Say the words Grand National Division to any longtime NASCAR fan and it conjures up images of Sam Ard, Larry Pearson, and Tommy Houston. Known as the Busch Grand National Division for many years, it was the stepping stone to the big time for many drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, and Tony Stewart, all of whom cut their NASCAR teeth in this division, the middle rung on the NASCAR ladder.
Several years ago, NASCAR began to restructure its regional touring series. During that time the "Grand National Division" was dropped from the name of that middle rung division and it became known simply as the Busch Series. Concurrently, the Busch Grand National North Series and its western counterpart were unified under the newly realigned Grand National Division banner. A few years later, the two divisions, now named Busch East Series and Auto Zone West Series to reflect their expanding territories, began using an identical rules package. This was a key component in laying the groundwork for a bigger restructuring of the two divisions.
"We're making a big push in restructuring," says George Silberman, NASCAR's managing director of racing operations. "There needs to be a clear path to the top [Nextel Cup] and the Grand National Division already had the right elements. It could easily become a developmental series for up-and-coming drivers."
In order for the Grand National Division to offer developmental opportunities while continuing to remain a viable home for regional racers, NASCAR needed to make sure it had three things: affordability, a level playing field, and great racing. Writing that down on a piece of paper is one thing, but turning it into reality is another. Tackling the affordability issue would become NASCAR's number-one priority.
Ideas on how to do that began to take shape in 2004. A team at NASCAR's Research & Development Center in Concord, North Carolina, honed in on two areas of the race car that are fertile ground for runaway spending: the motor and the body.
Richard Buck, NASCAR's director of touring series, said the motor's development took two years from concept to track. The philosophy was to create a powerplant that could compete with the best built engines in the series while delivering consistent horsepower and superior durability at a reasonable cost. So NASCAR took the 2005 Busch East championship-winning engine, which belonged to Grizco Racing/Andy Santerre Motorsports, headed to the dyno, and developed baseline numbers.
Oddly enough, they developed the engine backward. "We started with the horsepower and torque numbers that we wanted to hit [about 610-615 hp], then we built a robust motor to those numbers," says Buck, a five-time Indy 500 winning crew chief. "Our goal was to get the same horsepower as a championship-caliber 'built' motor in a much more economical package that is affordable for anybody in the Grand National Division."
Walk through the Busch East garage area and you would be hard pressed to find anybody who doesn't like the new spec motor. Other than the cost factor, another big reason for this is the fact that nobody is forcing it down the competitors' throats. NASCAR decided to make the use of the motor optional. "There is a lot of inventory out there, inventory that we don't want to obsolete," explains Buck. In essence, as more racers run through that inventory and discover the spec motor, the competitors themselves will make it mandatory. That philosophy is a departure from the typical rule-mandated world of Nextel Cup.
Buck is pleased with the results of the spec engine. "We didn't overshoot it with too much horsepower, and we didn't undershoot it. There is no clear advantage [to using the spec motor] other than cost."
He's not the only one either. "We're really happy with what we saw," says three-time AutoZone West Series Champion team owner Bill McAnally. "As a team owner, I wanted to make sure there wasn't a huge [competitive] advantage to having one of the spec engines. I didn't see an advantage. I see it being very close [to the regular engine]. I think they did a great job making this motor comparable to our existing engine." Comparable yes, heavier no. In fact, because of the components used, a spec motor is 80 pounds lighter than the traditional motor.
"I've purchased two [spec] engines and one composite body. They should save a lot of money," says 2006 AutoZone West Series Champion Eric Holmes, who adds that he's anxious to see how long the motor will last.
Buck says that one of the hallmarks of the spec engine is its durability. He likes to call it a robust motor. In a traditional engine teams have to rebuild the top end every three races or so. The new spec engine is showing no weaknesses, even after 2 to 3 times the amount of races run by traditional engines.
Tim Andrews, son of Winston Cup Championship-winning crew chief Paul Andrews, ran two Busch East races in 2006. He won at Dover with a built motor under the hood, but to do it he had to outrun cars with the spec motor.
"The spec motors got gobs and gobs of horsepower," says Andrews. "I was racing Matt Kobyluck [who ran a spec], and he would catch me on the straights while I could beat him bad in the corners. You could see the difference when we got back on the gas."
Andrews' experience shows that the spec motor is doing exactly what NASCAR intended: providing equal performance.
