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.

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Dr. Diandra: Denny Hamlin, Dale Jr. right about altering playoff format

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“It needs to have a bigger sample size.” You might expect that from a statistics nerd, but Denny Hamlin said it. He was addressing questions raised by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Dale Jr. Download last fall about changing the playoff format.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

It shouldn’t.

Here’s why.

NASCAR is not like other sports

Under points systems up to 2003, a driver could secure the championship before the season’s final race. NASCAR’s playoff structure eliminates that possibility.

The last 10 races build excitement through multiple elimination rounds and lay the groundwork for more of those elusive “Game 7 moments.”

Just like other sports.

But NASCAR isn’t “just like” other sports.

The first difference is the field of play. Every NFL game is played on basically the same field. The difference between artificial and natural turf is minuscule compared to the difference between Talladega and Bristol.

Even if NASCAR rotates the season’s final track, some drivers have an advantage at some tracks. Weather limits the tracks that can host a November race.

Secondly, only two teams compete in other sports’ playoff games. Everyone competes in NASCAR’s playoffs. That lets mistakes or poor sportsmanship affect the outcome.

Forcing NASCAR into the mold established by other sports misses a chance to highlight racing’s differences.

Leverage NASCAR’s uniqueness to change the playoff format

When teams compete in twos, the number of teams in each playoff round is limited to powers of two: two, four, 8, 16, 32, 64. The graphic below shows NASCAR’s current playoff structure.

A graphic showing NASCAR's playoff format before any changes

Because NASCAR is different, it can have as many teams and rounds of playoffs as it wants.

Hamlin (and others) propose ending the season with a round instead of a race. The next graphic shows one possibility for changing the playoff format.

A possible NASCAR playoff format change

There are three rounds instead of four, and different numbers of races before eliminations.

There are many possibilities, but I chose a system with 14 drivers. Since 2017, when the playoffs started in their current form:

  • Only one of the six drivers entering the playoffs at 16th finished better than 11th. Kevin Harvick is the exception, finishing fifth in 2021.
  • No driver entering the playoffs in 15th finished the season better than seventh.

The number of drivers could be cut even more.

  • Of the six drivers entering the playoffs as 14th seeds, none finished better than fifth.
  • The highest-ranked driver entering the playoffs to make it into the Championship Four was Christopher Bell, who came into the 2022 playoffs ranked 10th.

Cutting the number of drivers in the playoffs is unlikely to impact the championship contenders.

I have only two races before the first cut because drivers making the playoffs with a single superspeedway, road course or dirt win rarely last very long before being eliminated. Darlington and Kansas are perfect tracks for this purpose.

I’d also require drivers to win two races before becoming eligible for an automatic playoff berth instead of the current one race.

Five superspeedway-style races, five road courses, and one dirt race made up 42.3% of the 2022 regular season schedule. Winning a single race doesn’t prove a driver is championship-contender material.

I’d fill the remainder of the slots with the drivers with the most points, regardless of wins.

Game 7 moments?

I have six drivers competing in the final four races. More drivers mean less chance of one driver running away with the championship. Make Talladega the first or second just to liven things up. Put Talladega too late in a round and the drivers will spend most of the race protecting their cars for the end rather than racing.

Only once since 1990 has one driver won the first three of the last four races. In 2007, Jimmie Johnson did one better: he won the first four of the season’s last five races.

One driver won the first two of the last three races three times since 1990.

  • Johnson (2007)
  • Tony Stewart (1999)
  • Davey Allison (1991)

Although the possibility of missing a “Game 7 moment” remains, it’s small.

Don’t underestimate the fans

One argument often made against changing the playoff format (or any other type of change) is that it would “require too much math” or “confuse the fans.”

NASCAR does an excellent job of disseminating information, especially statistics. NASCAR’s broadcast partners employ their own specialists, who not only do the math, but also explain it in the clearest possible ways.

And if my modification of the playoffs is too complex, let’s talk about the arcane Daytona 500 qualifying process or recent All-Star Race rules.

Hamlin was a little reticent to speak out on the issue of changing the playoffs because changes would likely benefit him.

But I don’t have a dog in this race, and I think he’s right.

A look at Cup driver uniforms for 2023

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It won’t be long before cars are on track for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Before the action takes place there, check out the driver uniforms for the 2023 Cup season.

Listed below are the drivers, based on their car numbers. Driver uniform pictures are not yet available for AJ Allmendinger, Noah Gragson, Erik Jones, Ty Gibbs and Ty Dillon. The rest of the drivers with chartered teams are displayed here.

 

1 – Ross Chastain

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

2 – Austin Cindric

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

3 – Austin Dillon

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

4 – Kevin Harvick

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

5 – Kyle Larson

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

6 – Brad Keselowski

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

7 – Corey LaJoie

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

8 – Kyle Busch

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

9 – Chase Elliott

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

10 – Aric Almirola

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

11 – Denny Hamlin

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

12 – Ryan Blaney

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

14 – Chase Briscoe

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

17 – Chris Buescher

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

19 – Martin Truex Jr.

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

20 – Christopher Bell

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

21 – Harrison Burton

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

22 – Joey Logano

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

23 – Bubba Wallace

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

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(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

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(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

24 – William Byron

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

31 – Justin Haley

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

34 – Michael McDowell

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

38 – Todd Gilliland

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

41 – Ryan Preece

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

45 – Tyler Reddick

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

47 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

48 – Alex Bowman

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

51 – Cody Ware

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

78 – BJ McLeod

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

99 – Daniel Suarez

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)