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Future of auto racing a blur

By Mike McAllister
SI.com
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(SI.comexternal link) -- Predicting the future of auto racing may be a daunting -- and impossible -- task, but it helps to realize the importance of these three words:

Bigger. Safer. Faster.

These are the three mandates that all competitive motor sports circuits seem to share. Bigger, as in adding more fans, reaching more markets and, ultimately, making more money. Safer, as in eliminating the deadly crashes that can turn a competitive race into a horror show while still allowing drivers to reach their maximum potential without fear of ending their lives. And faster, as in the goal of anybody who has ever been in ear-shattering distance of a string of cars revved up to the red line on the tachometer.

But are these realistic goals? For instance, can Formula One, the world's most popular open-wheel circuit, and NASCAR, the king of American motor sports competition, possibly get any bigger?

Certainly, of course.

While the perception of some may be that NASCAR remains a regional fascination with Southern Fried characters and good ol' boy executives, the truth is that it continues to expand into pockets that heretofore had minimal interest in big-time motor sports.

A recent column by SI.com's Lars Andersonexternal link points out that NASCAR would like to see tracks built in Denver, Colorado (probable), Seattle, Washington (possible), and New York (well ...), and that a decade from now, don't be surprised if NASCAR expands globally into such areas as China and Mexico.

To do so, however, NASCAR also needs to expand its range of driver personalities and nationalities. One key move came last summer when world-class driver Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia announced his intention to leave the high-toned Formula One circuit to race in NASCAR's rougher-edged Nextel Cup stock-car circuit. The knee-jerk reaction of some motor sports enthusiasts was that Montoya -- having fallen on hard times in F-1 -- was now slumming in order to resuscitate his stagnant career.

After all, surmised F-1 faithful, who would leave the world's most popular open-wheel series, one that includes races at exotic locales such as Australia, Europe, Asia and Brazil, to rub fenders at Talladega, Alabama, and Bristol, Tennessee, if you didn't have to?

But maybe Montoya wasn't just trying to shake up his present-day status. Part of his decision stems from what he saw while peeking into the future. "I've always thought that NASCAR could be fun," he explained to SI's Anderson. "It's getting bigger by the year."

NASCAR, which has never had a foreign-born racer win the driver's championship, could use someone like Montoya to succeed in order to help draw in the Hispanic market. Similarly, other minority drivers are needed; NASCAR would have loved the opportunity to market Danica Patrick, the It Girl of Racing who made stock-car inquiries before opting to stay (for now) in the Indy Racing League. NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program still remains a work in progress, but at least an outlet is in place.

Meanwhile, the addition of Toyota to NASCAR's list of manufacturers this season is another example of the circuit becoming more global in recognition. Detroit's Big Three of Ford, GM and Dodge no longer have the market cornered when it comes to what makes of cars are racing around America's oval tracks. Who knows, will Mercedes or Ferrari one day step foot into the ring?

Formula One, of course, already has a global reach, but even its fans are asking for more. In a 2005 survey, in which more than 93,000 F-1 fans responded, 69 percent said the sport should travel to new countries, while 84 percent said the schedule should have more than the 17 races currently set for this season.

In terms of safety, NASCAR and F-1 continue to explore ways in which technology can save lives. On March 25, NASCAR will debut its Car of Tomorrow at the race in Bristol. The CoT, which had its conception soon after legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt died following a final-lap wreck in Daytona in 2001, has elements such as a thicker gas tank container, sturdier roll cage and readjusted seat alignment to provide drivers with safer conditions in case of an accident.

Meanwhile, F-1 has continually sought to implement safety improvements -- usually by decreasing speeds -- since the 1994 death of its star, Aryton Senna. In 2005, for instance, F-1 reduced the downforce on each car by adjusting the front and rear wings and modifying the rear diffuser profile. But the high-tech F-1 teams seem to make countermoves just as quickly to build up the speed again. It's a game of cat-and-mouse, thanks to that simple motivation of ...

Speed. That's the name of the game in auto racing (of course, it helps to have a little luck and to stay away from accidents).

The search for more speed will be the essence of auto racing's future, just as it has been for its past and for its present.

Speed, of course, isn't always apparent in the final tally of a car's mph. Pit crews are constantly fine-tuning the art of working on a car when it arrives for a splash of gas and some new rubber, all in hopes of shaving tenths of a second here and there -- time that could mean the difference between Victory Lane and a seat in the back of the pack.

Track owners also tinker with their road surfaces in hopes of allowing cars to go faster and create more excitement for fans. Las Vegas Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith increased the banking of his track's corners and backstretch; consequently, drivers set track records during preseason testing.

Tires on those cars, though, had trouble dealing with that increased speed, as the rubber heated to extreme levels. Of course, instead of finding ways to decrease the speed, Goodyear developed a tire that could handle the high temperatures. Losing speed, you see, is not an option.

And losing speed will not be an option going forward. Whether it's expansion into the Far East, a more protective driver environment or technology that renders speed reduction rules obsolete, the future of motor racing has one thing in common with the product being presented on the track.

Both are moving at a blur.

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NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow is part of auto racing's push for safer vehicles.

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