Trimming Nextel Cup fields would cut chance of accidents


April 11, 2004|By SANDRA McKEE

It wasn't so long ago - last season, in fact - that NASCAR teams were complaining about spending a lot of money and then being forced to go home because there were more cars than starting positions in a Sunday race.

NASCAR officials lamented the situation.

Now, they're longing for it.

Car owners Junie Donlavey (who celebrated his 80th birthday this week in Richmond, Va., and is building a house on a lake for his retirement), Travis Carter, Dave Marcis, Bill Baumgardner, A.J. Foyt and Jim Smith are all nearly out of business. The rich Dale Earnhardt Inc. is fielding two full-time teams instead of three. The less-rich Bill Davis Racing is fielding one, not two. And the Morgan-McClure team no longer has any funding. There remain just 36 well-heeled Nextel Cup teams, which means the sanctioning body has had to allow part-time, under-funded teams who literally can't get up to speed, to fill the 43-car starting lineups.

These car and driver combinations are called "field fillers," "back markers" and "also-rans."

They don't run many laps. But they're a hazard, even in the few laps they do run. They've cost other full-time competitors points, money and in at least one case almost serious injury.

They're allowed to run because NASCAR's rules say anyone who brings a racecar, passes inspection and is among the 43 fastest qualifiers can run.

Through the decades there have always been back markers. And nearly every week, one driver or another is involved in a wreck that knocks his car out of whack, leaving him nothing to do but drive around the track at off-the-pace speeds. Drivers are complaining about that, too.

It is all very dangerous. The too-slow cars are road hazards. All you have to do is go out on Interstate 95 and drive the speed limit and you'll know how dangerous it is, as other cars pass you going 20 to 30 mph faster, and everyone on I-95 is (for the most part) going under 100 mph.

At the majority of these races, cars are moving at or near 200 mph.

NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter told AutoWeek writer Al Pearce during the past week. "There is nothing magic about 43 cars."

If that's the case, why not simply change the rules? NASCAR has been known to do that from time to time. Shorten the qualifying fields and eliminate the worst of those who aren't full-time, fully-funded competitors.

Why not?

Putting the brakes on

How fast is too fast? As fast as the cars are going now in both the Indy Racing League and Nextel Cup Series judging by the actions of the sanctioning bodies.

IRL officials, moved by the death of driver Tony Renna during testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the major injuries suffered by series champion Kenny Brack in the 2003 season final at Texas Motor Speedway, are testing a new aerodynamic package and engine combination designed to reduce speeds.

The package, which includes a 3.0-liter engine, reduces top speeds to 216 mph, a reduction of more than 15 mph from Helio Castroneves' Indy 500 pole winning speed of 231.725 last year.

The test was held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the new design will go into effect for the Indy 500 on May 30.

IRL chief of racing operations Brian Barnhart said most driver reactions were positive, which is different from what is going on in the Nextel Cup Series according to a report by Lee Spencer of The Sporting News.

She reports NASCAR is exploring ways to slow Nextel Cup cars by decreasing rpm's through different gear ratios, a move Dale Earnhardt Inc. technical director Steve Hmiel says "would be a nightmare."

NASCAR is searching for a way to control speeds as some teams are sending engine specialists to Europe to research the latest advancements in drive trains. NASCAR's concern is that gains made by the top organizations will increase their advantage over the have-nots.

Too hot to hold

The Formula One series opens its European season with Michael Schumacher having dominated the first three races in Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain.

The only serious challenges he faced in those races came from the elements - a rough track, humidity and a desert sandstorm - not from his fellow competitors.

And even those things couldn't keep him from the winner's circle.

In the past 70 races dating to the 2000 season, Schumacher has won - are you ready? - 38, that's more than half. This season's start is even better than 2002, when he won a record-setting 11 of 17 events.

The governing body, FIA, which has tried rule changes to at least slow the six-time champion, has not been able to stop him. Now they fear he'll wrap up the title by midsummer, kill television ratings and in turn cause sponsors to leave the F1 series.

Only yesterday

It seems like only yesterday that a small boy stood on a box behind a lectern to tell a funny retirement story on Mario Andretti.

The boy, Al Unser III, was talking about how he had visited the home of Andretti with his dad, Al Unser Jr., and been given a grand tour. He thought he had seen everything.

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