NASCAR makes big changes

NASCAR on Monday detailed significant changes to its competition department and the way it officiates the sport, with an eye towards using technology to bring clarity to rules, parts approvals and penalty enforcement.

The sanctioning body will make what NASCAR officials called a significant investment in technology to improve how the sport is run.

“I think it’s a change in how we do business going forward,” said NASCAR Senior Vice President Steve O’Donnell during a press conference at the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, N.C.

Pending major areas of change are focused in four specific areas: governance, rules, penalty/deterrence and officiating/inspection.

To that end, there will be 11 specific initiatives, which O’Donnell described as “interlocking.”

Among the myriad changes planned by the start of the 2015 season:

• Move rulemaking from NASCAR officials at track to the R&D Center, and its innovation department, which will be led by Gene Stefanyshyn, who was hired in April. Stefanyshyn, a native Canadian who spent more than 30 years with General Motors, carries the title of vice president, innovation and racing development, and reports directly to NASCAR President Mike Helton.

• Enhance the effectiveness of NASCAR’s appeal process.

• Simplify the NASCAR rulebook, which will be available online, and reduce “gray area” in rules. As part of that process, some written rules will be replaced with CAD designs. Yet to be determined is whether the public will be able to access the rulebook online.

Asked if there was any reason not to make it available to the public, Stefanyshyn said. “I would say I’m not aware of any.”

• Strengthen the deterrence model to reduce pre-practice inspections required to ensure competitive racing. Post-race inspections will be increased.

• NASCAR officials will no longer be separated by series. There will only be NASCAR officials, not Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series officials.

• Specify penalties in the rulebook for rules violations, much like the card officials have on pit road for penalties that occur during the race.

• There will be more technology on pit road to make data available to both race fans at the track and those at home.

“The more you understand something, the more you enjoy it,” said Stefanyshyn.

Also on tap, a possible change for qualifying formats at Cup races and the length of race weekends, though no details were given.

A number of high-profile incidents this year and last brought issues of rules enforcement, policing and adjudication into the public eye.

At Texas Motor Speedway in April, both Penske Racing Sprint Cup cars were caught with illegal rear suspensions, and a week later, Matt Kenseth’s race-winning car at Kansas Speedway was determined to have a connecting rod that was too light.

In both cases, the penalties were significantly reduced on appeal. Similarly, the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team won an appeal last year on Jimmie Johnson’s car, which was flagged prior to the Daytona 500 for aerodynamic modifications.

More recently, 31 NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide cars at Daytona International Speedway were caught with various modifications to their roof flap spacers. NASCAR seized the offending parts and ordered the cars put back to stock, but ultimately decided not to penalize the teams involved.

NASCAR officials said they want to continue to police the sport closely but remove any impression that rules are enforced subjectively or inconsistently or that the appeals policy is confusing.

“In the future we envision where the appeals process is clearly spelled out, where the people going into an appeal clearly understand what’s out there, what’s going to be discussed,” said O’Donnell. “And I think most importantly, the people that are on that appeals panel are industry experts.”

“We are going to maintain a level playing field at all times … the teams expect us to keep law and order in the garage,” said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton.

Pemberton said he was unsure whether the new policies would result in fewer appeals when rules violations are detected.

“I don’t know if you could really put a number or a thought to that, to be honest with you,” said Pemberton. “It goes in cycles. And competition drives that. Hopefully, what will come out of this is that everyone will know going in and there won’t be any surprises when a penalty is levied to a team for a violation.”

O’Donnell said the new policies will increase clarity for competitors, fans and the media alike.

“I think ultimately it’s just a better way for us to move forward and be more transparent with the teams,” he said. “I would also say that it would certainly help with the folks gathered in this room, with the media and the fans as we explain it. That’s no secret, but I would hope a result of that would be if you’re reporting on a penalty and you can see here’s the part, here’s the diagram, here was the ruling, I would hope ultimately if we’ve done our job right, a fan would say, okay, I get that, I can see that. And ultimately the folks if it did go to an appeal would be able to see that, as well.”