Friday 5: NASCAR’s Olympian looks ahead to sailing competition

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Tyler Paige, appearing on Zoom from a nondescript room in Japan while wearing a JR Motorsports T-shirt, reaches off screen to grab the credential that notes he’s an Olympic athlete and proudly shows it on the screen.

He tries to explain what it means to be an Olympian but stops.

“I’m rambling a bit,” he says.

He tries again.

“You think what that word means to be an Olympian,” he tells NBC Sports. “You can’t help but think back to people who have raced before you and have stood in that spotlight. It’s just an echelon of commitment and dedication so many before you have put into their sport. It’s also the global recognition of the event. What the Olympics means to me as both …”

He then stops.

“To be honest, I’m struggling to put it into words is the shortest answer,” he says. “It’s just such an honor.”

The 25-year-old engineer from New York City, who was working at JR Motorsports last year before taking a leave, will represent American Samoa in sailing. Once the Tokyo Olympics end, he looks to return to JR Motorsports and continue his career in NASCAR.

Paige’s path to NASCAR and the Olympics is one that started by chance.

While a junior studying mechanical engineering at Tufts University, he and his father attended the CES electronics show in Las Vegas. At one booth, Hisense, a sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing, had a racing simulator. The company held a contest for those who raced on the simulator. The prize was to attend the Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 2017. Paige won the trip, which included sitting on the pit box for Denny Hamlin’s team in that race.

It was not the cars that wowed Paige that day but the crew chief and engineers working in front of him on the pit box.

“At this point I was already really interested in NASCAR,” Paige said. “I got the opportunity to see (the crew chief and engineers) in action. …  I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

Tyler Paige, who will compete in Olympic sailing, in American Samoa (Photo: Tyler Paige)

He began to attend races and talk to crew members about what they did and how he could get into the sport. He was told that if he was serious, he needed to go to the Charlotte, North Carolina area where the teams are located.

Paige did. He says his sailing background also helped get an opportunity in the NASCAR because of the similarities between the sports.

His introduction to sailing came when he was 9 years old and took part in a sailing class in Connecticut.

“I got the bug as soon as I jumped into the boat,” he said. “I loved being on the water.”

That became a passion. While he attended high school in Brooklyn, he would spend weekends sailing.

“Saturday and Sundays would be 8 1/2- to 9-hour days on the water sometimes, and you would have an hour debrief after you got off the water,” he said. “It was very full on being out there. It was just draining. You got to love it to put that time into. There’s no place I would rather be.”

He moved up the ranks in sailing. Paige reached 20th in the world in 2015 in the men’s 420 category — what he terms the Xfinity Series of sailing when compared to the 470 category that he competes in at the Olympics.

Sailing took him throughout the world and when the chance came to help rebuild the sailing program in American Samoa, Paige quickly volunteered.

“There are some really talented kids coming up in the pipeline right now,” Paige said. “We’ve gotten them the opportunity to race in the Pacific Games. I really want to see them race in the Youth Worlds, which is the Olympic Games for kids (age 19 and under). I want to see them race in the world championships. I really want to get these kids in the pipeline that they can someday be at … an Olympics of their own and race with the American Samoa flag on this world stage.”

That connection and the chance to represent American Samoa in the Olympics led Paige, who represented the U.S. at the 2018 Junior 470 world championship, to seek and receive approval from U.S. Sailing in September 2019 to switch his nationality to American Samoa. The International Olympic Committee Executive Board approved the change this past May.

Paige was in position to join JR Motorsports in January 2020 but that was shortly before a qualifying race. The opportunity with the race team was put on hold so Paige could attempt to make the Olympics.

When the pandemic struck, Paige went back to work at the New York company where he had been a robotics engineer. He helped design parts for the ventilators the company built. Paige reached out to JR Motorsports last summer. With sailing still on hold, he began working for the Xfinity team in September. He stayed through February before refocusing on the sailing season.

While at JRM, he did a variety of jobs that went beyond engineering duties.

“They wanted me to do some things that were more mechanically based,”he said. “Maybe an engineer wouldn’t normally do that, but this way I could learn the cars better.”

That included helping tear down a car after a race, working on setups and preparing the vehicle for the next race.

He looks forward to doing that again but his focus is on sailing. The first of 10 Olympic heats is July 28.

Paige knows what kind of a challenge he faces.

“As far as what we’re trying to do here, we’re trying to … show that we’re here to race and finish as high up in the rankings as we can,” he said. “I don’t know what that is going to be right now. We’re definitely the underdogs going into this.

“I’m just so excited to be out on the water and see what I’m capable of. and we’re just going to push ourselves to the limit. … We’ll cross the finish line someplace and see where it is.”

MORE: How to watch Olympic Opening Ceremony

MORE: Tokyo Olympics daily schedule

While the speeds are much slower, Paige notes sailing and auto racing share some common traits.

“The way the boats race each other and the way the cars race each other is actually not that different,” he said. “The name of the game is dirty air. You see it on the racetrack, you see it on the water.”

He compares the start of a sailing event to what NASCAR group qualifying was like when the field would wait on pit road, jockeying for position, before making a late run in the session.

In sailing, teams get a five-minute countdown to the start of the event.

“In those five minutes we’re doing whatever we want,” he said. “We’re jockeying with each other. We’re trying to set ourselves up so right before the start line we can accelerate our boat and be just below the start line ready to cross it when the clock hits zero all the way full speed.

“Once we start our races, dirty air is the name of the game. Every inch you lose to the boats around you in the first 100 meters of the race is 100 feet at the end of the race. That’s the way they say it.

“As boats start to creep up ahead, you start casting dirty air on the boats around you and we start creating turbulence. If you screw up the start, you’re going to be in a whole world of hurt the rest of the race just trying to get through that dirty air and climb up through the field.”

Paige is one of two people on the boat. He drives the boat by hanging off the edge of it.

“The boat, it has a bunch of power that is trying to tip it over,” he said. “Any force you can put to keep it from doing that, to keep it upright, becomes speed. The way we do it, I’m in toe straps where I’m driving the boat from. As the wind picks up and we’re starting to get more and more power, I’m getting further and further out there just trying to press against the sails, just to get the boat to go faster.”

Sounds just like a racer, anything to go faster.

2. One thing leads to another

Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing, says he would talk to Brad Keselowski about two or three times a year, discussing the state of the sport.

It was through those conversations Newmark found that he and Keselowski viewed things similarly with the Next Gen car and what teams will need to do. As they talked, Newmark noted the team’s need for a succession plan to car owner Jack Roush, and Keselowski expressed his vision of team ownership.

Those talks led to the move that was announced this past week that Keselowski will join the team in 2022 as a driver, part owner and key figure in the organization’s competition department.

Car owner Jack Roush and Brad Keselowski at the announcement that Keselowski will drive for Roush Fenway Racing in 2022 and be a part-owner in the team. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I think what really came to light is we had a shared vision of what it would take in the Next Gen world to succeed,” Newmark said. “I do think if I look at it, the stars were somewhat aligned, the timing was right. (Keselowski) was looking a lot at his post-racing career. We were looking at a succession plan for Jack and then you have Next Gen happening at the same time.

“We’ve already talked about upgrading facilities, expanding in certain areas of engineering that we think are going to be critical for Next Gen. He had the exact same views of it. It was more of an affirmation of what we think needs to be done and for us to share that our existing owners are committed to investing in those areas going forward.”

Some would raise questions about Keselowski, 37, going to a team that hasn’t won a Cup race since 2017.

“There’s always going to be those concerns, but with the Next Gen car, I want to expedite this process as fast as possible,” Keselowski said. “And I think it gives us an opportunity to do just that.

“I know it’s probably going to be more complicated than just bringing in a new car. We’ll have to do a lot of other work as well, but if there ever was an opportunity. This is it. To expedite that process. Certainly there will be some teething pains, and I fully recognize that, but I’m committed to working with people to get through that as fast as possible in getting us to where we need to be.