Taking the spec engine one step further, NASCAR will be using a revolutionary system to keep the creative engineering at bay. The motor has encryption marks on it that can only be read by a special handheld scanner. This allows NASCAR to verify the legality of the parts. So the new spec motor is still subject to the same scrutiny as an open engine. However, because the motor can be scanned, the inspection time at the track is cut down significantly, which saves time and money.
It is all designed to encourage new teams to get involved and help existing teams remain involved.
NICE BODY In addition to the motor, NASCAR has developed a composite body. Unlike the spec motor, the molded synthetic composite body has encountered skepticism from competitors. Manufactured by South Carolina-based American Fiberglass, the body design will be fundamentally the same for all makes and models. However, teams will be able to customize window openings and decals to suit their type of car.
The biggest complaints about the body is the offset, or lack thereof, and the fact that it might be hard to repair. "Everybody in the pits says that the body is not competitive, but we've never had any problems," says Dion Ciccarelli, the Maryland-based Busch East competitor who ran his composite body for the entire '06 campaign. "What hurt us the most was getting the correct setup."
Offset issues aside, fixing a composite body after an on-track incident is actually easier than fixing a traditional steel body in some cases. "I took a shot in the rear quarter-panel at Dover. All the tin work was destroyed. But it [the body] just popped right back up and all we had to do was glue the seam back together," continues Ciccarelli.
The composite body also enables his team to do the repairs themselves in their race shop. "Nobody on my team is a professional body guy." Consequently, with a traditional steel body, he would have to trailer the car down to North Carolina to get the body rehung or fixed after a wreck. That isn't the case with the composite body.
"It is easy to work with and easy to maintain," says Ciccarelli. "I bought only one bumper the whole year, which cost $1,300. A steel body car would have cost $6,000-$7,000 to keep it looking as straight as it did all year long. If I had a steel body car, I would not be able to run the full season. Honestly, I don't understand why a smaller team wouldn't go for it."
Repairing the composite body is not as hard as it seems. Fit the damaged area with an aluminum backing plate and a couple of rivets. Then, add some glue, bondo, and paint to finish the job. In addition, a team can unbolt the entire body and move it out of the way to allow one member to clean it up and make any necessary repairs while other team members work on the chassis, suspension, or motor. That may be a departure from the way most of us work on a race car, but it is yet another time-saving innovation. And we all know that time equals money.
Buck says there is no timetable to make the composite body mandatory in the Grand National Division. NASCAR is again letting the competitors choose whether or not they will run it.
"The Grand National Division is a fourth-tier series where you build skill sets," says Buck. "If we take and make a big change we have to create as level and as fair a playing field as we can. If we have to inspect two engines or two different body styles to make it work, then we will. We are fortunate enough to have the resources."
THE SCHEDULE Aside from the motor and body, the next biggest change in the Grand National Division is the schedule. The Busch East and AutoZone West Series have expanded schedules for 2007, both in the number of races and the geographic regions covered. The 2007 schedule will feature 14 races for each series and between the two visit 17 states. Each series schedule will have 13 championship points races and culminate in the 5th Annual NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown, an invitational event that includes the top drivers from both series. In addition, the minimum age requirement for NASCAR's Grand National Division as well as its two Modified Tours has been lowered to 16, a move designed to attract young competitors.
The revamped schedules have the West Series running from Texas, to Southern California, to Oregon, while the East Series travels from Tennessee, to Ohio, to New Hampshire. There are also two new combination races in the middle of the country. Those races will take place on May 18 at Elko (Minnesota) Speedway and May 20 at Iowa Speedway in Newton, Iowa.
In addition, the Grand National Division sports four new tracks for 2007. Oval track racers will recognize three right off the bat: South Boston (Virginia) Speedway, Music City (Tennessee) Motorplex, and Mansfield (Ohio) Motorsports Speedway. But guys in the West will be running at Miller Motorsports Park, a 2.2-mile road course near Salt Lake City.
Road course racing is part of the '07 schedule. "They added a couple of road courses which I love road racing," says Eric Holmes. "A few of my guys I race against don't like it. It's a little more expensive to road race."
The schedule expansion will force teams to travel farther to get to the events. "The West Coast is so spread out. Our biggest expense was traveling, and with the 2007 schedule it [travel distance] is going to be even worse," says Holmes.
