LEMASTERS: Is Perception Still Reality?

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Ron Lemasters Jr.

CONCORD, N.C. — The definition of the word perception, if you trust Diction­ary.com, is apprehending by means of the senses or of the mind; cognition; understanding.

If you put that definition to use in the racing world, you can get any number of responses. Is the perception that the Indy 500 is still the greatest auto race in the world? For me it is, but others might disagree.

Is A.J. Foyt the greatest race car driver in history? I think so, but again, that’s me. It might not be you.

Is NASCAR’s solution to tighten up its racing the right thing to do or did it miss the mark? We’ll soon find out; or maybe we won’t. My perception is A.) It’s too early to tell and B.) it is in the eye of the beholder.

When I was a kid and the magic 200 mph barrier had not yet been breached at Indy (officially, that is), the perception was magical. You just saw Tom Sneva complete a lap at better than 200 mph! Hooray! Did it look faster than 199.9 mph? No. The clock — and Tom Carnegie — told you what the speed was. You couldn’t tell, just from looking at it, that it was that fast.

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Now, today, you can’t tell if a race car is going 200 mph or 210 mph or even 220 mph. Not by casual attention, at any rate. If you have a stopwatch (and I prefer the ones that aren’t a subset of the latest iPhone SuperMax XYZ), you can tell, because it’s right there in front of you. If one car is 5 mph faster lap after lap than the rest, it looks weird and you can all say, “Hey, that car is faster than the others … by a lot.” If all the cars are within a couple of mph of each other, lap after lap, the speed becomes relative and the racing looks closer.

Welcome to the land of perception.

NASCAR is hoping that slowing the cars will improve the on-track product. If you’ve been paying attention, you know this. A little aero tweak here, a reduction in horsepower there and you have altered the landscape. It has worked in the past, and well at times, but it never stays that way.

Why?

Teams don’t stand still. If you’re not moving, you’re a target. If you figure out a way to be faster with the current rules, you’re a sitting duck … and your duck is cooked if you do it outside the rules. Race teams employ capable people who can engineer around rules, given time. That’s what NASCAR perceives and by doing it the way they did this year, a moving target (varying horsepower from track type to track type) will slow that progress.

Generationally, speed is what is exciting about racing. The faster you go, the more exciting it is. The NHRA was built on that philosophy and the first time a dragster hit 300 mph, you could feel the thunder even if you weren’t there.

As you know, the car culture isn’t what it once was, but since a sizable remnant of it still exists (and has disposable income to participate), there is still the need for speed. On asphalt, dirt, salt or whatever, speed sells. As long as there are cars to race, you’ll have the need for speed. Cutting speed, despite the perceptions both good and bad, could be the smartest thing ever — or the opposite.

We’ll see what happens with the latest NASCAR season. If the perception of speed and excitement is enhanced or stays relatively the same, all is good. If it looks slow and the drivers complain and the fans are backing them, not the sanctioning body … well, perception isn’t going to matter a hill of beans.

If the racing is close and there are multiple drivers with a shot to win at the end of every race, none of this will matter and we’ll have moved on.

None of this is set in stone and NASCAR has shown itself to be flexible in its pursuit of competitive balance.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the perception of the new rules will be when the series gets going. I imagine you are, too.