The announcement of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tours’ scheduled race at Bristol Motor Speedway (TN) has created a stir in the short track scene. Some people say it's a stage the Modified Tour needs to be on and were are excited about the opportunity. On the othert hand, almost Immediately pessimists came out of the woodwork saying that it could be a disaster.
The first step in determining which side of the debate would be correct was taken this week when six teams took to the Tennessee high-banks for the very first time for a test session. 2008 Tour champions Ted Christopher (North) and Brian Loftin (South) along with LW Miller, Todd Szegedy, Matt Hirschman and Ronnie Silk were all willing guinea pigs ready to run as fast as they could around Bristol Motor Speedway.
On Tuesday morning, a large crowd of people gathered on pit road waiting for the first car to hit the track. Northern and Southern Modified people traveled from long distances to be there, Parts manufacturers and chassis builders showed up to see what was going to happen. Drivers like Eddie Flemke, Jamie Tomaino and Whelen Mod Tour Rookie of the Year Glen Reen made the trek to witness the historic test.
The sound of 2007 NASCAR Whelen Southern Mod Tour champ LW Miller’s car pulling on the track evoked excitement and made all who were in attendance forget about the chilly temperatures.
“I said coming in that I wanted to be the fifth or sixth car to go,” explained Miller. “I wanted to stand in the corner and watch these other guys. Nobody seemed to be getting with it this morning, so I told the guys ‘Hey let's make history and be the first one to run around here in a Modified.’ "
The first laps at the super-fast half-mile were pretty intense for all of the competitors. They pretty much all admitting that they felt the speed and the nerves.
“When I came in the first time, they asked what I thought. I told them I had to wait for my leg to stop shaking," laughed LW. “I had that old nervous leg syndrome going on. It was intense. It’s just like a guy like Mark Martin, who has been racing Cup cars forever, when he runs it off in there at Daytona for the first time each year and doesn't lift it’s got to be intense.”
“I got done with a two or three lap run and was out of breath,” said 2003 Mod Tour Champ Todd Szegedy. “I consider myself to be in decent shape. I run a lot, five or six miles, bike and exercise all of the time. I don’t think it has to do with physical strength. I think it’s the fact that you are holding your breath. I think it’s your mind saying ‘hold your breath and hang on.’ My hands were shaking after I was done.”
“The first lap up at speed you forget to breathe because you just don’t know what the limit is and you think there is no way you are going to make the corner,” said Mod young gun Ronnie Silk. “After a few sessions, it gets comfortable. Now I am used to it and it’s not a big deal at all but those first few laps I was hanging on. Especially with how bad we were bottoming out.”
Once the drivers got used to Bristol, it was all about getting the cars dialed in. Teams struggled at first with getting the cars up off the concrete surface in the turns. . While most cars hit their frames on the track, Teddy Christopher was dragging his transmission. So much so that they wore a hole in the tranny on the #36. The team had to leave the track to get it fixed at a local machine shop to continue testing.
Teams went to stiffer springs packages and increased tire pressures to get the cars up off the track. The speeds picked up and so did driver confidence. How fast did the Modsters go? Well, with a mandated restrictor plate, LW Miller clocked in a lap of 14.742 seconds around the half-mile. The time was good enough to break Ryan Newman's 2003 Sprint Cup Series track record of 14.908 seconds.
Going into the test, one of the concerns was how the Modifieds would hold up under those high speeds and heavy loads. Without an incident during the all-day session, both NASCAR and the drivers were pleased with how the cars held up.
“I came here a little conservative with my car,” admitted Miller. "I put stronger hubs on my car. I beefed up my suspension a little bit. Coming back, I’m going to do it a lot more. It all went well today but you don’t know until you race. Hopefully if we are prepared we won’t be one of the guys with an issue.
“We did do a couple of things to prepare,” said 2008 Southern Champ Brian Loftin. “Troyer built us some lower control arms. We got new hubs from Speedway Engineering that we knew would be strong enough. I don’t see any real problems. If you have good stuff on the car you should be fine.”
“The only thing we were real concerned with was the hubs,” said Szegedy. “We came with different ones. The ones we normally use are lighter and less material. I think they should make it mandatory that we all have to run the same hubs. I think it will be safer. People won’t want to run them because they are heavier and that is rotating weight. NASCAR needs to make it mandatory to run these heavier hubs. Some people will complain because they don’t want to spend the money, but you can’t skimp on safety.”
Components aside, the biggest topic of the day was the restrictor plate. NASCAR had teams bolt on a 1 1/8 inch restrictor plate (the same size as is used at New Hampshire Motor Speedway) in an attempt to limit their speeds around the lightning quick track. As the Mods barely blipped the throttle lap after lap, the plate debate immediately circulated throughout the infield pit area.
During the lunch hour Ted Christopher and Matt Hirschman discussed the issue in the infield media center. Afterwards, they went to NASCAR’s Brett Bodine and Chad Little with their thoughts. NASCAR was receptive to the drivers’ input and let them take the restrictor plates off during the final stages of the test.
Although NASCAR gave no indication on Thursday to what their decision would be on the restrictor plate, Tour director Chad Little explained the thought process behind trying it both ways during the test.
“We wanted to be cautious about it,” said Little. “There is obviously a maximum speed that we don’t want to go over. There are concerns on the parts and pieces that they don’t have any issues on failing. We wanted to see where we were as far as speeds and had telemetry in the cars to verify that. Then we had to look at what will make the best show out of it. Is it being able to put it on the ground and run the whole time? Or are you going to be able to get out of the throttle and use more brake and having to manage the throttle? That was the reasoning behind that.”
TC turned in the fastest un-restricted lap with making a circuit around Bristol in 14.479 seconds, less than three-tenths quicker than with the restrictor plate on.
