Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The great spec debate

Part of the fun of following motor racing is getting carte blanche to bitch and moan about a wide array of topics. Which guy’s faster? Who’s cheating? Which team is run by a bunch of morons? Which series is mismanaged? Which journalist is making shit up? And so forth. One of the hotter debates in recent memory is the spec car v. non-spec car argument. This gets the masses fired-up like Michael Phelps at a Kappa Kappa Gamma party. Like abortion and gay marriage, every fool has a spec car opinion that is -more often than not- based upon rumors, hearsay, something their priest told them when they were 12, or other make-believe trinkets of quasi-knowledge.

The fact of the matter is spec car racing has its pros and cons, just like every issue worth debating. There would be no debate, without positives and negatives to kick around, chew, and digest. So, here we go.

I’m about to make a glaring generality, so brace yourself. Most fans of our sport despise the idea of spec car racing. It’s treated like a bastard stepchild. One whose presence at family events is required, yet not embraced, because his “real” mom did meth and he can’t string together a coherent sentence because of the birth defects. Yeah, spec car racing is not that popular with fans.

It’s the concept of spec car racing that gives fans mental syphilis. The practice of spec car is something totally different.

The masses want to see the latest-and-greatest technology showcased. “Innovation” is buzzword tossed about circles of fans, mostly when speaking of the current batch of IndyCar standards. There is a yearning for new ideas and a “clean sheet of paper” approach when it comes to American open wheel racing. Vocal fans want to hear the words “…and a new track record!” reverberate off of the Tower Terrace at IMS. And fans want that record set with a something other than a Dallara chassis’ed, Honda powered, Firestone shod, Xtrac shifted, turnkey data acquisition system programmed, racing vehicle. Fans are pretty damn picky if you want to know the truth of it.

Of course, the totally valid argument against “innovation” and a “clean sheet” of anything are things like “money,” “resources,” and “desire.” All abstract concepts, themselves.

Sure, it would great if there were no restrictions on how to make your motor racing vehicle of choice traverse a circuit, but there needs to be takers to field such entries.

I would surmise that only a handful of teams would have the resources to build something “innovative.” Of those teams, someone would inevitably show up with something that looked like the Batmobile, goes 300-mph, cost $100 million to develop, and would kick everybody’s ass back from where they came. Teams’ would retreat, having sunk gobs of cash into a suddenly obsolete car, and this euphoric series would collapse faster than the Mets in late July. Don’t believe me? Take a look back at IMSA of the early 90’s or the original Can-Am. We know how this book ends. *Keep in mind; this represents the best-case scenario, as it features someone with enough cash to build a damn car. It’s a questionable assumption (at best) to say anyone could find the funding to build a “clean sheet” car today.

Motor racing is a sport that benefits greatly from grassroots participation. Of the fans that yearn for technological advancement to fuel motor racing, some might even participate in an entry-level form of racing. They autocross, go to track days, maybe even have a NASA or SCCA racer. Bet your bottom dollar these folks have an all too well understanding of cost containment in racing.

Spec Racer Ford, Spec Miata and Spec 944 are some of the most popular classes for amateur road racing in this country. The reasons are simple. A car can be built for a (relevantly) small investment, the racing is damn close, and the cars are pretty easy on replacement parts. In short, for a not-astronomically high investment, you get to go racing and car development is limited so things like driver skill, race strategy and car prep make the difference. What’s wrong with that? On a grassroots level, nothing, and no one could possibly argue otherwise.

But, what’s wrong with that on a professional level? I say nothing.

There just needs to be a happy medium between spec car affordability and the ingenuity that our sport was founded upon.

That brings us back to the debate waged by IndyCar fans on message boards, and bar stools across the country. Spec car v. non-spec car. Who is right? Both guys, of course.

Whenever the IndyCar redesign actually happens (2011 or beyond), we need a formula that gives fans and nerdy engineering types the possibility for innovation, development and all that other jazz. (Granted the chassis will still come from a single source, But we’ll overlook that.)

Conversely, the league needs to insure that there is an abundant supply of turnkey cars that a high-level Atlantic or Grand Am team could purchase and run back-to-mid pack right out of the truck. Oh, and for a reasonable price. Sound tough to do? You bet. But creating and nurturing an environment of innovation, while insuring a fresh supply of young teams can complete are two needed facets of competition to get this thing relevant again.

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