NASCAR returned to racing on May 17 after taking a break since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Racing looked a bit different as NASCAR enacted new regulations to promote social distancing and reduce the number of personnel at the track. One of the decisions implemented in order to minimize time at the race track was to cancel all practice sessions, which meant that drivers raced with whatever suspension configuration their crew set up at the shop. So far, the transition has been mostly successful, prompting drivers, fans, and officials to question whether practice sessions are essential to a race weekend.
Consensus holds that eliminating practices produces more entertaining races because drivers and teams must react to the track with little to no preparation. At first glance, the one-day show also seems to level the playing field by allowing smaller teams with tighter budgets to save money on the backup cars, extra tires, and additional fuel required by practice sessions. However, a deeper look reveals that removing practice sessions disproportionately favors big-budget teams and fosters more artificial drama than genuine racecraft.
Traditionally, race weekends for the NASCAR Cup series start as early as Thursday or Friday; a typical schedule includes two or three practice sessions as well as a qualifying session prior to the race itself, which is usually held on Saturday or Sunday. Practice sessions have been a fixture of race weekends because the additional on-track time allows a team to check its car for any issues and tailor the car’s suspension setup to that weekend’s track. Practice sessions aren’t simply a case of mindless routine; when faced with a rainy race weekend, NASCAR has historically cancelled qualifying rather than lose a practice session.
Kevin Harvick praises the condensed schedules without practice, qualifying and three day events and says that NASCAR really needs to look at options that stem from it for 2021 and beyond.
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) June 7, 2020
Condensing the schedule in order to resume racing under current health and safety criteria has resulted in the removal of all practice sessions plus all qualifying sessions, with the exception of one qualifier completed for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway this May. Drivers have generally responded positively to this reduction of on-track time, and fans have enjoyed the unpredictability the one-day show has introduced by requiring teams to setup their cars before arriving at the track.
Journalists have also been generally receptive of the changes and the resulting action on the track. One example is Jeff Gluck of The Athletic, who writes that “the lack of practice has left Cup teams unable to dial in their cars for the race, which creates more comers and goers in the first two stages. And it might also lead to driver errors, which cause cautions, give opportunities for more restarts and add storylines to the race.”
Many fans are in the same boat. When I recently posed a question on Twitter about the reception of no practices, one racing fan named JLB used an example from the recent race at Homestead-Miami, in which Richard Petty Motorsports driver Bubba Wallace had an admirable 13th-place finish. JLB stated that they “kind of like the idea of a top team having off nights though. Because Johnson was so off, it may have allowed a team like RPM have a better night.”
Without practice sessions, most teams rely on notes taken from previous years’ races to set up their race cars. If the team has access to a simulator, it will use that as well. Based on the success of the races, those notes and simulations have generally proven accurate, in some cases allowing smaller teams to finish better than big teams who miss their setups. Removing practice has also lowered costs for teams, since they don’t have to bring backup cars. Each minute a car doesn’t spend on track is one minute it isn’t chewing through tires and drinking fuel. As a result, some smaller teams may see the current situation as a way to help them save money and better compete against the bigger teams. However, a long-term implementation of this no-practice plan will likely reverse that scenario, favoring larger teams at the expense of smaller outfits. On top of that, removing practice may conflict with one of the main objectives behind NASCAR’s Next Gen Cup car.
The top third of the Cup series field has an arsenal of engineering resources at its disposal, including in-house simulation software in addition to manufacturer simulators, which have been in high demand with the cancelled practices. Using these resources, top-tier teams can simulate race conditions and anticipate setup changes based on data models built for each track and type of car, as well as any tire data available from wheel force tests. The middle of the Cup series field still enjoys off-track resources, but is typically limited to manufacturer simulators and relies on data available from the manufacturers, like tire data. The third of the field, in contrast, typically does without simulators and relies more heavily on old-school methods like track notes.
While manufacturers share tire data equally with all of their teams, the teams chosen to participate in the wheel force tests know what geometry, springs, and shocks the OEM uses to calculate the tire data, which is typically only available to teams in a sanitized tire data file without these additional variables. The additional information often results in more accurate modeling in the simulator, thus giving a handful of teams a significant advantage over the rest of the field.
If teams expect practices to be removed long-term, the top teams will likely to invest even deeper into their simulation capabilities; they would just be reshuffling the cash they would have spent anyways on consumable resources for practice. Since mid- and lower-tier Cup series teams have limited or no access to their own simulation equipment, this will result in the balance of performance once again shifted in favor of the big teams, thus creating a bigger gap to the middle of the field and leaving the back third of the field in the dust.
Formula 1 recently recognized that heavy spending on simulation and wind tunnel testing was an issue. In order to equalize the playing field, the series implemented an aerodynamic handicap system for 2021 that would give smaller teams increased access to wind tunnels and simulation tools and prevent bigger teams from hogging those resources. If NASCAR makes a move to reduce practice times, thus moving even more of the preparation of the cars off the race track and onto computers, a similar time rationing system would likely have to be introduced.
How does the elimination of practice conflict with the philosophy behind the Next Gen Cup car? The Next Gen car has been developed with an eye toward controlling costs; NASCAR wants to mandate that teams purchase certain parts from preapproved vendors rather than allowing teams to design their own pieces. In theory, the standardization allows more teams to be competitive; however, without practice time and without the simulation tools enjoyed by the big teams, it may force smaller teams to fall even further behind in development. After the initial testing of the car, tighter-budget teams won’t have the option to use advanced software to analyze and exploit any gray areas of the new parts.
It’s also worth pointing out that larger teams will use the software available to them regardless; but more time on track may allow smaller teams to use real-world adjustments and thus minimize the gap in development and, ultimately, in a race.
— Cameron Newton (@CamBNewton) June 10, 2020
Fans, on the other hand, rarely are aware of the nuances of a team’s budget or what simulators it may or may not use. From their perspective, the one-day show format is exciting. It’s certainly created some hubbub on-track as teams show up and go directly to racing, triggered some drama due to restarts. While the stir can be seen as positive, the point of racing should be to create excitement from the racing itself and not from a debris caution that bunches up the field because someone dropped a part from their car.
The excitement created from the lack of practice masks a bigger issue. The current “NA18D” horsepower and aerodynamics package has created some genuinely dull races at bigger tracks, and while any improvement in these races will be positive, I believe we should examine the root of the issue instead of applying a band-aid. Improving the Cup car’s horsepower and aero package should be the main goal.
Even so, practice doesn’t have to be the same as in the past. The solution should be a compromise between last year’s format and the current arrangement.
One reasonable option would be a race weekend with a single practice or warm-up session, instead of the two or three sessions that we were used to seeing. This would allow for teams to repair small issues and thus prevent unnecessary debris cautions. It would also allow teams to optimize the suspension setup so that an entire race isn’t ruined from a slight miscalculation at the shop. Though it would require teams to bring backup cars, this compromise would still allow races to be run in a single day if the schedule were planned out properly.
We’re getting another year of racing with the current generation of the Cup car before big changes arrive with the Next Gen car. Our the main focus should be on the bigger picture: adjusting horsepower and downforce packages to encourage better racing rather than creating surface-level changes that add excitement due to setup mistakes and debris cautions because teams don’t have time to work on their cars.