“The competition side has always interested me. As a driver, I control certain parts of the performance of the car but not all. When you potentially are contending for championships, you want to make sure you have the maximum impact possible. Part of living up to the maximum potential that I have. I don’t feel like I’ve lived up to that. I feel I have a lot more to offer than being just a race car driver. And short of having won championships in the last few years, I haven’t achieved that.”

3. Adding teams?

One of the questions from this week’s announcement that Brad Keselowski will join Roush Fenway Racing as a driver/owner in 2022, is will the organization return to the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series?

Roush has five Xfinity Series titles and one Truck title. The organization last competed in Xfinity in 2018. The team’s last Truck race was in 2009.

“If you went and talked to Jack (Roush) right now, he would tell you that we should be in Xfinity and Trucks,” said Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing. “That is just his approach to all this.

“Brad and I have had some discussions as we continue to get our feet under us with this new organization. We’ll explore that going forward.

“We want to be a development organization. We’ve got two strong series beneath us to do that. It is not on the table right now. Getting back to our first first priority is making sure these two (Cup) teams are in the playoffs and competitive every week.”

4. The value of stage points

With four races left in the regular season, stage points are playing a key role in how the standings look.

Denny Hamlin remains the points leader despite not winning a race this season. He has a 13-point lead on Kyle Larson. One of the keys is that Hamlin’s 250 stage points are only three behind Larson’s series-high total. By staying even with Larson, Hamlin has been able to maintain his spot atop the season standings.

The series leader at the end of the regular season gets 15 playoff points. The driver second in the standings gets 10. Those five extra playoff points could be critical.

Also, William Byron, who is in third in the standings, ranks third in stage points scored (193). Those stage points have helped him stay ahead of Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in the standings.

Byron leads Busch by nine points in the standings. A key difference is that Byron has outscored Busch by 26 stage points this season.

Byron leads Logano by 16 points in the standings. The difference is stage points. Byron has outscored Logano by 43 stage points.

Tyler Reddick leads Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon for the final playoff spot by five points. Reddick has scored 24 more stage points than Dillon this season (95-71).

NASCAR Cup Series NASCAR All-Star Race
Stage points have helped keep William Byron (24) ahead of Kyle Busch (18) in the season standings. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Here is a look, via Racing Insights, of the stage points scored by drivers this season:

253 — Kyle Larson

250 — Denny Hamlin

193 — William Byron

174 — Chase Elliott

167 — Kyle Busch

158 — Ryan Blaney

150 — Martin Truex Jr.

150 — Joey Logano

135 — Brad Keselowski

116 — Alex Bowman

110 — Kurt Busch

105 — Kevin Harvick

95 — Tyler Reddick

71 — Austin Dillon

67 — Christopher Bell

50 — Bubba Wallace

43 — Chris Buescher

34 — Aric Almirola

33 — Daniel Suarez

31 — Michael McDowell

31 — Matt DiBenedetto

25 — Ross Chastain

25 — Ryan Preece

25 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

17 — Ryan Newman

14 — Chase Briscoe

10 — Corey LaJoie

4 — Erik Jones

4 — Cole Custer

5. Looking ahead

Chase Elliott is entered in the BC39 midget race at the dirt track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the speedway announced Thursday.

The event is Aug. 18-19 and follows the Aug. 15 Cup race at IMS.

This is another midget car race Elliott is running to gain experience in these cars and hone his racing skills. It also puts on him track to again enter the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma next year. That event is scheduled for Jan. 10-15.

The list of NASCAR drivers competing there has grown in recent years. Kyle Larson has won the event the past two years. Christopher Bell won it the previous three years.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished seventh in last year’s year. Other Cup drivers who competed at Chili Bowl last year were Chase Briscoe, Ryan Newman, Garrett Smithley and Elliott. Xfinity drivers Justin Allgaier, Brett Moffitt and J.J. Yeley also competed. Matt DiBenedetto recently expressed interest in doing so after driving a midget.

