By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The buzz in the racing business right now is the dreaded "Balance of Performance" contretemps that is swirling around and threatening the fundamental credibility of the sport. From the WEC, with its shenanigans at Le Mans, and the equally confounding maneuverings in the NASCAR-ized IMSA, to the constant thrum and churning in the Pirelli World Challenge, let's just say it's a giant mess. (And IndyCar and Formula 1 have their issues too.)
But first of all, we need to remind ourselves that this is nothing new. In the run-up to the 200-mph average speed barrier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 60s, racing was on an upward trajectory. The "unlimited" Can-Am road racing series was enjoying its heyday, and NASCAR was even endorsing production "specials" from the manufacturers like the Dodge Daytona/Plymouth Superbird and the Ford Torino Talladega. And Formula 1 was going wing crazy - at least for a while - and then Gordon Murray adapted the GM-developed auxiliary suction system - aka ground effects - pioneered for the Chaparral 2J for his Brabham BT46b. And last but not least, the speeds at Le Mans on the famed Mulsanne straight were jaw-dropping, eclipsing 250 mph at one point. The ever-increasing speed in racing was great. Pushing the envelope and going faster was the name of the game. And it was all good, all the time.
Until it wasn't, of course.
With those ever-increasing speeds came difficulties. Accelerated developments in aerodynamics, tires, power, materials and overall technological sophistication overwhelmed the tracks and swallowed the sport whole, in one big gulp. No one talked about the McLaren dominance of the Can-Am series being "boring," but once Roger Penske and Mark Donohue upped the ante with manufacturer-assisted technological development, bringing the fabulous turbo Porsche 917s to the series - which decimated the competition - it was basically all over in just two seasons. Yes, the Can-Am lived on for a while, but it was never the same.
As for Indy-type cars, they became too fast, and without the onset of restrictions in power and aero there were legitimate fears of 260+ mph lap speeds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which, given the level of safety technology both in the cars and the track itself at the time, caused considerable - and justifiable - consternation. (Remember, this was long before the SAFER barriers were developed.)
F1 went to smaller engines in the hopes that the speeds would be mollified a bit, but in no time the 1500-cc turbo engines were putting out well over 1000HP for qualifying, and the specification era was well and truly on, even at the pinnacle of the sport.
The ACO incorporated two very pronounced chicanes on the Mulsanne straight in order to bring the speeds down. And NASCAR, after the near-tragic accident at Talladega involving Bobby Allison, decided to place restrictions on its cars on the fastest tracks, inventing the term "restrictor-plate" racing.
All of racing was painfully aware that the horrific day back in 1955 at Le Mans could never, ever be repeated. And that's why - along with the costs - racing became a game of restrictions and specifications. (We can only imagine in this 24/7 social media-fueled age what the explosion of outrage would be if an accident of those proportions - or worse - happened today. I have no doubt that the sport would be forced to go "dark" with insurance restrictions becoming prohibitive for tracks overnight, for starters.)
In recent times "Balance of Performance" has emerged as not only a way of harnessing speeds through specifications, it became a way of managing costs, and in NASCAR's case, the competition itself. Unfortunately, it has spread like a disease and there appears to be no end in sight to the carnage that it has caused.
The Pirelli World Challenge, for instance, boasts that there are ten different manufacturers involved in its series, but there are a dizzying number of classes and a fundamental cessation of visual credibility in the series when you have McLaren supercars pounding around tracks fighting for position with highly-reimagined Acuras. What's wrong with this picture? Plenty. For one thing the McLarens should be fighting it out in IMSA's GTLM/GTE PRO class, not playing Sideshow Bob in the PWC. After the utter joke that the PWC created with its ham-fisted BoP wrangling at Road America - and the flat-out gift given to the Acuras - I feel the series doesn't have even a shred of credibility left. (As for the manufacturers involved, if they haven't gotten a big dose of reality by now - which should be causing some serious reevaluation of their involvement in the PWC - then they deserve to continue to look stupid.)
But the shenanigans by the ACO and IMSA are just as bad, and there is a distinct difference between the two in case you're wondering. The French are just flat-out bad at it. They wanted a Ford vs. Ferrari "show" at Le Mans this year in GTE PRO and they did everything in their power to insure that's exactly what happened. The blatancy of it stunk up the proceedings and they came off looking like complete idiots in the process. The rancor directed at the ACO afterwards was much deserved, and that bitterness is going to last a long time.
The situation in IMSA's GTLM class is different because the road racing series is governed by the spiritual home of BoP - aka NASCAR - and there is a basic, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown" cynicism about it going in. And since it is being guided - at least theoretically - by the maliciously incompetent Mark Raffauf, everyone, particularly the manufacturers, expects the worst. And this just in: They are rarely disappointed.
The concept of "Balance of Performance" - at least on paper - should work. After all, it reins in speeds, controls cost and generally prevents the whole thing from getting out of control. But the side effects are deadly. At the very least it leads to a strangulation, if not the outright prevention of any technical creativity. The engineers input the specs and algorithms into their computers and a car spits out. How is that seductive, engaging or even interesting? The quick answer? It isn't, but then again that's just scratching the surface of this festering shit pile called "BoP."
The real evil of the "Balance of Performance" concept is that it has deteriorated into a dismal shell game of "managed" competition, rewarding whichever manufacturer is currently in favor with a specific sanctioning body, depending on the political gerrymandering, promotional money being spent and the associate sponsorship outlays, of course. The bright-eyed creativity that once powered this sport to greater and greater heights in its formative years has been replaced by a rancid, cynical, "pay-to-play" manipulation based on corporate marketing initiatives tinged with personal agendas. And it's a giant bowl of Not Good.
The ultimate effect? It dumbs down absolutely everything connected to the sport.
Is there a near-term solution to this mess? I would love to say that there is but all indications are to the contrary. As much as racing desperately needs the freedom of a "run what you brung" spirit and a return to the days of "may the best driver/team win" at least in some forms of racing, I just don't see it happening. There's just too much greed, too much shortsightedness and too much stupidity overwhelming the sport right now.
And unless some of the brighter minds of the sport get together and change the fundamental course of the proceedings, this "Balance of Pain" will continue.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor's Note: Many of you have seen Peter's references over the years to the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation (HERF), which he launched in 2007. For those of you who weren't following AE at the time, you can read two of HERF's press releases here and here. And for even more details (including a link to Peter's announcement speech), check out the HERF entry on Wikipedia here. -WG
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Photo courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Riverside, California, October 30, 1966. Mario Andretti (No. 1 John Mecom Jr. Lola T70 Mk. 2 Ford) at speed in the L.A. Times-sponsored Can-Am race at Riverside International Raceway that year. Mario's Lola was powered by an experimental 427 Ford engine linked to a semi-automatic gearbox. The car was a "one-off" that wasn't the least bit developed, thus Mario qualified 13th and suffered a DNF due to a blown engine. John Surtees (No. 7 Team Surtees Lola T70 Mk. 2 Chevrolet) qualified second and won the race, while Jim Hall (No. 66 Chaparral Cars Chaparral 2E Chevrolet) finished second and Graham Hill (No. 3 Team Surtees Lola T70 Mk. 2 Chevrolet) came in third. Go to www.racingsportscars.com for more info on races back in the day.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD