Carl Edwards is gone from NASCAR, and one of his core philosophies may soon be following him out the door: Less downforce makes for better racing.
There was no topic on which Edwards was more outspoken than when it came to extolling the virtues of a lower downforce package. Take downforce away, Edwards reasoned, and drivers would have to lift more in the corners because the cars would be more difficult to handle. As a result, passing would increase.
“Some people want to see guys race spoilers and splitters and wings and downforce and side force, but they aren’t stock car racing fans,” Edwards said in 2015. “(High downforce) is just not stock car racing.”
At the time Edwards said that, NASCAR was starting to listen. Officials ultimately scrapped their plans for a high drag package and went the direction the drivers wanted after it showed potential in an experimental Kentucky race.
Here’s the thing, though: Once that became the package, it didn’t work how everyone expected.
The racing, particularly at intermediate tracks, still isn’t where NASCAR wants it to be. That’s why officials have been looking at other options, such as package NASCAR tried at the All-Star Race (which was popular with fans).
While the merits of turning Cup into a restrictor-plate series are up for debate, NASCAR might have the right idea in trying to add more downforce instead of take it away.
Look no further than Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 for evidence. In the last six years, the Indy 500 had averaged 43.6 lead changes. This year, there were 30.
While that’s not bad at all compared to the previous decades (when the race mostly had lead changes numbered in the teens), it’s still a step back for what had become the best racing on the biggest stage.
And the drivers knew it. After the race, they made comments about “track position” and “dirty air.” That probably sounds familiar to NASCAR fans.
So what happened? Well, IndyCar has a new car this year — one that has been universally praised on the road courses and street circuits. It looks sharp, races well and is cost effective.
But the car has less downforce than the previous version, and drivers struggled with handling as a result.
“More downforce,” Alexander Rossi said afterward. “We need more, man. This car looks great. The road course car is fantastic, but it’s pretty hard to pass around here.”
It was still possible to pass at times — Rossi himself proved that — but it took heroic, ballsy moves that could only be accomplished on restarts when the cars got bunched together. Otherwise, they were too far strung out for the slingshot passes that became a signature of the recent Indy 500 races.
“The old car, you couldn’t really get rewarded by getting away or getting separation,” Indy 500 runner-up Ed Carpenter said. “I think if you have a good enough car (in the new package), you’re rewarded by being able to get away a little bit.”
Carpenter was saying that in a positive manner, because he thought it was better that way. When it’s challenging for the drivers, the top talents prefer it because they feel like they have an advantage. The harder it is, the better for them.
But for the rest of us, here’s what it comes down to: Would you prefer to see the elite drivers and teams be able to use their skill and speed to outrun everyone at the expense of a good show? Or are you hoping to see passing and side-by-side battles and exciting racing, even if that makes it harder to separate the best from the average?
When it comes to the Indy 500, I would personally rather see a crazy passing fest with drafting and all sorts of wild moves. Those cars are dangerous enough that it feels like the drivers are daredevils on four wheels, so it’s fine with me if making moves becomes easier again.
But in NASCAR, I’m still torn. Even though NASCAR has gimmicked-up other parts of the racing (stages) and season (elimination playoffs), watching an unrestricted race still feels pure enough to be a true competition of the best. That feeling doesn’t extend to Daytona and Talladega — even the drivers don’t view it as “real racing” — so what would everyone think about an entire series with a bunched-up field and the possibility of more random results?
On the other hand, these are desperate times. Perhaps something that extreme is needed. If it doesn’t work, NASCAR can’t shed fans and viewers any faster than it already is…right?
Perhaps focusing purely on entertainment is for the best. Feed the masses what they seem to want and throw a Hail Mary at rejuvenating the sport in the process.
I wasn’t convinced after the All-Star Race’s high drag and downforce package, despite the entertainment value. After seeing the Indy 500 take a step backward after the cars were harder to handle, maybe it’s an indication more downforce is the way to go in racing.