Thursday, February 15, 2007

California - Day Nine - Doping & NASCAR

Today was the first day I rode with the Helmet Cam. I used a newly charged battery from Lenmar (#45097) which allegedly has up to two hours of run time (I say alleged because I got some other battery a while back and it lasted about 8 minutes). Well, after two hours, it was only 25% drained. Incredible. I highly recommend the battery.

The ride itself was nothing unusual. My legs, after yesterday's relatively hard 5.5 hours, felt totally fresh. No soreness, no stiffness. There was some fatigue evident during harder efforts but no soreness. I had a slight knee twinge but it was gone within a minute or two on the bike. So the trip has been fine so far from an injury or overuse point of view.

I did see something interesting today. A tow truck towing a car on those little "skateboard wheel holders" blew out said skateboard tire(s). The car slithered into the curb, smoke pouring out from the skateboard tire(s). Not much else though.

I've been reading and watching some NASCAR news. Apparently they are "cracking down" on some racers for cheating in various ways. Just like in bike racing, in NASCAR there are a few factors in determining overall performance. Aerodynamics (body shape, ground clearance, air flow underneath car) is one major factor. Another is the engine (size, fuel, exotic materials). The chassis is what differentiates the cars so that is where the teams work their magic. But like trying to optimize bicycles, optimizing the chassis gets only limited gains as it simply lays the foundation for the car.

The truly decisive factors are power and aerodynamics. Sound familiar?

Aerodynamics. There are body templates for NASCAR, outlines to which the car must conform. They place the template over the car and make sure the car and template match. If they don't, there is sometimes some "cold setting" done on the spot. In other words, they hammer things to make them fit.

The biggest aerodynamic variables are the air dam size up front, the spoiler height in the rear, and the overall ride height. As such there are strict rules governing these parameters. The air dam size determines how much air flows under the car, the downforce of the front of the car, and gives the car its aerodynamic base. The spoiler gives the car traction for its drive wheels. A smaller spoiler means less usable horsepower, regardless of the available power of the car. The spoiler also determines ultimate traction in the rear of the car as it supplies the downforce necessary to keep the rear tires on the ground. Ride height is another basic aero factor - higher cars simply have less downforce and therefore less traction. A typical rule change to reduce vehicle speed is to simply raise the minimum ride height.

Power. It's apparent that a more powerful engine gives greater fudge factors for the rest of the car. Aero setups are always a compromise. Downforce is good but costs speed. Speed is good but costs downforce. You can't have tons of both. However, if you have a lot of power, the equation tilts to your advantage. You can add a bit of speed or downforce without sacrificing the other.

To make competition interesting, it's imperative to control power. You can do this in a number of ways but they come down to two things - air (engine size, intake restrictors, turbo type things or not) or gas (limit octane or additives).

This year, a number of NASCAR racers have been penalized for cheating. Typically they are docked 25-50 points (the best drivers earn over 6000 points a year) and fined $25,000 or so (which is considerably less than a minimum payout at one race). These were for attempts at altering undercar aerodynamics. In the cycling world it would be a minor infraction, like Cipollini wearing a full head-to-toe skinsuit.

Another driver (a star) was found with a car radically too low. Officials determined this was "accidental" and therefore simply moved the driver to the back of the field. No penalty, no fine, no one kicked out. For pro cyclists this is like the "I didn't know my supplements contained steroids" excuse.

Finally another star driver was found using doctored gas. He was docked 100 points, his crew chief kicked out (like kicking out a team director), and fined $100,000 (this is about twice a minimum payout). Altering the fuel composition could be compared to using EPO - it substantially alters the power of the engine.

In the cycling world, if such things happened, the next time you'd hear about that racer in a race would be two (or four) years later.


A couple days later, the driver with the doctored fuel qualified his way into the Daytona 500 (presumably using regulation gas).

NASCAR says they're cracking down on cheating. Well it looks like they talk the talk but don't walk the walk.

It's okay to "accidentally" lower the car something like 20-30% of its total ride height. It's okay to doctor your fuel - you simply lose about twice the minimum payout but you get to race the same race where you got caught.

Pro cycling doesn't care how the stuff got into your system. If there are steroids, the racer is responsible. If there is EPO, the racer is responsible. There's supposed to be no excuses, no leniency. And the topper - you don't have 72 year olds trying to qualify for Milan San Remo. An effective four year suspension will cut out about a third of a pro's working life. Four years in a NASCAR driver's life is perhaps one fifth to one sixth of his career.

Their penalties now are similar to cycling's penalties 25 years ago. So maybe they simply need to move a quarter century ahead in the rules department.

It would make the racing interesting for sure.

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