May 312015

(Please read Part I and Part II first.)

So what do we do to bring genuine excitement back to NASCAR?

I envision a template for a NASCAR race car that specifies dimension ranges, including length, width, height, and weight. Ample safety standards would remain in place, to include full roll cage, racing harness, on-board fire suppression, semi-active aerodynamics (integrated body flaps designed to prevent rollover, for example), and the like. It’s a short, but important, list of requirements, primarily intended to prevent the sport from being needlessly dangerous.

And then, we put the “stock” back in “stock car racing.”

I think we need to return genuine production-based homologation to NASCAR. I think a manufacturer’s entry should be based on a street-legal car for sale to the general public, in quantities of at least 5,000 per year. All of the production car’s body panels must be used, with simple rules permitting ground effect additions that are necessary on a racetrack but impractical on the street. Race-specific spoilers? Nope. It’s on the race car only if it’s on the production car.

Now, here’s my favorite part.

The engine and transmission must be identical to those in the production car for sale to the general public. The only permitted modification would be removal of emissions controls.

Ridiculous? Is it really? You know there’s a 707-horsepower Dodge Challenger for sale, right? How much power would that thing make without street exhaust and a catalytic converter?

Standardize on 93-octane unleaded gasoline. Any powertrain is permitted, so long as it is identical to that in a car sold in quantities of at least 5,000 per year to the general public. Each manufacturer would declare a single entry for a season some months in advance, so NASCAR could develop appropriate inspection protocols. (I don’t see needing much. I think engine management software would be the area to police most closely.)

I remember reading an old Junior Johnson interview where he talked about dreading “driver meetings” in the early days of the sport. He said officials would come through and announce a “driver meeting,” and what that almost always meant was “Junior’s found another way to whip all our asses, so we’re going to take it away from him.”

Well, there are no cheats with my plan. Where would they be? Essentially, if a car hits all of the dimension windows and safety requirements, and the sheet metal and engine pass pre- and post-race inspection, you’re good. If it doesn’t and/or they don’t, you’re not.

Now my 5,000-per-year number is relatively high. The last time NASCAR had such a requirement, it was 200 per year. I’m thinking that’ll keep a manufacturer from fielding some 1,500-hp monster or something, because they’d have to sell 5,000 of them. If it costs too much, they won’t be able to do that.

But think about all of the variability my approach would introduce! Wouldn’t it be awesome to have manufacturers solving the power problem in different ways, then going head-to-head? This one’s quicker to speed, but that one’s more efficient. This one’s stronger at higher altitudes than that one. Remember what a technological showcase the Indianapolis 500 used to be? What if NASCAR stole that entire dynamic?

And win on Sunday, sell on Monday? Oh, big-time. If the car really does look like the race car, and the owner knows s/he’s got the same engine as his/her hero?

I’m sure there are all kinds of ways people who make a lot of money right now would not make a lot of money under my proposed restructuring. Plus, NASCAR’s never had much of a reputation for transparent operation in the first place. So I don’t have any real hope that anything like my proposal would ever come to pass. I’m simply imagining a highly entertaining shot in the arm for a series that has stumbled into formula racing and is rather ill-suited for it.

I enjoyed following my thinking on these three posts. Thanks for indulging me!

 Posted by at 7:00 pm
May 312015

(Please read Part I of this post first.)

NASCAR has become boring for one big reason. It has completely lost the stock car narrative.

There are two especially colorful bits of culture that inform the birth of NASCAR. The first is that the sport was full of guys who built their skills—driving and turning the wrench—running moonshine. The second is that the sport started really taking off at the beach. The first big races in Daytona used the beach as one straightaway and the beach road as the other.

So in the very earliest races, it was common to drive to the track, tape up the headlights, roll down the windows, slap a number on, and go. “Run whatcha brung.” They really were “stock” cars, hence the term “stock car racing.” You made a race car out of something that was initially sold at a dealership.

Now of course, there was performance-oriented tweaking from the beginning. And as safety regulations came on board, the cars started changing in some bigger ways. You can’t purchase a grocery-getter at the Ford store with a full roll cage and five-point racing harness. But the bodies kept large strands of recognizable DNA common to both the street and the track all the way through my childhood. Do you remember the Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe?


The slanted front was common to all Monte Carlo SSs of this generation. What made it an Aerocoupe was that extended and slanted backlight. This car came about because the Ford Thunderbird was eating the Monte Carlo’s lunch aerodynamically on the racetrack. NASCAR required that any car body run in the series had to be available for sale to the public.

That term “stock car” making a bit more sense now? Hard to believe looking at the formless blobs of today, isn’t it?

Of course, said formless blobs haven’t a single nut or bolt in common with their ostensible street counterparts today. They’re also all essentially identical to each other, with only the tiniest bodywork details differing from one make to another. And here we have NASCAR’s problem.

Primarily in the pursuit of safety, NASCAR has allowed its very spirit to be overwhelmed. Today’s NASCAR is formula racing, when it was founded specifically not to be formula racing.

The term racing formula is usually applied to open-wheel series, but I think it applies here. It is the set of regulations with which a car must comply to compete. In today’s NASCAR, every millimeter of the car is regulated, with hundreds of pages of requirements. The pre-race and post-race inspections are beyond rigorous; the violations, frequently absurd-sounding.

The problem with NASCAR’s formula is not necessarily that it has one, but how it has come about. IndyCar and F1 formulae are intended from inception to produce dedicated race cars. However, NASCAR has a set of regulations it applies to race cars that are spiritually descended from cars that were not dedicated race cars, but were instead turned into race cars.

So it’s formula racing, but it’s a formula that generates a primitive race car. Pushrods. Recirculating ball steering. Ton and a half of curb weight. Handling? Yeah, sort of. Sometimes NASCAR apologists will try to zing me by saying their cars are harder to drive than IndyCars. I’ve never understood why that’s supposed to be such a devastating point. Yeah, they’re hard to drive. It’d be tough to drive a dump truck that way too. What’s the difference?

So what’s to be done? Well, I have an interesting answer, but it seems I’m long. I didn’t know I was headed for a Part III, but I am. Watch for it. (And that really will be it.)

(Continue to Part III.)

 Posted by at 2:24 pm
May 302015

Before I get into this, let me assure you that my NASCAR fan pedigree is pure—hardcore, even.

I lived in Anniston, Alabama—20 minutes from what was then known as the Alabama International Motor Speedway—until I was 15 years old. I enthusiastically attended many Winston 500s and Talladega 500s. (That’s not what they’re named anymore, but no one I knew ever called them that anyway. They were “the May race” and “the summer race.” It was always about 175 degrees at the summer race, which is most of the reason it’s in October now.)  Went to school with Don Naman‘s kids. Saw, live and in person, Bill Elliott run his record lap around Talladega, a hair’s width from 213 mph. Dad gave me a subscription to the Southern MotoRacing newspaper every year for my birthday.


Photo credit: Ted Van Pelt

I’ve been paying attention for a very long time. I’ve been right up next to it. I dug it. Still do, in some ways.

However, I quit following it actively for 2015, and even had a smart-alecky bullet or two in a Thursday miscellanea about it. All of the manufactured drama surrounding the chase, or the shootout, or whatever it’s called now led to street fighting that NASCAR sort-of-but-not-really scolded the participants about. Between that and Kurt Busch babbling about secret agents and assassins and whatever else, it all just got a little too pro-wrestling for me.

(But psssst…that probably wouldn’t have done it in for me were the on-track product more exciting. But it’s not. It’s boring. On the whole, in 2015, NASCAR is boring.)

Admittedly, there are still moments. Darlington is reliably entertaining because it’s so technical and unforgiving. Michigan is great because it’s long, but it’s not banked much at all, so they don’t run restrictor plates. It’s really the only fast NASCAR track left.

Speaking of, restrictor plate races are the worst. I remember when a start or restart at Talladega gave you genuine chills. Today, it takes the drivers a lap and a half—four miles!—just to get up to full speed. That green flag waves, and all you really notice is the pitch of the engines changes a little. There is certainly no lunge from the pack. It’s like watching 40 school buses huff and puff. (IndyCar drivers are going 200 mph by Turn 1 at Indianapolis, and they’re at 225+ next time across the bricks.)

Mind, I understand and agree with the rationale. It was the year after we moved so I wasn’t there, but my dad’s business partner was sitting on the front straightaway when Bobby Allison had the accident that brought us restrictor plates (and better catch fences):

Several spectators were injured, but on balance, there was a lot of luck here. Watch that again, keeping in mind that the fence was utterly destroyed. Had it given half a second sooner, with the car carrying that much more energy into the stands, it might have killed 100 people.

So something had to be done. The problem with the response was the same as the problem with the response to Dale Earnhardt’s death (which ultimately brought us the Car of Tomorrow).

There is no genuine innovation.

Are the drivers, crews, and fans safer? Unquestionably. But they’d have been safer if we’d just shut the whole thing down too. So in some ways, that’s a rather academic point.

Bobby Allison’s 1987 accident and Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001 were two large opportunities to rethink the entire sport, and they were both squandered.

So what’s to be done?

Stay tuned, dudes and dolls.

(Read Part II.)

 Posted by at 10:56 pm
May 292015

I remember being in the fourth grade and sitting in Mrs. Dillard’s room watching a film about the Holocaust. I remember seeing footage of repurposed agricultural equipment moving literal bucketloads of gassed Jews’ corpses around like dirt, filling huge mass graves with them.