“I just wanted to see how I adapted to it, how quick could I adapt to it and maybe think about running the Chili Bowl,” DiBenedetto said earlier this month. “I’m not sure. First step was just to kind of see how I ran and obviously NASCAR takes first priority, so I’ll see where things lead me for next year and all that stuff. It has to play out, but it was awesome. I took to it way faster than expected.”

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New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.

Friday 5: Clash at Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing

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Mired in traffic was not where Chris Buescher expected to be. Sure, he knew that racing 22 cars on a quarter-mile track inside a stadium that has hosted the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Series would put him in tight confines, but when the green flag waved for last year’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Buescher was in traffic on the freeway.

He was headed to the airport — along with the rest of RFK Racing. 

Both Buescher and team owner Brad Keselowski failed to make last year’s feature, sending them home earlier than expected.

“A punch to the gut,” Buescher told NBC Sports.

NASCAR’s return to the Coliseum for Sunday’s Clash is not a redemption tour for RFK Racing, said Jeremy Thompson, the team’s vice president of race operations. He calls it a reset.

That’s what last year was thought to be with Keselowski leaving Team Penske to become an owner/driver of an organization that had gone more than four years without a points victory before 2022. The Clash was a chance for RFK Racing to show its new direction.

Instead, RFK Racing and Spire Motorsports were the only multi-car teams not to have a car in the feature.

“Yes, it was not a points race, but it just looked bad,” Buescher said. “And it was bad. It hurt our feelings more than anybody else’s, I promise.”

Through that disappointment, lessons were learned.

“We didn’t have a lack of hunger that was holding us back,” Keselowski said of last year’s Clash. “We had a lack of understanding our vehicle dynamics. Understanding was just not good enough on a lot of levels.

“We continue to invest in resources and people to continue to push that forward to where we can go to events like that and feel that we’re a threat to win and we’re not just trying to make the race.

“I don’t think I understood that when I came in, where we were at as a company on the vehicle dynamics side.”

It was clear immediately that Buescher and Keselowski were in trouble. Buescher was 21st on the speed chart in practice; Keselowski was 33rd of 36 cars. 

“The car bounced so bad that I thought we were going to rip the transmission right out,” Buescher said of last year’s Clash weekend. “We spent all of practice trying to make the car just drive in a circle vs. trying to make it faster. We missed … before we ever left (the shop).”

Said Thompson about last year’s Clash: “I felt like our effort going into that was exceptionally high. We left no stone unturned. We just turned over some of the wrong stones.”

Two weeks later, both Keselowski and Buescher won their qualifying races at Daytona, but there was much work to do to overcome flaws with other parts of their program.

“We’re pushing really hard on vision and values of what it takes to be a high performer at this level, whether that is getting all the details right in the shop or on the road,” Keselowski said.

RFK Racing learned from its struggles early in the season, particularly with its short track program. Buescher, who had never placed better than 16th at Phoenix at the time, finished 10th there last March, a little more than a month after the Clash. He called his top 10 that day “a small win.”

Progress continued but it was not quick. Buescher placed third at Richmond last August before winning the Bristol night race in the playoffs. Keselowski was seventh at New Hampshire last July and won the first stage at the Bristol night race in September before a flat tire ruined his chances.

Keselowski acknowledges that turning RFK Racing into a team that can contend weekly for wins will take some time, but he sees progress.

“We’re not everywhere we need to be, but we definitely have a plan to get there,” he said. “Navigating that plan is challenging, but we’re on a path.”

2. Why not more horsepower?

NASCAR will take what it learned in last week’s Phoenix test to the wind tunnel on Feb. 13. If the wind tunnel test of short track enhancements goes well, changes could be implemented before the April 2 race at Richmond.

The changes being tested in the wind tunnel are a smaller spoiler (2 inches) and some adjustments to the underbody of the car. 

Still, one suggestion drivers often make is to give them more horsepower.