So after running with and without the plate, what did the drivers think?
“I think they should run us without the plate,” said reigning Mod Tour Champ Ted Christopher. “With the plate off you will get your tires to wear quicker which in turn will make some people slip and slide more and get out of the throttle, which makes for better racing. We had a lot of laps on our tires and with the plate you could still drive the thing floored. Without the plate (un-restricted), it brings in a different aspect. You’ll have to lift going into the turn.”
“At first they seemed to be reluctant to allow us to take them off,” said Matt Hirschman, who was invited by Troyer to test their house-car at Bristol. “That’s probably for good reason if they think they were going to slow us down some. Without the plate we really didn’t pick up much on speed. You had a little more drive-ability in the car though. You had to drive the car like you would at most other places we race.
“In the long run with tire wear and handling coming into play you will end up going slower without the plate. With the plate on you’ll just be able to hold it more wide open. Not only would the racing be better (un-restricted) but in the long run I think you will be going slower.”
LW Miller, who left the test because he had to drive up to Pennsylvania, was the only competitor that didn’t get to run without the restrictor plate. Most of the drivers were of the opinion that no plate would equal a better brand of racing.
“I definitely liked it better without the plates,” said Loftin. “I think it would be more conducive for passing whenever the tires would get worn. It had better throttle response and didn’t pick up a whole lot on the clock. NASCAR probably thought it would.”
“I think what they realized is that with the plate on you are going to be pretty much just holding it wide open,” said Hirschman. “In a racing situation I could see where nobody is going to want to lift and kill that momentum. Without the plate, if you have to lift in traffic, you will have the motor there when you get back on it. In a racing situation I think it will be better."
TC and others agreed that the wide-open style momentum racing caused by the restrictor plate could equal some hairy moments in traffic.
“I think with the plate it would be a cat and mouse game,” said TC. “You might have to start moving somebody and that is something I don’t want to do at a place like that. If you run it around floored like that all day it’s like ‘what the heck?’ I don’t think it’s the right way. We only went about five miles per-hour faster when we took the plate off according to Brett (Bodine) and that’s in the beginning when the tires were good.”
Tires were another concern with NASCAR and the teams because of the intense speeds and high grip at Bristol. . At first the tires appeared to hold up well when doing three and four lap runs. As the session rolled on and the runs got longer, tires became more of an issue.
“I know that the Hoosier folks were not happy with the tire that they brought and not happy with the results,” commented Loftin. “The whole right side seemed like it was generating a lot more heat than they wanted to see. For it to be February and 40-degrees, up there and when we come back it’s going to be August and 90-degrees, we were getting them pretty hot on 10-lap runs. They’ll come back with a better package than what we had and I’m confident with that.”
“The one factor we have to figure on here is that the tire we ran on (at the Bristol test) will not be the tire we come back with,” said Little. “That is going to be an important equation to this. The tire we had was a good control set to see where we are and to see how the components were. We know we have to make improvements in all areas.”
The day proved that Bristol might not be the monster that some thought it would be. With the new concrete surface and smoother transitions drivers didn’t have too much trouble getting around its seemingly tricky turns. Brian Loftin, who has raced Bristol in the former NASCAR Goody’s Dash Series, couldn’t believe how Mod-friendly the track was.
“It’s as smooth as glass,” said Loftin of the surface. “There used to be about a two-foot transition point coming in and out of the corners that if you didn’t hit it right you were going to spin out. There was no way around it because it unloaded the car so bad. When we ran the Dash cars here, I bet we had to raise the ride heights about six-inches. If you think on a Modified we are at about 2 ½ or 3 inches (ride-height) so it would have been nearly impossible to run one here before. Now they’ve done such a good job (with the transitions). We’re running into the ground a little bit but mainly because we under-estimated the speed and the force the cars were going to have and are sprung too soft.”
The high banks gave way to two other topics that drivers discussed as well. Some were surprised with the G-Forces that they experienced and the visibility out of their cars.
“The G’s are pretty awesome,” explained Szegedy. “It’s a totally different experience because it is pushing you down in the seat rather than over to the side of the seat. I also noticed that the vision isn’t as good as at a lot of tracks. I guess with the banking it’s almost like you are looking up into the roof at the corner. I’m thinking if you are in a pack near the back, you might not even see that many cars in front of you. That’s different. It’s almost like a video game.”
“The Cup and Busch guys all have the same issue with visibility here,” added Loftin. “With the banking you just can’t see out the front of the windshield when you are in the center of the corner. You are basically seeing the top of the car. You just have to rely on your spotter here more. Things happen so fast here anyway you have to rely on your spotter more.”
With all things said, we’d say the optimists most likely beat the pessimists after the first NASCAR Modified test at Bristol. Some adjustments have to be made but the bottom line is, Mod drivers will get a shot at running one of the biggest stages they’ve had a chance to be on.
“I have to admit that I was a little skeptical at first about coming here,” said LW Miller. “A lot of guys were saying 'you can’t do it' and other guys were saying 'there is nothing to it.' I think it is somewhere in between. I don’t think it’s as bad as the naysayers thought it was going to be. I don’t think it’s as easy as the others said it was going to be. Unfortunately until you race, you’re never really going to know. I don’t think you’ll see cars breaking left and right or see cars flying out of the grandstands like they have been talking about.”
“Overall it was very successful,” said Mod Tour director Chad Little of the test. “We saw areas that we will make improvements on and areas that we can help the teams on so they are better prepared. We’ll use those notes we made to help us better prepare for step-two of this process which won’t be too far away.”
With the race still far away on the calendar (Wednesday of the August NASCAR Sprint Cup weekend), expect NASCAR and the teams to have another test soon. They have plenty of time to make sure all angles of the equation are figured out, so they can put all the remaining naysayers to rest.