It was the first time I saw such vivid and graphic imagery of the horrors of the Third Reich. It definitely stuck with me. And yet, I feel it far more horribly today than I did then. For one thing, I can look back and realize that when I was watching that film, I was watching something that happened only 35 years earlier. Well, now I can remember things—lots of things—that happened 35 years ago. It’s not such a long time, you know?

For another, I think parenthood brings devastating perspective to it. Imagining these atrocities visited upon ourselves is nothing compared to imagining them happening to our children.

ilsungWe say “never again” because it’s what we say. But, as Jonah Goldberg wrote in a 2009 piece that I credit with sparking my sustained interest in North Korea, we must not mean it.

I don’t know that enough folks walking around grasp the true nature of North Korea. It makes headlines for its nuclear weapons program, but it should, much more, for its shameful and severe human rights abuses. It’s not a place where really bad things happen to a few people. It’s a place where really bad things happen to nearly everyone, and unspeakably horrible things happen to a lot of those.

The world has never seen a cult of personality to rival that around Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il before him, and Kim Il-sung before him. Question their supreme leadership—either outright, or by doing something foolish like owning a radio that receives other than state-approved frequencies—and you could find yourself in one of the dozens of prison or reeducation camps filling the valleys of the mountainous terrain. Your kids and their kids will probably go, too.

North Korea officially denies the existence of these camps, either outright or by claiming gross misrepresentation of their purposes. (This denial continues despite satelliterepatriate photography and ample testimony of people who actually made it out.) Several hundred thousand people are held. Some die every day. More arrive every day. Starvation, torture, infanticide, rape, public execution—all commonplace.

About a year ago I read The Aquariums of Pyongyang. The author, Kang Chol-hwan, beginning at age nine, spent ten years of his life in Yodok concentration camp because his family was considered politically unreliable.

“I will face execution if I reveal the secrets of Yodok.”

– written oath all released Yodok prisoners must sign

The book is primarily an account of his time in Yodok, but that time is bookended with what his life in North Korea was like before his imprisonment, as well as his eventual defection and his work today. Of course, it is a deeply disturbing narrative, but it is also skillfully told and translated. I very much enjoyed reading the book.

It’s his work today I find fascinating and inspiring, and it’s a cause I’m proud to support.

To learn about the brutality of the North Korean regime is to fully realize the futility of bringing about its end externally. It’s completely implausible except by force, and given that a war with North Korea on day one would be a war with China on day two, that’s just not going to happen.

nkscKang Chol-hwan is president of the North Korea Strategy Center (Wikipedia link, organizational link). His organization undertakes many activities designed to bring about a free, open, and democratic North Korea. The one I find most fascinating is his systematic infiltration of North Korea with Western media, mostly on DVDs and USB thumb drives. What’s he sending? How about Friends? Desperate Housewives?

Kang likens the USB sticks to the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions. “When North Koreans watch Desperate Housewives, they see that Americans aren’t all war-loving imperialists,” Kang says. “They’re just people having affairs or whatever. They see the leisure, the freedom. They realize that this isn’t the enemy; it’s what they want for themselves. It cancels out everything they’ve been told. And when that happens, it starts a revolution in their mind.”

“For every USB drive I send across, there are perhaps 100 North Koreans who begin to question why they live this way. Why they’ve been put in a jar.”

That’s how it’s going to happen. That’s the only way it can happen. Seems like long odds there too, but if a man of Kang Chol-hwan’s background says it’s the best hope, then there must be something to it. He may be the most qualified person on the planet to speak on the issue.

Donations are accepted here. I don’t ask you, my dear readers, to support specific causes very often, but please consider this one. The North Korean regime is an atrocity in every sense of the word, and I would love to live long enough to see its destruction.

Wouldn’t you love to be able to say you helped it along?

 Posted by at 6:00 am
May 282015
  • I missed Texas this week because of a longtime friend’s going-away. I’ll have to make up for that.
  • We’re replacing Lea’s car this year. That means I’m in touch with a dear old friend, classmate, and colleague. That means I’m hanging out at Jerry Damson Honda shootin’ it. And I find out a fellow who gave me, in 1993, a crash course in human relations that I still use daily is still down there turning the crank. Great to see you, Buddy! God bless!
  • Related, for deep insiders: dug the Blues Brothers’ “Soul Man” on the way home one night this week. Play it, Steve!
  • Steve‘s still around. We lost Duck a few years back. RIP. It was, indeed, a band that could turn goat piss into gasoline.
  • The Indy 500 kicks off a great several weeks for the IndyCar Series. We have a double-header in Detroit this weekend, and Texas the weekend following. Back to Fontana at the end of June. I love this sport.
  • If you’re a hardcore vegetarian, you probably ought to look into what carmine is.
  • Ever wondered whether the Hells Angels have a FAQ? They do. (Spoiler: the missing apostrophe isn’t really missing.)
 Posted by at 12:01 am
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