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Kligerman: NASCAR teams blowing money on an idea whose time has gone with the wind

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If I asked “What is the sport’s single biggest issue?” to 10 people in racing, nine would have a single-word reply.

Money.

The other would rant about something to the effect of “Better back in ’86! Cuz Earnnnnhardt! Real tracks! Real men! Marlboro Reds!” Anyone my age or 20 years my senior would agree out of fear but counter with a tepid smile and say, “The racing is better now.”

And it is, but for some reason I can’t explain, we continually self-inflict pain in the form of unnecessary expenditures.

Back in 2011, I was driving for Brad Keselowski Racing, which was then a small, upstart truck series team (it since has evolved into a major contender with significant Ford support). It was my first chance at a full-time ride in NASCAR.

The deal came together incredibly late for this young, naive, hopeful driver. The ride was supposed to go to someone who had more funding. I had fended them off using the incredible dark witchcraft of … a cell phone.

Months into the endeavor, our corporate helpers had arranged quite an exciting opportunity. Our small team would get “wind tunnel time,” which is how it works for most. The manufacturer buys a massive quantity of hours and then resells or allocates time to teams.

In modern-day racing, this is the equivalent of an Old West miner using a machine to sort through mountain sides. No guarantee of success, but he should be able to find gold a lot quicker.

But wind tunnel time is more expensive than gold. An hour in the more advanced of the two wind tunnels in Charlotte, N.C., can cost upward of $8,000.

The current price of an ounce of gold? $1,213

For my small team, it potentially meant discovering all the secret aerodynamic bits that the rest of the teams already knew. Our gold would come in the form of increased speed.

With very limited engineering staff, our team went to the wind tunnel. And as young drivers do to show we are willing to “learn,” I went along.

After what seemed an eternity of setup and calibration, the wind tunnel fired to life. About 3 minutes later, it all started to quiet down.

I had seen nothing. You couldn’t see the air. It was simply a loud noise. Then everything stopped.

We hovered around a small laptop to see the downforce numbers. To our dismay, the gains were nil. No worries, we had eight more hours to figure it out.

Over the next eight hours. I believe we found about a half-count of downforce. On the last run, I had grown angry as a 20-year-old driver who put everything on the line and raised an insane amount of money to simply race in circles.

It all seemed insane.

Instead of air flowing over the truck, I imagined dollar bills gracefully flowing over the front nose, the windshield and the roof. The wasted cash slammed forcefully into the spoiler and then disappeared into the exhaust tunnel, eventually funneling directly into the pockets of the owner of this building and its giant fan.

Here we were wasting time trying to learn something everyone in the sport already knew. It was incredibly frustrating to spend so many precious dollars with zero quantifiable gain for the sport.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A brief history on wind tunnels. They initially were constructed more than 100 years ago for the study of air over solid objects and were used in early airplane development, military applications and the space program — one of the most famous tunnels is adjacent to a NASA research base in Langley, Va. The automobile and racing industries discovered practical uses for cars in wind tunnels around the same time.  As seen in the photo with this column, tunnels still remain used for development of Detroit production lines structured around optimizing fuel efficiency )

In the early years of auto racing, aerodynamics were as mysterious as the outer reaches of space. But in the last 15 years, I would argue that nothing of actual real world value has been gained from rolling a stock car into a wind tunnel.

The basics and the complexities are all known quantities. We are simply spending money within a very small box, all trying to reach the exact same conclusion.

The worst part is the byproduct: Consistently allowing the racing to become more aero dependent. No matter how often we lower the spoiler, or cut the splitter or change the rules. The teams will go to the wind tunnel and gain it back. It’s one of the world’s most expensive games of cat and mouse.

And I guarantee that no fan has ever said to another, “Man I just love that Matt Kenseth is leading this race because he has 20 more counts of downforce that his engineers found in the wind tunnel over Jimmie Johnson in second place.”

If those words ever have been uttered, I will eat one of the Nike shoes I wore on my ride up to Colossus at Bristol.

The thing is, we simply need to aim at providing our fans with great racing. Because the teams and manufacturers all know how generally to approach aerodynamics, there are no secrets anymore. There’s just unnecessary engineering for the sake of existence.

It’s a bit like a single young man who desperately wants a girlfriend. He buys expensive clothes, gets a snazzy haircut with expensive gel and buys a car he can’t possibly afford — all to impress a young lass.

Eventually they meet, and after 10 minutes of initially seeming madly in love, she’ll tell him she really just loves him for his jokes, laugh and kind nature — and hates his very expensive “ugly car.”

He therefore decides to buy more expensive clothes and a more expensive car.

It’s this sort of waste of precious dollars that is causing the biggest issue in racing.

We don’t have a funding problem. We have a spending problem.

And the wind tunnel uses its turbine fins to whip up an exorbitant amount of that spending.

Let’s ban the wind tunnels and stop this conspicuous consumption.

My proposition is to allow the manufacturers two full days of wind tunnel time at the beginning of each season. They are allowed to bring two cars of their choice from each series in which they race. After their two days are up, no NASCAR vehicle can enter a wind tunnel until the next year.

Compared to the 300-plus hours Cup teams annually spend in wind tunnels, this would be the largest cost savings the sport has seen.

I know there is one entity that will strongly disagree: The owners of the wind tunnels. But I am sorry. My fear is if we don’t do this soon, wind tunnels will face a lack of business anyway. Not because of an indifference to knowledge.

Because there won’t be any race teams left to gain the knowledge.

NASCAR America: Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones get a feel of how Olympians train (video)

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NASCAR drivers talk almost continuously about how they have to be in top physical condition to endure sometimes often very difficult conditions while on a racetrack and behind the wheel.

One only needs to look at seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to see the rewards of being fit.

But going to one of the Olympic training centers in the U.S. is a whole other thing, something that separates folks who think they’re fit from those that really are.

Ask Toyota drivers like Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, who recently participated in a two-day training session at an Olympic training facility.

We wouldn’t be surprised if they’re still nursing sore muscles, given the workouts they endured – and which gave them new appreciation for what many Olympians must go through to be the best.

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NASCAR America: Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch ready for Daytona fireworks (video)

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NASCAR’s summer classic, the Coke Zero 400, celebrates this country’s independence, its military heroes and concludes with a great fireworks show.

But as Clint Bowyer and this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Kurt Busch, will vouch for, there’s also a lot of fireworks during the race, as the 2.5-mile, high-banked tri-oval can be one of the most difficult and intimidating places to race upon.

If a driver isn’t dodging fellow drivers, he or she is trying to stay in the draft to gain forward movement and momentum. Unfortunately, a lot of times when dodging and draft collide, so too do a lot of cars and drivers, as well.

It may not be the Daytona 500, but winning at Daytona in July is still a big prize that everyone wants to win. And don’t forget, because it’s Daytona, it’s also a place to be careful at because of the danger that can pop up at any moment.

Find out why by clicking on the above video.

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NASCAR America: Steve Letarte kicks off weekly feature honoring pit crews (video)

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They’re the unsung heroes of NASCAR, the guys who typically don’t get enough praise when things go right, and then oftentimes have the finger of blame pointed at them when things go wrong.

We’re talking about one of the most important jobs in NASCAR: pit crew member.

Starting with Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, a guy who knows a lot about pit crews – former crew chief turned NBC NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte – kicked off a feature that will run each week for the 20 remaining weeks of the season.

Letarte’s series will spotlight the importance of pit crews, and he’ll also choose pit crew all-stars to recognize their contributions to the sport and their perseverance on pit road.

This week’s first bunch of pit crew all-stars are Caleb Hurd, gasman for Denny Hamlin; Jeff Zarella, tire specialist for Kurt Busch and Frank Mathalia, engine tuner for Austin Dillon.

Give them and their peers some love and check out the above video.

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants one final Daytona win for himself and his father (video)

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Daytona International Speedway has been a bittersweet place for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It’s been the place of his biggest NASCAR Cup career wins, including the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014.

But it’s also the same place where he lost his father  in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Now, Earnhardt returns to the “World Center of Speed” for what will be the final time in his 18-year NASCAR Cup career.

On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Earnhardt reflected upon all the good and bad Daytona has meant to him and his family.

On his first time back to Daytona after his father’s death nearly five months earlier: “Once we got to Daytona, we drove by the racetrack, pulled in, parked in Turn 3, got out and walked around. The track was empty, quiet and I’d never been to the crash site. That’s where dad, in my mind, lost his life. That was where we all remember him last.”

Returning to Daytona for the first time after his father’s death there: “I felt like that was a place I wanted to visit. And every time I go to Daytona, even today, I go around that racetrack, I look at that spot, I look at that knoll of grass before the exit of Turn 4. I wanted to go there and see how I felt and see what kind of emotions happened so that I could get whatever was going to be out of the way.

“I told myself what I was going through is the same sadness that some guy somewhere in the Midwest is dealing with right now. Who am I to go on and on about how hard it was, because somebody, somewhere right now is dealing with a loss.”

How he wishes his father was still here to see the man and driver he’s become: “I’d have loved it if he’d stuck around a lot longer, but that’s not the way it was supposed to be. And we figured out how to make it (when he won the 2001 Coke Zero 400 in his father’s honor).”

On wanting to win one last time at Daytona in a Cup car this Saturday night: “I’d love to win at Daytona and add another win to the Earnhardt column. Every time I win there, I think it’s another win for me and dad because his success there stretches far beyond the Daytona 400 and July 400. But any time I win there, that’s one more stake in the ground that we claim this track as a place we dominate.”

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