Commentary

Improve racing? Harder cars!

Updated: June 1, 2012, 9:53 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

DOVER, Del. -- If you want the racing to change, you have to change the cars.

That's the answer folks. It's no secret. And I'm going to tell you how to do it: Make the cars harder to drive.

"I'm not against it," Jimmie Johnson said Friday. "It would make us test pilots out here for all this, but I'd kind of like that."

More on that later, but let's discuss what isn't working.

[+] EnlargeAJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCARRacing at Dover can be difficult, as AJ Allmendinger discovered last October.

The biggest female celebrity in racing -- love or hate Danica Patrick -- isn't enough. Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing in the top 10 almost every week also isn't enough, not until he wins again.

NASCAR desperately needs a jolt of excitement, some high drama at high speeds, to change the current chatter that races just aren't so hot to watch these days.

Can the dangerous 1-mile oval at Dover provide it? It's often been called Bristol on steroids, a high-banked, concrete track twice the size of Bristol.

Even Bristol needed an injection of something for its race in March that was so uneventful, track owner Bruton Smith later said he would spend millions to try to change the track back to its former sheet-metal-eating self.

Fairly or unfairly, the perception for many fans, reporters, broadcasters and bloggers is NASCAR lacks something this season.

I did three radio shows based in different parts of the country last week , but all three hit me with the same question: "Why are the races so boring?"

True or false, that's what people believe. Thrills are few. Cautions are rare. Wrecks are even rarer.

Most fans like to see wrecks. Anyone who denies that is kidding themselves. No one wants to see any driver get hurt, but they do want to see cars bumping, banging and sometimes crashing.

It's part of NASCAR's identity, but those things aren't happening much. Drivers are racing as if they have a sign in the rear window that reads, "Baby on Board."

Long green-flag runs are the norm, which wouldn't be necessarily a bad thing if cars were running next to each other and making passes.

NASCAR officials say competition is better than ever. It's certainly better than 40 years ago, when Richard Petty and others often won the race as the only car on the lead lap.

But as we all know, statistics can be misleading. The number of lead changes includes all the changes during green-flag stops, which aren't really passes for the lead. This season has been lap after lap without much actually happening on the track.

So what to do? Simple. Change the car. It's just too easy to drive and negates the talent of the better drivers.

"The cars still are difficult to drive," Matt Kenseth said Friday. "But they are more forgiving and easier to catch when you get sideways because they have so much side force. So we aren't wrecking as much."

So make the cars less forgiving and the more talented drivers will shine through, while others will struggle, and probably wreck.

"A looser race car plays into my driving style, so I'm all for that," Johnson said. "Everything on the cars has been the same for so long that it's tough to find something different. And we're pretty good at doing that."

And it doesn't take a Rhodes Scholar, or even a brilliant mechanical engineer, to fix it. Give the cars less downforce. Here's how:

xxxxReduce the size of the rear spoiler. Or remove it.
xxxxReduce the size of the front splitter. Or take it off entirely.
xxxxRaise the side panels (a small change was made two weeks ago) higher off the ground. In fact, raise the entire car higher off the ground.

"I've always been in favor of less rear downforce to make the cars less aero dependent," Kenseth said. "I liked it better when the cars were tougher to drive, with smaller spoilers, and didn't just squash into the racetrack."

Now before some of you scream, "Danger, Will Robinson" (yes, I'm old, I remember "Lost in Space"), I get it. I am talking about major changes that would make the racing much more dangerous.

Driving the cars under these specs would be like trying to wrestle a gorilla in an airplane bathroom.

The danger element would increase dramatically. Safety would be somewhat compromised. Nothing's perfect folks. I believe it's worth the risk.

Jimmie Johnson The truth is the lead car has a huge advantage no matter what we do to the cars. They didn't know about aero push back in the 1980s. You can't take back the knowledge we have. But if we can do something to close the gap between first and 15th, then we'll have a better show.

-- Jimmie Johnson

The cars and the track have gone through a safety renaissance over the past decade -- head and neck restraints, SAFER barriers, larger greenhouses around the drivers, crush panels, etc.

The advancements greatly exceed the additional risk that would come from making the cars more difficult to drive, which would mean additional mistakes on the track by some drivers.

However, Johnson said one big problem wouldn't change much.

"The truth is the lead car has a huge advantage no matter what we do to the cars," he said. "They didn't know about aero push back in the 1980s. You can't take back the knowledge we have. But if we can do something to close the gap between first and 15th, then we'll have a better show."

NASCAR officials hope that will happen naturally next year when Sprint Cup goes old school with new cars that look more like actual production models.

So making significant changes now would be a temporary solution until everyone sees how the new cars perform in race conditions. However, the new car is the same "Car of Tomorrow" chassis and will have similar downforce characteristics.

The car isn't the only issue in the eyes of some drivers. They say conservative points racing has increased with the new system that gives only one point for last place.

"Guys have always points raced," Earnhardt said Friday. "But the percentage lost for a bad finish is a lot worse than the old system.

"The bigger issue is the lack of rides and how hard they are to come by. Foolishness and ignorance on the racetrack isn't tolerated. You have to keep your ride in one piece or you're out of a job in a hurry."

That becomes more difficult to achieve under my plan, not that I want to cost anyone a job. But I do want to see the perception of boring races come to an end.

A car that's hard to drive and easy to wreck is a race that's fun to watch.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter