The opening of the 2006 Copper World Classic at Phoenix International Raceway, located in Avondale, Arizona, brought many changes. As the new season progresses, the changes will become more apparent. How these changes will be accepted by the racers and, more importantly, the fans, remains to be seen. USAC, NASCAR, and a few manufacturers have decided that 2006 shall become a watershed year for change. As with any change, it can be both a good thing and a bad thing. Many people have a difficult time with change, while others embrace it. Racers as a whole, no matter how progressive they may think they are, always view change with trepidation, mistrust, and fear. Unless they see an advantage for themselves, racers view any change with a cautious eye. Another perception that seems to follow change is that costs will rise, no matter what the sanctioning bodies may say. For many, that perception is reality.
With the start of the '06 season, USAC rolled out the new version of the Silver Crown car. It was received with mixed reviews. This was not a surprise to anyone in the racing world. USAC has been very up front about the changes and why they are making them. Spectators will see changes in the look of the car, and drivers will experience a difference in the feel of the Silver Crown cars on the track. Please note that this change is not just some new body panel or rules that relate to a specific component. The whole car has been redesigned. The only parts that remain the same are the engine, some of the driveline, and the brakes; everything else is new. The owners will see new costs and a good deal of perfectly good race cars relegated to collector's items. Some liked the look of the new car while others were perplexed as to what USAC was thinking. Several of the drivers, who have asked to remain unnamed, said the cars drove well but seemed to hit a wall as the speeds increased. This is due to the brick-like noses the cars are mandated to run.
USAC's intent was not to make the car slippery, from an aerodynamic perspective, but to generate drag and keep the cars equal rather than unequal due to any clever body modifications. This bodywork acts as an aero-restrictor plate and is there to help keep speeds in a reasonable range, as the plan for 2006 will have the Silver Crown cars on some 1.5-mile tracks. The intent was to improve the show for the fans by using a high aero-drag body to level the playing field. These USAC Sprinters were slower than the Southwest Tour cars, which have more weight and less horsepower. So, from that perspective, the aero package was working.
The new Silver Crown cars seemed to have a problem keeping the wheels attached to the axles. We observed a car going into Turn 1 and losing one of its wheels prior to entering Turn 2. Ordinarily, this could be attributed to poor pre-race preparation; but we also observed several cars in the pits with the wheel hubs covered with aluminum shavings from the wheels loosening up on the hub. There were also some problems with the clutches and transmissions. In the pits, several cars were under repair because of a clutch, a transmission, or both. This may be due to drivers not being completely familiar with the clutch and transmission or the parts being too small to handle the amount of power being routed through them. Either way, only time will tell just how durable these parts will be. One has to remember that these are new cars and there will be some teething problems.
Also a consideration in the design of the cars was keeping crash survivability while trying to save part of the traditional look of a Sprint Car. USAC has done a fairly good job of each. The cars still resemble a Sprint Car but have some new appendages. Aside from the new nose, there is the addition of some box-like pods on the sides of the car. The tail of the car still retains the traditional tail tank, but fuel is no longer stored in the tail; it is just another section of bodywork.
Under the bodywork, the cars have all of the normal Silver Crown driveline components, with the exception of a new two-speed gearbox and hand-operated clutch. First gear is used purely to get the car moving, and Second gear is used as the race gear. Several of the cars were equipped with pneumatic lifts incorporated into the chassis a la IRL and Champ cars. While a neat feature, these cars were not designed for pit stops, but who knows? Change is in the air.
NASCAR has decided that the Elite divisions will no longer be part of the NASCAR family after the '06 season. There is way too much good equipment for this series to just disappear, so ASA and the SLR Super Late Model series are stepping in with an ASA-sanctioned series for these cars in 2007. NASCAR said that they opted to eliminate the Elite Series due to a declining car count and fewer tracks willing to front the cost of the touring series. The sheer number of cars competing in the Elite Division race at PIR was impressive despite the impending demise of the division.
The NASCAR Grand National Division cars (which are just 3-year-old Busch cars) were out in big numbers. This division seems to have some very well-funded teams racing for some very small purses. Walk through the pits and you would think you were at a Cup or a Busch race, based on the car haulers and the state of preparation that many of these cars have reached. There were still some older and well-worn cars trying to make the field but, for the most part, these cars were in primo, like-new condition.
The fastest cars on the track, by several seconds, were the USAC midgets. The average car produces a power output level in the mid- to low-300hp range, and some of the more highly tuned engines reach power levels in the high 300s or more. This, combined with light weight, a very sticky tire compound, and some drivers who are not afraid to drive the car into the corner, produces some very quick times around the mile at Phoenix. The midgets that are racing in the Copper World are not just dirt midgets with different tires, a different gear set, and some extra body panels to help with the aero loading. These are special pavement-only cars. Racing a midget on the mile at Phoenix is not a casual change from racing a dirt car. These cars are special pavement machines that are purpose built for the big paved tracks.
The big news in the midget ranks was the debut of the Toyota midget engine. Yes, you read that right-Toyota is going grassroots racing. The engine looks very similar to the Ford engine from a layout perspective. Further digging revealed that the engine is based on the same head that is used in the Toyota Tundra Craftsman Truck engine. The remainder of the engine has a clean sheet design that was developed in partnership with Ed Pink Racing engines. The introduction of a new engine for the midget series is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good insofar as Toyota thinks there is enough growth potential within midget racing to see a potential revenue stream from the series. It's bad for the racer if the engine is better than the existing engines already entrenched in the series. Just how good was the engine? It sat on the pole and won the race. It was good for Toyota, but bad if you were running a different engine. But before we sound the death knell for the other engines in the field, let's look at the whole story with a more jaded view.
The only team with the Toyota engine was the team owned by Steve Lewis. This is a team with a history of many victories all over the country in every major midget race of any importance. The drivers were some of the best the class has to offer, with Dave Steele (the eventual winner) and Dave Darland. So, before the first race, Toyota played the trump card. The race itself was all about Bobby East, prior to his engine expiring. Had the engine in Bobby East's midget not expired, he would have been the real threat to win this race. But the record book will show a Toyota pole and a Toyota victory.
The midget race was one of the best of the weekend from a speed perspective; however, the best race, as far as on-track battles, was in the NASCAR Grand National division. The pole was won by a young racer named Spencer Clark from Las Vegas. He led the majority of the race with the perennial "I will race anywhere" Ken Schrader hot on his tail. Spencer held off Schrader until late in the race, when traffic became a factor. As trite as it may sound, experience was a real advantage, with Schrader winning the event. There was some real racing in this class, as it was filled with lots of passing at or near the front. Spencer Clark is one of those young men to watch in the near future as he tries to make his mark in the racing world.
As a multi-feature and multi-class event, the Copper World Classic is as filled with tradition as it is with entries. The race was fairly well attended from a fan perspective, although the new additional seating at PIR made what was a fairly large fan attendance look rather sparse, as the people were spread out over a much larger area. The future looks interesting, as we will see how the new formula for the USAC sprints will bear out. The Toyota engine and the impact that it may have within the midget community was one of the most interesting stories of the weekend. Only time will tell if this drama will play out favorably for the racer.