“I think there’s a misconception that we could take the existing engines and just throw 200 horsepower in it,” said John Probst, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, in response to a question from NBC Sports. 

“We do have multiple-race engines today that we have to keep in mind. (More horsepower) is something that we are actively discussing, but, obviously, we don’t do that in a vacuum. We do that with the engine builders.

“But anybody that has been around, we’ve raced high horsepower and low downforce before and ended up at some point in time deciding to go away from that to get more entertaining racing. … I think we’re open to entertaining any horsepower gains that we can get with our current (engine) architecture, but anything beyond that is actually not something that can happen quickly.”

Probst later said that keeping the engines in the current horsepower range could prove helpful for any manufacturer looking to join the sport.

“One of the reasons we landed on the horsepower range we’re in now is to try to land in areas that have existing racing engines designed for them, similar to our current (manufacturers),” Probst said. “We’re not hiding from the fact that we would like to encourage some new (manufacturers) to come in. That is part of the equation for that whole thing. I’m not saying it’s the driving reason, but it is a consideration.”

3. Crossing the line

The quarter-mile oval in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will provide plenty of chances to hit bumpers, doors and other parts of the car Sunday.

But there’s a line between short track racing and racing without respect. 

For Ryan Preece, who is running his first race in the No. 41 for Stewart-Haas Racing this weekend, there is a clear divide.

“There’s certainly a way to go about it in quarter-mile racing where you can pass somebody without hitting them,” said Preece, a veteran of racing modifieds in bullrings. 

So how does he tell what’s crossing the line on a short track?

“If somebody drives into me getting into the center of the corner, they’re in control of their race car at that point,” Preece said. “So that or door slamming somebody, not even trying to make the corner, are two good examples (of not racing with respect).”

Preece relies on a lesson he learned racing modifieds with how to race in close quarters.

“I’ll never forget this, I was at Thompson (Speedway) and I used (seven-time modified champion) Mike Stefanik up pretty well into Turn 2 with probably six or seven laps to go, trying to chase down the leader. It didn’t happen. 

“I said, ‘Oh, hey man, I’m sorry. I had to do what I had to do for my team.’ He looked at me and said ‘Well, what about my team? What about the guys I race with?’ 

“I think that day really helped me understand that side of things. You want to race with as much respect as you possibly can. There’s a way to do it, a way to race somebody hard but not overstep the line.”

4. On the same page

Ty Dillon moves to Spire Motorsports this season as a teammate to Corey LaJoie.

Dillon will drive the No. 77 car, which has never finished in the top 30 in car owner points since its debut in 2019. The best the car placed was 31st in owner points in 2021.

Dillon says he has confidence in building the program based on Spire Motorsports’ approach.

“We aren’t unrealistic about where we are,” Dillon told NBC Sports.

But he also said that management has workable goals.

“We said, ‘Hey, here’s where we stand in the spectrum of the race teams,’ ” Dillon said. “Here’s our goals. Here’s what we believe we can accomplish. The structure of what everybody knows and how we’re all pulling in the same direction is a real confidence (boost).

“We know we’re not going to be the team that competes every single weekend for wins, but we’re going to be the best at who we are. Over time, people are going to say, ‘Damn, Spire has taken a step.’ … We’re long-term focused and everybody’s on the same page as that.

“I’ve been a part of a team that said, ‘Hey, we’re wanting to build something.’ Well, you get 10 races in and they haven’t won a race and they’re throwing everybody out the door.”

Dillon said the “realistic, genuine expectation” at Spire Motorsports makes this situation feel different for him.

“The hope and optimism is knowing that we’re all on the same page,” he said.

5. Rule book changes 

NASCAR announced a series of rule changes this week and stated that it would outlaw the video game move Ross Chastain made on the final lap of last year’s Martinsville race. 

NASCAR also made a number of changes to the rule book this week.

Among those:

— Intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead a Cup driver to be penalized 25-50 points and/or 25-50 owner points and/or $50,000 – $100,000 fine. Last year, intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead only to a fine of $25,000 – $50,000.

