have your people at the track.
   "And we would not be as reliant on simulations as we are today."
    Gordon likes Roush's ideas: "I don't disagree. It could be adjusted some.
    "We're fighting so hard to get Goodyear tire tests now (the only at-track testing currently allowed). And even when we go do that, you're really working for Goodyear, and you're limited to what you can do.
    "But it's still valuable data."

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   Car owner Richard Childress: Is a new high-tech computer simulation race program helping his teams rebound? And how much does that cost? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

"Are these simulation

"Are these simulation programs cheaper than just testing at the track itself? "I think sometimes they can be," Pemberton says."

- That's a helluva lotta money to invest in a "think they can" notion vs testing of you got what you got data. Probably be cheaper to have a "rogue" race team to "rent" out the track "just" to have some fun and run around in circles and a occasional lefts & rights. Take the data, sell it to whomever or provide it for one source. NASCAR can't enforce that, (maybe the ISC tracks) that's up to the track's discretion. Better yet, could teams "masked" themselves within these "racing schools" all over the country? Who knows?

Testing on the real race

Testing on the real race tracks with the real race tires.
Give teams five 'vouchers' to test at whichever of the 22 tracks they want to, and open up five or six tracks a day early for pre-race testing (like Sonoma, and other long-distance tracks).
Racing schools as really testing in plain sight? Oh, these guys wouldn't pull anything like that, would they? lol.

Roush Wanting Testing

Its funny. Jack was the one complaining about Hendrick testing so much and he got behind because he wasn't testing. He wanted testing banned, so, NASCAR banned it. Now, he wants testing back because he is behind in race sim programs.

Wouldn't it be easier if Jack just kept up instead of crying to NASCAR about the world around him changing?

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Jack's not the only one

Jack's not the only one wanting testing opened up. So is Texas Motor Speedway's Eddie Gossage and other NASCAR promoters who are tired of non-NASCAR tracks getting the publicity and money for Cup testing. Why fly to Milwaukee to test for Loudon -- how much money does that save. And who's promoting what there? Jeff Gordon and Richard Childress both want testing opened too. And Greg Zipadelli points out that the best testing is at the real tracks with the real tires. The amazing expense of computerized testing is too much for smaller teams. NASCAR has to do something better to cut the expenses for team owners. When it takes $30 million or more to field a good Cup team, it's time to take action. Alan Kulwicki won the championship on a shoestring $1.8 million budget. Yes, times have changed...but the tracks are pretty much the same, the cars are pretty much the same. And while I'm ranting, why is NASCAR okay with 900 hp engines?

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