Dr Diandra: Does limited practice limit NASCAR Cup drivers?

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The Next Gen era is perhaps the biggest paradigm shift in NASCAR history: A confluence of owners struggling with rising competition costs, a complete re-imagining of the race car, and COVID putting everything from pit stops to practice back on the drawing board.

Eight races into the 2022 season, the car — and the era — remain works in progress. With minimal practice, the “run what you brung” approach means that Denny Hamlin wins at Richmond one week, and then struggles to finish on the lead lap the next week at Martinsville.

The Next Gen car was supposed to put racing back in the drivers’ hands. But is making a driver’s race so highly dependent on arriving at the track with an as-close-to-perfect set-up as possible really doing that?

NASCAR expands as it contracts

NASCAR, like many companies, has consolidated over the years. That’s more than just going from 43 cars per race to 40.

In 2000, 43 different owners ran at least one Cup-level race. By 2021, that number had dropped to 20, with each owner running more cars. Computer simulations of tires, suspensions and aerodynamics became a pre-requisite for winning, and teams hired engineers. When NASCAR started sharing huge amounts of in-car data, race teams hired data scientists.

Manufacturers were in position to see redundant effort within their teams and find ways to centralize their support. Today, manufacturers play a much more pronounced role in NASCAR.

Nowhere is that role more important than in preparing to race without much practice.

Limiting practice

COVID proved that NASCAR could get by with less practice — but not zero practice. Teams need at least a brief run on the track to eliminate any obvious problems.

Cutting practice sessions makes sense. Shortening race weekends cuts costs for everyone, including fans. Less practice time reduces the likelihood a team needs a backup car, thus saving owners money.

But I always enjoyed following a team’s radio during practices. It’s watching a science experiment in real time. The driver explains how the car feels and the crew chief translates that into a softer spring, a higher tire pressure, or more shock rebound.

That’s gone now. At most tracks, teams get around 15-20 minutes of practice. Qualifying follows without so much as a trip to the garage in-between.

“It’s really not a practice session,” Andy Graves, executive competition engineering, technical director for Toyota Racing Development said. “It’s simply a warm-up. It does give you a little bit of an idea and you’re able to walk away from that and do some work overnight.”

But, he explained, even if you can glean information from a short time on track, there isn’t much teams can do with it. Most of the set-up is locked-in at the shop. Make too many changes and you start the race from the back.

“You certainly don’t have as many tuning knobs as you did when we had two and three practice sessions,” Richard Johns, performance engineer at Ford Performance, said.

Not everyone misses those extended practice sessions.

“I love it,” Eric Warren, Chevrolet director of NASCAR programs, said. “I see it as a challenge. It puts a premium on getting your performance right from the start.”

Of course, Chevrolet has won five of the eight races thus far in 2022. They won 19 of 36 races in 2021, when there was even less practice. Chevrolet’s changes, including Warren’s hiring in 2019, were propelled by owners and team members who had developed personal relationships despite being fierce competitors.

A stacked vertical bar graph showing the number of manufacturer wins by year from 2001-2022

The rising role of manufacturers

With Ford and Chevy each running 15 full-time cars, you would expect them to have a huge advantage in figuring out the Next Gen. But more isn’t always better.

“There’s a point where there’s too many teams and you’re dividing attention and resources,” Warren said. On the other hand, “Different people look at data from different angles. We need those other viewpoints.”

The Next Gen car’s sole-source parts facilitate cooperation among teams with the same manufacturer.

“There’s a lot less secretive stuff in the chassis and the body,” Johns said. “The communication is far more open.”

Toyota’s support model has always focused on fewer teams and more concentrated attention. But having only six cars and two teams in Cup means that Toyota faces the same challenge as their competitors, but with one-third the data from each race.

“I think with the old car,” Graves said, “it was more of a benefit for us to have fewer teams. But right now, everyone’s drinking out of a firehose and you’re so desperate for every piece of data you can get.”

“The first half of the year has been character building,” Graves said. “But I don’t really feel like I need any more character.”

Simulated practice

The manufacturers’ most significant contributions to their teams are in areas that are simply too large and expensive for a single team to pursue on their own. First on that list are driver simulators. And that returns us to the question of putting racing back in the drivers’ hands.

Simulators attempt to replicate the feel and response of a specific car set-up at a particular track. A manufacturer’s driver simulator is to a video game as the Mona Lisa is to a stick figure.