— Member to member confrontations with physical violence and other violent manifestations could result in a fine and/or indefinite suspension or membership revocation. Last year, such an infraction was listed as incurring a penalty of 25-50 driver and/or team owner points and/or a fine of $50,000 – $100,000. Violations also could result in a race suspension(s), indefinite suspension or termination.

— In the past, if a car could not go when it was time to make a qualifying attempt, it was put on a five-minute clock to do so. That’s changed this year. Now, the clock will be no more than one minute unless it is a safety issue. 

Also, NASCAR listed the length of each Cup race. The inaugural Chicago Street Course Race is scheduled for 100 laps.

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

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Harrison Burton made the first start of his NASCAR Cup Series partnership with the Wood Brothers in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Burton and the Woods teamed last season as Burton jumped into full-time Cup racing after two full seasons (and four wins) in the Xfinity Series. Their first race was the Clash at the Coliseum, and it was a good start — Burton qualified for the feature and finished 12th on the lead lap.

Then things headed downhill. Crashes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway left Burton with finishes of 39th and 33rd, respectively. After the first five races of the year, he had four finishes of 25th or worse.

Now, Season Two, and there are higher expectations. Much higher.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

“The start of last year was really, really rough,” Burton told NBC Sports. “It kind of put us in a hole. We got into the wreck in the 500 and crashed at Fontana. Things kind of stack up on you, and all of a sudden you’re buried in points and it’s hard to make it back up.

“But, at the end of the year, three of the last four weekends were big for us (three consecutive top-20 finishes). We need to build off that and try to get out of the West Coast swing and have a clean group of those races. That’s really important. We need to get our average finish up in the first four to five races and not put ourselves in a hole we can’t get out of, and then go from there.”

The Wood Brothers team typically brings strong cars to the Daytona 500, the season’s first point race. Trevor Bayne scored the team’s latest win in stock car racing’s biggest event in 2011.

“We ran well in the 500 last year until I was upside down,” Burton said. “We had a fast car and qualified well and finished third in our duel. Then in the second Daytona race we put ourselves in good position late, so we were in contention in both Daytona races. The speed was there, and the cars drove well.”

The team’s primary goal is to make the playoffs, Burton said. “And we want to be a contender,” he said. “Cup races are so hard. First, you have to contend. Having a good average finish is really important. If you average around 17th or 18th all year, you can kind of point your way into the playoffs, and doing that is on our minds for sure.”

MORE: Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

Burton looks for a strong start in Sunday’s Clash, which will present teams with a mix of the old and the new. Drivers got the experience of racing inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, and notes from that race will be useful, but the racing surface will be all new again.

“Every repave has a different tendency,” Burton said. “We’ll see how close it is to last time and how different. Obviously, there is experience on that track, but still it’s a completely new surface, so it’s going to be a mixture of old and new. There’s some knowledge we can build off of, but we kind of have to go into the weekend with that knowledge as tentative because we don’t know if the track is going to be different.”

Burton heads for Los Angeles with a win already under his belt this year. He and teammate Zane Smith, last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, won last Friday’s International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Burton drove the finishing laps in the four-hour race. He was third with about 50 minutes to go but moved in front with 22 minutes left when leader Elliott Skeer parked. Burton outran second-place Spencer Pumpelly by .688 of a second for the win.

“I thought we could run well,” Burton said. “After the test we did, we were really fast, so I was pretty excited. But apparently there is a lot of sandbagging that goes on there, so I wasn’t sure where we were. We had to have some things go right for us, and they did.”

 

 

 

 

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

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Last week, NASCAR tested the muffler that will be used for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum.

“Heresy,” some fans cried. They argued that it is against the laws of man and nature to muffle racecars. That noise is an integral part of the fan experience. That you’re not supposed to be able to have conversations during races.

Relax.

The cars will be plenty loud.

