Okay, We Need To Talk About Race Control

“Who’s directing this race? Michael Masi?”

That was an actual statement that came out of my mouth while watching the All-Star Race at Texas. As I watched Ryan Blaney, thankfully the eventual winner, drive with his actual knee trying to reattach his window net, all I could think of was the Saudi Arabian Gran Prix of 2021.

For those of you who don’t follow Formula One, that race is infamous for off the cuff calls made by director Michael Masi, who needed Indeed after the race was over. 

NASCAR has found itself with an interesting problem. The ratings are up, the racing has been on an uptick thanks to the Gen 7 car and parity is at a point that hasn’t been seen since the early 2000s. But the guys throwing caution flags and enforcing the rules during the races? Their performances have been, shall we say, less than stellar. 

I understand this is not a new problem. I can think of a handful of times race control ran out of talent and ruined a race.

1. 1990: at North Wilkesboro, Brett Bodine won due to a scoring error.

2. 2007: Robby Gordon is inexplicably robbed of his position when a caution comes out, and alters the outcome of the race in protest.

3. 2014: Kevin Harvick causes a big one at Talladega in order to manipulate the outcome of a race. No penalty. 

4. 2010: Regan Smith is penalized for going under the yellow line at Talladega despite clearly being forced there by Tony Stewart. It cost him his first win.

But all of those are in the past. We have the technology and the hindsight to make sure things like that don’t happen. Right?

Flash forward to Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. 

Fan favorite Chase Elliott spins and barely taps the right rear of his car against the turn 4 wall. He brings the car to pit road and is placed on the damaged vehicle clock. Elliott’s team worked feverishly during the 5 minutes they were allotted to get the car repaired. As they were working, the caution came out after a huge wreck. Elliott was never afforded the effort to make minimum speed because of this and his car, which was the Stage One winning vehicle, was DNF’d with a scuff on the right rear. 

If you thought that was egregious, what happened to Bubba Wallace was worse. Bubba was caught up in the melee that I mentioned while Elliott was on pit road. His clock started as soon as he got to his box. His Toyota was damaged very minimally and easily would’ve made minimum speed. But because of the fact that tires were at a premium with teams only being allotted thirteen sets, Bubba’s team told him to take it easy to save them while trying to make minimum speed at stage end. The officials then DNF’d his car for not making minimum speed. Bubba’s car was practically unharmed and could’ve easily made minimum speed.

The rule was a pretty good measure during the Gen 6 era, as it prevented damaged cars who couldn’t meet minimum speed after pit road repairs from causing safety issues during the course of a race. But these Gen 7 cars are built like tanks…. They don’t damage easily at all. To have such a rule seems archaic and somewhat silly now. Two good race cars were taken out of a race, because the clock ran out? Am I the only one who thinks that sounds stupid?

Bubba’s woes made me realize something else. The fact that Goodyear’s tires have been abysmal this season is not news. All season, we’ve seen the window for these tires to come apart dramatically early, sometimes making it just 25 laps in a fuel run. NASCAR has known this. Yet they set a cap for these teams to run tires and have them risk their entire day for a little extra time on old tires or to save some like Bubba did. It’s preposterous. 

I’m not sure what will get these rules changed or abolished entirely. But I have a few honest proposals. 

  1. Get rid of the Damaged Vehicle Clock

It’s just plain stupid to have one with this Gen 7 car around. They’re almost impossible to kill, and don’t damage like their old sheet metal body counterparts. It’s a terrible rule and I would sure hate to see someone’s championship hopes ruined by such a silly rule. 

  1. Go back to allowing the teams to purchase tires in race, or get Hoosier or Bridgestone on the phone and see if they wanna make Goodyear feel the heat a bit. 

I know this will interfere with parity in the sport a bit, but, the 600 put teams in a unique box. These tires don’t last very long at intermediate tracks. Goodyear can’t seem to figure out why – or just won’t – so why not have Hoosier or another manufacturer make racing tires and force Goodyear to compete to be better? You know what they say about iron sharpening iron.

  1. Stop making cautions judgement calls and be more consistent and transparent about what constitutes them

So, I tried to access the NASCAR rule book to back this up, and wouldn’t you know it, I can’t. I don’t have the “credentials.” So I’m just gonna go based on the eye test. Like I mentioned earlier about Texas, the caution that came out on the final lap was, well, confusing, to say the least. The caution was waved because Ricky Stenhouse bounced off the wall. He didn’t spin, didn’t cause a hazardous situation, nothing like that. Drivers were bouncing off walls in much the same way as Stenhouse every lap at Darlington a few weeks ago. Based on what happened to the 47, there should’ve been a caution every lap at Darlington? Doesn’t it make much more sense that the caution doesn’t come out at Texas? What are we doing here?

And the fact that the common fan can’t access the rule book for our sport, that’s just insane. You don’t see the NFL or the NBA doing that. 

To me these are just a few ideas to kind of make the on track product more sensible and less convoluted. An article like this shouldn’t be necessary for a sport that’s been around since the 40s. I don’t mean to rant, but the sanctioning body has to do better.

Or else we’ll all be wondering if Michael Masi got a new job in America’s biggest Motorsport. 

Photo credit to Pat, @Puffadda on Twitter.

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