NASCAR, Nerds, and Bill Nye

Bill Nye the Science Guy, who educated me on TV as a nerd in the making with his science themed kids’ show, is talking about NASCAR again.

My nerdy endeavors and love of NASCAR rarely cross streams, especially living in New England where, despite the growth of the sport, NASCAR is still viewed as a southern thing. The way they cross today is… somewhat unfortunate.

Dale Earnhardt, NHMS, 1997
Dale Earnhardt, NHMS, 1997

Nye’s first training is as an engineer, because science comes in all sorts of flavors. In a recent blog post, he lamented NASCAR as “celebrating very old transportation technology of yesterday.” Nye’s family is from North Carolina, the center of the NASCAR world. He talks about seeing races in Martinsville and how exciting it is to watch.

Good. Fantastic. The sport needs to break the redneck stereotype.

But as an engineer and a scientist, he laments that NASCAR engines run around 3 miles per gallon.

I get it, Bill Nye. NASCAR isn’t exactly a gold star for the environment. It’s not exactly difficult to deduce that 43 cars rumbling around for 500 miles and burning 166 gallons of gas a pop is not exactly efficient. Plus the thousands of fans in attendance. And the trucks to get to the track. And practice, qualifying. A lot of dead dinosaurs are being burned up to make my favorite sporting event every week.

I do want to note that when Bill Nye talks about the “ancient tech” NASCAR uses, he talks about carburetors. This is actually false and NASCAR has used fuel injection since 2012, stemming from a push from the auto manufacturers who claimed that NASCAR engines were antiques. Irony!

The general vibe that I got from this when I scanned Twitter was more thoughtful than I expected. I love NASCAR but I can’t be alone in thinking that the sport needs a kick in the pants to act sometimes. People want to watch good racing. You could power the car with unicorn tears and pixie farts for all I care, as long as the race is good.

The sport exploded out of the south with a big boom starting at the tail end of the 90s but the boom has been cool for a while now. While some people may be able to scoff at a smaller NASCAR market like New Hampshire tearing out seats, you can’t when it’s Daytona or Richmond cutting back on seating capacity. Since that boom has cooled, I feel like NASCAR has been walking a fine line between celebrating tradition and stifling new growth.

NASCAR has a very vocal segment of the fan base that likes things The Way They Always Are, where nothing ever changes. There are times when this is amazing. The Darlington throwback weekend was one of the most amazing celebrations of the history of the sport that I’ve seen in my lifetime. But there are times when it’s not, like the reaction and rule changes that came to the All Star race after Josh Wise was voted in by the Reddit community. The vocal old guys (because let’s face it, the Let’s Never Change segment of the sport is a generational thing) cried about internet nerds clicking away on the computer to vote him in when really Danica should have been voted.

What the hell?!

dogecarIt’s not like either has won a Cup race. Wise’s best finish is 10th. Danica’s is only 6th in much better equipment. Yet there were fans out there that cried a driver who gets the most out of his equipment is less worthy of fans than one who hasn’t lived up to expectations. For crap’s sake, people, the internet nerds of Reddit came together to sponsor Josh Wise’s car!

And yet the Let’s Never Change Cadre thinks change is bad.

I kind of went off on a tangent there since I planned on keeping this focused on Bill Nye’s blogging.

Frankly, I think the tone Bill Nye takes doesn’t help his case, even though I share his sentiment that NASCAR will have to evolve with technology.

Nye’s condescending tone aside, his ideas are not bad per se. He does drop some good facts comparing the torque and horsepower between NASCARs and fully electric Tesla Model-S sedans. And do you ever watch Top Gear? The British version? They’ve tested full on supercars which feature hybrid engines. I personally drive a hybrid Subaru and love it. The electric motor takes care of the low end torque and the gas engine operates at higher speeds where it’s more efficient than the motor. But I am constantly surprised how many people ask me if I have to plug it in. That’s not how most hybrids work.

So yes, if Porsche can make a bad ass hybrid that lays down the rubber on the test track, there is no reason why hybrids or electrics can’t make for good racing. Although, I will be the first to admit there would be a creepy factor in how quiet racing electric cars would be.

Menard, McMurray, and a random guy ordering beer. NHMS, Sept '14
Menard, McMurray, and a random guy ordering beer. NHMS, Sept ’14

Someday, I think NASCAR will be in the position where it has to adapt and its hand will be forced. I don’t see it coming for a long time though and I hope the sport does not wait until it’s at the brink of collapse. There has to be money involved for NASCAR to make something like that happen since there would be a lot of dollars all around spent to adapt. I think the push would have to come from the car manufacturers and possibly coincide with another one entering the sport. Subaru wouldn’t come to NASCAR since any racing they do is rally. Honda or Volkswagon could bring enough incentive when combined with the current Ford, Chevy, Toyota players.

As more and more engineers are involved with the sport and car technology advances more every year, the nerds are going to become a stronger force in NASCAR. That’s healthy for the fan base, for the competitors, and for the crews.

NASCAR changes the same way a dam breaks. When I was a kid, pit crews were mechanics in cowboy boots and twenty second stops were good. Then Jeff Gordon’s Rainbow Warriors made pit crews a specialty occupation and you’d never have it another way now.

More and more people involved with NASCAR are coming at it with an engineering degree. There’s room for the engineers like Ryan Newman (Purdue University class of ’01) and the wrenchers like Brad Keselowski (grew up with his father’s K Automotive Racing).

NASCAR needs to break the dam and let the nerds in. Push the technology in new ways. As long as we have a good product on the track driven by modern daredevils, most of us will be more than happy with it. Nerds have passion for what we like. Thousands of Reddit clicks for Josh Wise are proof that it can come to NASCAR.

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