Building the physical simulator isn’t that hard. The real power is the ones and zeros driving the machinery.

“It’s gone from a lot less working on hardware,” Graves said, “and it’s become software warfare.”

That ‘warfare’ extends to engineers creating computer models of their ‘soldiers’. Most develop a generic driver model that can be specialized to incorporate each driver’s specific preferences. The data for those virtual drivers comes from the real drivers behind the simulator wheel.

Drivers use the simulator before and after a race. The sessions before prepare the driver to race and help engineers determine optimal setups. The after-race sessions tell the engineers what did and didn’t work so they can modify the simulation software.

“They (the drivers) understand that the more that they can dedicate their time to help us, it will pay off in the long run,” Graves said.

And that is where drivers play an even bigger role than they played back when they were dialing in cars during multiple practice sessions at the track.

“I think that it does put it back in the hands of the drivers,” Johns argues. “It’s just in a little bit different manner.”

Drivers can be even more integral contributors to determining that initial setup. Their work just happens on a simulator instead of at the track.

“Our guys are buying into it as we make our tools better,” Johns said. “The driver really needs to be on top of what they’re feeling and what they need.”

Johns suspects the reason so many younger drivers have won early in the season is that they’re more experienced translating what they feel in the simulator to the real car.

Toyota’s Graves agrees. But he expects the veteran drivers to catch up.

“Maybe some of the younger guys have adapted a little bit faster or quicker,” he said. “I think the second half of the year, you’re gonna see a combination of youth and experience that’s gonna make up the top pack of drivers that start moving away.”

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.

Joe Gibbs Racing adds young racers to Xfinity program

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Connor Mosack, 23, and Joe Graf Jr., 24, each will drive select races in the No. 19 Xfinity Series car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Mosack, who has a 20-race Xfinity schedule with Sam Hunt Racing this year, will run three races for JGR: Chicago street course (July 1), Pocono (July 22) and Road America (July 29) while also competing in six ARCA Menards Series races for JGR, including Feb. 18 at Daytona.

Graf, who has a 28-race Xfinity schedule with RSS Racing this year, will run five races in the No. 19 Xfinity car for JGR: Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 25), Las Vegas (March 4), Richmond (April 1), New Hampshire (July 15) and Kansas (Sept. 9).

“I made my Xfinity Series debut with JGR last June at Portland and from the moment I made my first lap in their racecar, I realized why they’ve been so successful,” Mosack said in a statement. “Their equipment was second to none and the resources they had in terms of people and their knowledge was incredible.

“Jason Ratcliff was my crew chief at Portland and he’s got a ton of experience. I was able to learn from him before we even went to the track. Just in our time in the simulator, we made some great changes. So, to be back with him for three Xfinity races is going to be really valuable.

“And when it comes to JGR’s ARCA program, it’s the class of the field. After having to race against JGR cars, I’m really looking forward to racing with a JGR car. No matter what track they were on, they were always up front competing for wins. To have that chance in 2023 is pretty special, and I aim to make the most of it.”

Said Graf in a statement about his opportunity with JGR: “Running five races with JGR is a fantastic opportunity for myself and for my marketing partners. I think I can learn a lot from JGR and showcase my skills I’ve been growing in the series in the past three years. 2023 is shaping up to be a great year and I’m pumped to get started with the No. 19 group.”

Ryan Truex has previously been announced as the driver of the No. 19 Xfinity Series car in six races this season for JGR. The remaining drivers for the car will be announced at a later date.

Mosack didn’t start racing until he was 18 years old. He went on to win five Legends car championships before moving to Late Model stock cars in 2019. He graduated from High Point University in 2021 with a degree in business entrepreneurship. Mosack’s first Xfinity Series race with Sam Hunt Racing this season will be March 11 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

NASCAR weekend schedule for Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR’s winter break ends this weekend as Cup Series drivers return to the track for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

The second Clash at the LA Memorial Coliseum has been expanded to 27 (from 23) drivers for the 150-lap main event. Qualifying, heat races and two “last chance” races will set the field.

MORE: Drivers to watch in the Clash

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash, the perfect start to a season that ended with him holding the Cup championship trophy.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Cup)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Mostly sunny. High of 71.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. High of 66.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup Series practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup Series qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Feb. 5

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four Heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two Last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)