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CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY | THE CARS

Stock in Trade : NASCAR's Idea of Competition Is Driver Versus Driver, Not Computer Versus Computer

June 18, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Detroit and NASCAR were barreling along, accelerators to the floor in big-engined, gas-guzzling cars, and there in the fork of the road was a gas station with cars lined up, drivers paying increasing prices for diminishing quantities of gasoline.

It was 1974, and there was an embargo on oil shipments to the United States.

Detroit, with stockholders to serve and cars to sell to people who no longer could buy gas for 50 cents a gallon, took the left fork, duplicating the fuel economy and electronic parts of Japanese and European manufacturers.

NASCAR--realizing that even if people were going to drive the new four-cylinder and V-6 wonders to the track, they didn't want to see under-powered cars driving around the track--took the right fork back into the future.

Gary Nelson remembers.

A hot-rodder from Redlands, one of his stock-car teachers was a man who once bought a 1953 Pontiac from a dealer, drove it to a track in Riverside, taped up the headlights and went racing.

Nelson began a career in NASCAR sweeping floors with the DiGard team. Now, he's the director of the Winston Cup series.

"Stock car racing really took off in those years of the muscle cars, the steel-bodied American cars with American engines . . . the 426- and 427-cubic-inch engine," he says. "To keep that excitement, we couldn't do that with four-cylinder engines."

So the National Assn. for Stock Car Auto Racing became an illusion--national and auto racing, to be sure. But stock cars?

The only things stock now are the car's hood and roof panels and trunk lid, and you can buy the engine block and cylinder heads out of GM and Ford catalogs, but not for your passenger car.

Everything else has evolved over time, with cottage industries springing up along the way.

"Usually, these things are results of production costs," Nelson says. "The manufacturers will say, 'Is this part strong enough to make this car go up and down the highway? Yeah, and we've got to make 10 million of them for production.' The manufacturer has to look at the 10 million parts and ask, 'Will the car make it to the grocery store and back?' Well, we have to put more stress on the parts, and we aren't going to the grocery store."

So the entrepreneur looks at the specifications, designs a part that meets them and handles the stress, and voila! another business has grown up to make racing pistons or crankshafts or connecting rods.

And the car goes farther and faster down the road from being stock.

Detroit iron won't go 180 mph for 500 miles at Fontana, but a hybrid will, and NASCAR, often draped in Americana, has added to the American dream of entrepreneurship while catering to the whims of the past, when cars were simpler and young men spent Sundays under shade trees working on them.

Now, those young men have grown older and grumble about paying a mechanic $60 an hour to read a computer that tells him which sensor to change.

It has been a curious process, in some ways designed to keep things as they were two decades ago, when songs were written about cars and their engines. Who writes songs about a Saturn?

Who makes a car with a carburetor anymore? Nobody. But NASCAR still uses the Holley four-barrel.

"The efficiency of those electronic fuel-management systems is designed to make the engines get the most out of a drop of gas," Nelson says. "We're sitting here with a single carburetor and absolutely no processors allowed.

"We kind of like that carburetor. It's cheap, easy to tune and you don't have to hire a technician to work on it."

Computers are anathema in a NASCAR garage.

"We look at it as we have a drivers' series," says Nelson. "We don't want the processor making decisions for the driver. We don't want the technician in the garage tuning that processor so that it can make better, quicker decisions than the driver can make.

"Really, when the race starts, it becomes driver versus driver, pit stops versus pit stops. It's a human element, a test of skill. The driver processes the information in his head--more brake or less brake, more acceleration, less acceleration. We like that and we fight to keep it."

To that end, the rule book is kept short, encouraging individuality in the garage and on the track within a few guidelines, each change having to pass a three-question test:

1. Is it safe?

2. Will it make competition unfair?

3. Will it cost too much?

The tires are the same, the engine displacement, about 356 cubic inches now, and the cars weigh the same, about 3,400 pounds.

People milk the engines, seeking extra horsepower for mechanical edge. They set up the chassis individually, seeking just the right combination of tire pressure, spring weight and shock absorber to coax an extra mph out of the cars.

But the differences are kept slight by Nelson and the rest of the NASCAR inspectors, whose gadgets make sure that nobody goes beyond the 14:1 compression ratio mandated in the rules; and whose templates are applied to the car before each race to make sure than an extra fraction of an inch isn't shaved off the body in the quest for an aerodynamic edge.

From there, it becomes, "Gentlemen, start your engines." And, "Gentlemen, work on your cars." And, "Gentlemen, change those tires a little faster to give your driver an edge."

"Who's going to win?" asks Nelson. "You really don't know. You can pick your favorite, or pick somebody who's on a streak, but the reality is that you don't know until the end of the race who's going to win."

It's the way they want it, stuck in the '60s and loving every minute of it.

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