By admin | June 13, 2011
By Richard Allen
Many viewers of the TNT broadcast of the 5 Hour Energy 500 from the Pocono Raceway may have heard the playback of a Tony Stewart tirade over his in-car radio in which he very sarcastically said, “I just want to thank NASCAR for having us shift 600 times today, I appreciate that.”
Stewart was referring to the fact that NASCAR had mandated a gear ratio that would allow drivers to drop down into third gear at certain parts of the oddly shaped 2.5 mile track and then shift back up to fourth gear on the track’s long straightaways.
In reality, of course, it was never mandated by NASCAR that shifting had to occur. But, that option was there if drivers and teams chose to take advantage of it. Any driver that did choose to shift would likely receive the advantage of being able to get up off the corners better than drivers who did not shift. However, the risk involved was that with every shift came the possibility of equipment failure.
Drivers who chose not to shift lost ground out of the turns but got better gas mileage and ran less risk of failure. So, the option to shift or not to shift was implemented to create a tortoise vs. hare type situation.
In Stewart’s case, at least, the tortoise gained the advantage due to the fact that at some point in the race’s second half his Chevrolet lost third gear which severely handicapped the driver, particularly on pit stops and restarts.
And while there was no order to shift, in one sense, Stewart was not wrong to criticize NASCAR. Several years ago there were no mandates regarding gear ratios so teams were allowed to implement any combination they chose. Ultimately, many installed a third gear that would allow for enough RPMs to get the car off the corners but not so much as to hurt the engine, except for when driver error occured. The fourth gear acted much like an overdrive gear, which would reduce the RPMs on the long straights.
Supposedly in the name of saving teams money, NASCAR decided to strictly dictate the gear ratios teams would be allowed to use on every track. In so doing, they eliminated shifting at Pocono for a time.
This year, the sanctioning body decided to bring the practice back, but not in the right way. A slightly higher third gear did indeed improve lap times. But it did so at the cost of equipment failure.
Ultimately, no one made Tony Stewart shift at Pocono. But in order to keep up he and other drivers felt as though they had to do so. If NASCAR wants drivers to shift at the track they need to allow each team’s engineers decide what gear ratios they want to use instead of simply having those ratios dictated to them.
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