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