While the West Coast schedule was always spread out, the old Busch Grand National North Series of years ago was concentrated in New England. And many of today's Busch East competitors, such as New Hampshire's Mike Olsen, the 2006 Busch East Series Champion, are still based there. "We're based in New Hampshire, so going to Tennessee, South Carolina, and Virginia is a pretty good haul," says Olsen. He is fortunate, as he has a sponsor who will help defer some travel costs, but he knows of several teams that will scale back to a limited schedule in 2007.
PROVING GROUNDS But while some teams scale back, others view the Grand National Division as an area of expansion. NASCAR Busch Series owner Armando Fitz just completed his first full year of competition in the Busch East Series and gives NASCAR's new format a big thumbs up.
"It's really good competitive racing week in and week out," says Fitz. "I said, 'hey this is a series where we can get in, where we can develop a driver, and it's not going to cost millions of dollars.'"
Developing a driver is the biggest motivation for Fitz, whose standalone Busch Series operation struggles to remain competitive against the better-funded Cup teams with Busch programs. "Let's face it, when you have 22 Cup guys [racing in Busch], we [Busch regulars] are all vying for 24th or 25th Place."
Couple that with a Busch budget and things in the newly revamped Grand National Division look great. "For $500,000-$600,000, you can run the whole season in Busch East and be competitive. That's a whole lot different than $5-$6 million in the Busch National to try to develop a driver."
Fitz co-owns a race team with Carlos Contreras in Mexico. Their original idea was to bring their driver, Ruben Pardo, up to the Busch East for two to three races just to get some experience in the bigger, heavier cars. "We ended up rounding up a little bit of sponsorship and competing the whole season. Ruben ends up winning Rookie of the Year and the last race of the season and all is well."
The team's success in 2006 led Fitz to commit to run three teams in the series in 2007. Pardo will be back again to run for the title while Chris Bristol will join him. The third team is still under development.
Fitz is one of the first national NASCAR team owners to step into the Grand National Division. And he won't be the last. "They [the big Nextel Cup teams] are going to catch on. I mean let's face it. It's a great series [with] a lot of really really good drivers," says Fitz.
Fitz is hoping that he has a year or two jump before the heavy hitters from Cup discover the Grand National Division. But the time frame may be a whole lot shorter than that. Richard Childress Racing already has a joint venture of sorts with Bill McAnally. McAnally had RCR development driver Peyton Sellers behind the wheel of his Chevys in 2006. In 2007, he will add Childress' newest protg, 2006 World of Outlaws Dirt Late Model Champion Tim McCreadie, to the stable.
McCreadie is an example of exactly what NASCAR wants from the Grand National Division: a young driver who is ready to make the jump to the next level of competition, but needs a series where he can build his skill sets without a lot of pressure.
"These drivers get thrown into the Busch National and you've got 20 Cup guys week in and week out that they go up against," says Fitz. "You've got the sponsors breathing down their necks about performance. It's just too hard, just too much pressure for them."
As Fitz pointed out, the appeal of the Grand National Division will most certainly lead to the participation of bigger racing organizations. Of course, protecting the spirit of the series rests on NASCAR's shoulders. Spending will be kept in check through the spec motor and the composite body. Those two items effectively level the playing field. In essence, Mike Olsen can compete against Roush Racing and still have a shot to win.
UNFOUNDED FEARS? The prospect of a Roush Racing coming into the series has a number of current competitors on the edge of their seats. "I hope it doesn't lead to that," says Eric Holmes. "I think it will put a lot of guys out of business. With the spec motors and the bodies, there's not a lot that you can do. But you get into coil-binding and shocks and springs. I mean there are springs that cost $2,000. We don't need people bringing that kind of stuff into this series."
Despite the fear of big-money teams coming in, there has to be some upper-level influence if the Grand National Division is going to be a true feeder series. "We need to have some of that technology so the drivers can get the feel of the cars so that when they go Busch [National] racing they're prepared."
With that in mind, Holmes is a proponent of the joint venture. "I hope the [National] team owners don't bring in their own teams and they sub it out to maybe teams like mine or McAnally's. I think that would be a lot better for the sport than a team just fully funding it. It will keep the series more alive. It would be great for the sport and it won't turn into the Busch Series."
Despite the impending influx of Cup money into the Grand National Division, NASCAR is adamant that they will preserve the spirit of the series. And that's just fine with competitors like Ciccarelli: "I really like this series a lot. We fit here. I hope the camaraderie continues."