Loud is fast

Engines produce power by combusting fuel and air in their cylinders. Each combustion produces high-pressure gases that push the piston up. The same gases make a loud popping sound when they escape the cylinder and finally the exhaust.

At 8,000 rpm, an eight-cylinder engine performs about 520 combustions every second. The faster an engine runs, the more combustions per second and the higher the frequency of the tailpipe noise.

That’s why NASCAR engines sound like grizzly bears and F1 engines, which run at higher speeds, sound more like angry mosquitoes.

Maximum horsepower requires getting the spent gases out of the cylinder as quickly as possible so the next combustion reaction can start. And that’s the problem with mufflers, from a racing perspective.

Mufflers on street cars bounce sound waves from the engine around a metal can. The waves interfere with each other, which decreases the overall volume coming from the exhaust.

Mufflers can also mitigate noise by directing the exhaust through a sound-absorbing material. Borla, the sole-source supplier for this weekend’s muffler, makes commercial racing mufflers that feature a robust sound-absorbing material superior to the commonly used fiberglass.

Both methods slow the exhaust gases — the first more than the second. The ideal racing muffler diminishes sound with minimal horsepower reduction.

Decibels

Sound-level measurements come in decibels (dB), a unit named after Alexander Graham, not Christopher — and apparently by someone who wasn’t the best speller.

But decibels don’t tell the whole story. Sound intensity decreases with distance, so you need to specify how far away the sound source was.

The easiest way to explain the decibel scale is to relate it to real-world noises, as I’ve done below.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels.

  • Zero dB is the threshold of human hearing.
  • A whisper you can just barely make out is about 20 dB.
  • Most everyday noises are in the 60 dB to 100 dB range but are sometimes louder.
  • Exposure to 130 dBs can be painful.
  • A 150-dB sound can cause permanent hearing damage in a very short time.

Ringing in your ears the day after a rock concert was a badge of honor in high school. Older me wishes I had been a little smarter.

Hair cells — not to be confused with ear hair — facilitate hearing. Sound bends these hair-shaped cells, and the cells convert sound into electrical signals that the brain interprets. Loud sounds can bend these cells so much that they break.

Unlike animals such as sharks, zebrafish — and even the lowly chicken — humans cannot grow new hair cells. Once your hearing is damaged, you can’t get it back.

How loud are racecars?

A noise mitigation study for the proposed Nashville Fairgrounds track measured a single Next Gen car at COTA generating 112 dB on a straightaway at 100 feet.

A 2008 study measured the sound level inside a Gen-6 car to be an average of 114 dB. The study also compared sound in the stands, the infield and the pits.

Let’s add those numbers to our graph.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels, including sound measurements from the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is about the same loudness as a person screaming at top volume 1 inch from your ear.
  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is just a bit quieter than sitting inside the Gen-6 car.
  • Bristol reached peak sound levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

The graph data suggests that inside the Next Gen car should be around 10 times louder than inside the Gen-6. Some drivers made new earmolds to cope with the additional noise in the cockpit.

Because of the way sound works, the numbers don’t add like you’d expect them to. A Next Gen car might be 112 dB, but two Next Gen cars are more like 115 dB. A full field would be only 5-7 dB louder.

The mufflers won’t muffle much

NASCAR expects a six to 10-dB reduction in sound with mufflers. A 10-dB reduction would make the Next Gen car about as loud as the Gen-6 car was.

Another way of looking at it: Good earplugs reduce sound levels by 25 to 30 dB. Wearing earplugs just barely gets you into the range of being able to hold a conversation if you stand very close to each other and you both shout.

You won’t notice the change in sound inside the track.

You also won’t notice a change in speed this weekend, despite a drop of 30-40 horsepower. The Next Gen car takes around 14 seconds to traverse the L.A. Coliseum’s quarter-mile track. That means cars won’t be going much faster than typical expressway speeds.

If you’re headed out to the track this weekend — despite the mufflers — bring earplugs or over-the-ear headsets. This is especially important for children, as their hearing is more easily damaged.