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Stevie and I were over in Charlotte earlier this week visiting with friends and family before the holidays, plus our NASCAR on FOX gang got together for two days of meetings looking toward the 2012 season. One of the conversations I was drawn into was what differentiates the really great drivers from just the good drivers.
So what is it that sets some drivers apart from others?
Obviously, it is a number of things. First off, I think it is their senses. You have to have great sight. You have to have great eye/hand coordination. You have to have great anticipation as well. The thing to remember is it all has to work together in nanoseconds.
Your brain anticipates it. Your eyes see it and your hands react to it with the wheel. Believe it or not, even smell is a really beneficial sense to a driver. If he starts using up that right front tire, he can smell it. If there is an issue with the engine or a gear or something starting to burn up, your experience and your sense of smell become like an early warning system that trouble is ahead.
Hearing is another sense that is so vitally important to a driver. You can hear things around you and especially if there is something going awry with the engine.
The other very important sense is taste. You have to have the taste of victory. You have to have it in you. Believe me, once you taste victory, there is nothing sweeter and you can’t wait to have it again. All your senses have to be working at maximum capacity when you are a race car driver and actually, yours have to work at an even higher level than the other guys to succeed.
Going back to taste for a second, I don’t believe you have to look any further than Tony Stewart this past season as the perfect example of the taste of success. You all know the story. In the regular season, Tony had a couple of victories slip through his fingers. At the concrete tracks like Dover International Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, he downright struggled. He hung on, made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but even then Tony publicly questioned his right to be there.
That all changed when the Chase started. Tony enjoyed success early by winning the first two races. That was when Tony got hungry – championship hungry. All his senses went into hyperdrive. He could see, feel, taste and almost touch that third championship. It was right there in front of him and all he had to do was go get it.
Winning five of the 10 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase races was phenomenal. As I said a few weeks ago, Tony willed and wheeled his way to that championship. He was not going to be denied. He was so close to it that he could taste it and nothing and nobody was going to stand in his way.
Look, it’s an acquired taste. If you’ve never experienced rolling into Victory Lane on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series or sat at the head table at the awards banquet, you really don’t know that taste. Once you’ve gotten the first taste of both in your mouth, you become addicted to it. Your driven, yes pun intended, to experience it again and again.
Then there is that other sense that you would think everyone has, but they don’t. It’s called common sense. Drivers have to break things down and make decisions instantly based on that. Oh by the way, don’t forget they are doing all of this at 200 mph. An engineer, for example, makes his decisions based on what the data, the calculations or the facts tell him. A race car driver doesn’t have the luxury of that. He has to have the experience, the feel and the common sense to know when it’s the right time to make a move or not.
A driver has to instinctively know that sticking the nose of his car into a hole that is only big enough for a car half its size is a bad idea. He has to have the common sense to know that going three wide at times will usually end up with him in the wall and it is a very bad idea. A great driver can see and anticipate these things before they even happen. Those are the kind of drivers that can avoid putting themselves in situations like that.
My overall favorite definition of common sense is “a genius dressed in working clothes.” That brings me to NASCAR with some of the rules they make and some of the things they do.
Personally, I happen to think 2011 was about as good a year that NASCAR has had in a long time. This year has seen outstanding competition, a crop of first-time winners, a race to the Chase to see who was in or out and then a Chase that literally went down to the wire where either Tony or Carl Edwards had to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the championship.
So the bar for making 2012 even better has been set pretty high. The area where NASCAR really used common sense was listening to the drivers. Common sense is about the experiences and knowledge that most people have and so NASCAR did an excellent job of tapping into that to make improvements.
For 2012 they are going to reduce the size of the rear spoiler. Now that is a big aerodynamic change for the cars that run at Daytona and Talladega. When you take spoiler off a car, you are going to take away downforce. That causes the car to drive a lot freer with less rear grip.
See the drivers have been complaining because with that big ’ol spoiler back there, they can’t see over it. So the drivers have been testing this new spoiler and are becoming more comfortable with it. NASCAR is taking the opinions and feedback from these tests and is implementing it.
I’d like them to leave the size of the spoiler alone, but allow the teams to run the spoiler at whatever angle the teams and drivers want. Taking away spoiler is nothing new in our sport. We’ve done it before and it can have unintended consequences. However, the drivers feel this is a step in the right direction because now they can see ahead of them when their nose is tucked up underneath a car at these restrictor-plate tracks.
The other change will be this multi-channel driver talking to other driver scenarios. I have always been against it. Things have to happen as they happen. You can’t orchestrate these things. We didn’t have that option back in the day. Our communication with another driver on the track was always through hand signals. That’s the way it ought to be and I am glad we are getting back to that.
I maintain it will make the racing better because these drivers won't be able to talk back with each other and make plans and deals as easy now. So reducing the spoiler so the drivers can see better and eliminating the ability to talk to another driver during the race are good things.
I think fuel injection will be another positive change for our sport. NASCAR’s been talking about it and wanting to do it for something like 15 years. Now obviously it has the components to the point that officials feel comfortable about it. Now true, it is expensive, but it is definitely one of those necessary evils.
Just go to your local mall and try and find a car that has a carburetor on it and doesn’t have fuel injection. Other than maybe some hot rods out there, they simply aren’t built like that anymore. The manufacturers today all use fuel injection.
Sure it is a huge change but it’s one that needed to be made. Granted, we haven’t raced it yet. We’ve only tested it but is should be foolproof. That doesn’t mean it will be, though. So here we are heading to Daytona soon with a smaller spoiler and the new fuel injection program while at the same time wanting to have the greatest Daytona 500 ever to keep the 2011 momentum going.
While it does make me a little nervous having these changes applied right out of the box to our sport's biggest event, I do have the trust in knowing NASCAR’s common sense combined with the input and the common sense of the drivers will make it successful.
Remember when I mentioned earlier that common sense is “a genius dressed in working clothes?” By golly that sounds like a bunch of NASCAR folks to me.
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