Commentary

Winners and losers of testing ban hard to figure except for Rockingham

It's hard to figure how much money -- or maybe if any money -- will be saved with NASCAR's new testing ban at league-sanctioned tracks announced Friday. But there was one clear winner; take a bow, Rockingham Speedway, writes David Newton.

Updated: November 14, 2008, 5:31 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Andy Hillenburg's phone at Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina rang off the hook on Friday morning.

People were calling to book testing time at the 1-mile facility within minutes of the announcement that testing at NASCAR-sanctioned tracks will be suspended in 2009 to help organizations save money as the economy struggles.

"Obviously, people are paying attention to us more now," Hillenburg said.

Rockingham Speedway is one of only a handful of nonsanctioned tracks available for testing. Hillenburg expects the track will be booked for about 150 days, or twice what he anticipated before the announcement.

"A couple of guys that called joked with me about how much did we raise the price [to rent the track]," he said. "The price is the still the same as the first day we took over. We've got a business plan and want to stick with it, but this will definitely speed up the process of bringing us back to speed."

Yes, Hillenburg will benefit from NASCAR's new policy. The $5,000 daily rental fee will help supplement the $4.4 million he spent a year ago to purchase the former Cup facility.

Do the math: $5,000 times 150 equals $750,000.

But will the policy benefit the teams? The savings probably won't add up to the $30 million that NASCAR chairman Brian France said could be erased from the budget. To do that the governing body would have had to ban testing at all tracks.

Teams still will travel to Rockingham, Caraway Speedway, New Smyrna Speedway and Virginia International Raceway (a road course) to test. Some will put the money they spent on testing into seven-post, pull-down rigs and more engineers.

"We're going to hire Jimmie [Johnson] and Chad [Knaus] and pool our money together," joked Robbie Loomis, the vice president for racing operations at Petty Enterprises. "You're going to spend it somewhere."

Eddie Gossage, the president of Texas Motor Speedway, is among those skeptical of the new policy.

"If NASCAR eliminates all testing -- truly eliminates it -- during these economic times then this is a good call," he said. "If all it does is force teams to continue to test but only at non-NASCAR tracks that likely features lesser safety standards, then the policy is counterproductive.

"I appreciate NASCAR's intent and time will tell if true results match the intent. I strongly encourage NASCAR to increase the amount of official practice time on race weekends to help continue the development of the Sprint Cup car."

OK, so Gossage is looking out for his own welfare when he asks for more practice time. But at least with Friday's announcement there no longer is the pressure to spend money on testing.

If NASCAR had implemented testing at 26 tracks -- as it floated earlier this year -- teams would test at 26 tracks in order to keep up with the competition.

Tony Gibson, who will move from crew chief of the No. 8 at Dale Earnhardt Inc. to crew chief for Ryan Newman at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, estimates the policy will cut testing budgets by more than 50 percent.

"If it costs us $10 million, it will cost us $3 million or less [under the new policy]," he said between practices at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "You're going to control your own deal. At least now NASCAR is not forcing us to go test."

Exactly what the savings will be is anybody's guess. Rick Hendrick, who is on the cusp of a third straight championship with Johnson, estimated the savings would be between $800,000 and $1 million per team.

So for a four-car operation such as Hendrick Motorsports, that's about $4 million.

Others estimate the savings will be much more because an engine program alone for the test program costs $3.5 million to $3.8 million for the year.

[+] EnlargeMike Helton
AP Photo/David GrahamNASCAR president Mike Helton said he isn't sure how much a testing ban will save teams, but he did estimate it in the 10s of millions.

"We don't know what the number is per team," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "We don't know what the collective is from the industry. We have a pretty good feel this is in the range of 10s of millions."

It's certainly a good move from a public relations standpoint. Regardless of the savings, it gives the impression NASCAR is doing its part to help in a climate that has rumors flying that organizations such as Bill Davis Racing and Hall of Fame Racing are on the brink of shutting down.

"This decision is a big decision, and it's a big decision because of the current circumstances we've got," Helton said.

Not everybody agreed with the decision. Hendrick put up the biggest opposition. His concern, and rightfully so, is how are teams going to catch up once they fall behind? Or how will a young driver such as 18-year-old Joey Logano of Joe Gibbs Racing improve?

Were it not for testing, Hendrick admits Johnson might not be in position to become the first driver in 30 years to win three straight titles.

"The one thing I know about this new car is what works for one driver won't work for the other driver," he said, recalling all the testing Johnson did to improve. "It's got to be tuned to the needs of the individual. I don't see how the elimination of testing is going to benefit anybody other than saving money, maybe.

"What we've been through this year, it took us going to the track to get better."

Hendrick actually has what sounds like the best idea to save money and still allow teams to test at tracks where they compete. Let the teams get in two full test sessions on Fridays with data acquisition units on the cars so engineers can collect data as they do at a test session.

Then have qualifying on Saturday, remove the data acquisition units and race on Sunday.

Maybe teams will bring a few more engineers or specialists to the tracks to read the data, but they don't have to. The information can be downloaded into a computer and sent to Charlotte just as easily as it can be read at the track.

"If you can't figure it out in those two sessions chances are you're not going to figure it out," Hendrick said.

This plan also would help young drivers gain experience under test-like conditions. If NASCAR wants, it also can continue with another practice for the rookies as it currently does.

Helton said no decisions have been made on such proposals. He then added, "I would not encourage anybody that there are things that they would like to see that might happen."

He also hopes this is a temporary policy, that things can return to normal in 2010 or beyond. He didn't rule out adding a special test if the situation warrants.

So NASCAR appears to be doing its part to help.

Lost in all of this is the number of people who will lose jobs with this rule. Some organizations such as Penske Racing have entire test teams that no longer will be necessary. Others employee extra people specifically for testing.

There's also the chance that this could widen the gap between the top and bottom of the field. Organizations such as HMS still will have money to find advantages in other ways.

"The best data you can get is going to the track and getting it," Helton countered. "You can also make the argument that it maybe closes the gap."

Either way, Hillenburg wins. Teams are going to spend more money than before to test at his track, where Logano has been a "regular" for much of this season.

"Yeah, but it's a huge savings coming here," he said. "Teams that come here, they don't fly over. They can get here in an hour and a half. They don't have hotel bills. I say they can test for 25 percent less here than other speedways just because of the location.

"I don't think anybody has all the answers, anyway. You just do something, make it work, roll with that, and that's what they're doing right now. Will this be forever? No, and I know that."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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