Having been a fan of NASCAR for decades, I’ve noticed what some others may have realized about Sarah Palin, and the importance of timing in official entry into the race for the nomination. Sarah Palin’s been in the race, whether anybody realized it or not, since November 5th, 2008. Her position as McCain’s running mate and the very positive influence she had on the race meant that the party’s base would look to her for leadership in that position unless she openly demurred. After stepping aside from her office in July 2009, Governor Palin began to carry the burgeoning Tea Party’s banner. The Tea Party was born as a reply to Obama’s over-reaching, and Palin’s relation to it merely accentuates the point: She’s exactly the right candidate for America, but to win, she’ll need to consider timing like a NASCAR veteran. It looks as though she has.
Have you ever watched a NASCAR race at a super-speedway like the tracks at Daytona or Talledega? These races really come down to a good deal of tactical thinking in the last few laps. First, you must survive the first 490 miles or more to be present for the finish. Through much of the early portions of these races, you will notice generally fewer cautions as drivers are usually very patient. They don’t wish to cause pile-ups early on, or worse, become involved in one, and at speeds exceeding 200 mph at times, it’s really not difficult to upset the carefully balanced racing machines. It’s a test of driver, pit-crew, and machine, but more importantly, the mind. These high-speed tracks are for strategic thinkers. Early, you simply must stay out of harms way, conserving your equipment and fuel, while not permitting yourself to fall too far out of the running. Drivers are generally conservative in the early and middle stages of the race if they hope to be around for the finish.
As the laps near the end of the race approach, drivers begin to make much more risky moves. They’re less apt to wait patiently in line, and a specific tactical positioning becomes all-important. If you’re not familiar with NASCAR, or the peculiarities of the super-speedways, generally considered to be the tracks of two miles or greater in some sort of oval configuration, you may not understand why it’s so very important that drivers ride along in line for most of the race. In racing at the high speeds attained at these larger tracks, there is a phenomenon known as “drafting,” whereby two cars nose-to-tail can together go much faster than one car by itself. This is because at those high speeds, one of the biggest limiting factors to going even faster is the resistance of drag from the air the car must punch through in order to go around the track. By lining up tightly, two cars still have the mass of two cars, and the power of two cars, but only the drag of 1-3/4s(approximate.) This means that the two cars together can push to slightly higher speeds, perhaps 5-8% more, but in the vicinity of 200 mph, that’s not insubstantial.
If you watch one of these races, you’ll quickly realize that they become most exciting in the last ten or fewer laps. At that point, pairs of cars will split off in order to press for the lead, but a car left hung out without a drafting partner is in big trouble. Worse, if two cars get a short distance out front, and get out of line too soon to battle for the lead, what often happens is that those who have remained behind are able to quickly catch up, because while two cars in line may have the drag of 1-3/4 cars, two battling side-by-side have the drag of nearly three cars because the air compressed between them can’t flow off of their front ends smoothly. In this scenario, those staying in line in 3rd, 4th, and 5th place quickly catch up the front-runners and usually overtake them because they became too greedy, too soon. Think of it as NASCAR’s version of “peaking early.”
The most thoroughly crafty drivers are those who put themselves in the position to be near the front at the end, in order to take advantage of another phenomenon called the “sling-shot.” This consists of using the draft of a partner in front of you to actually gain more speed than the car in front. If you’ve ever passed a large tractor-trailer on the highway at speed, you may have experienced something similar as you found your car being pulled toward the areas of low pressure immediately behind the truck or inside the wake it cuts through the air. This can accelerate you toward the truck, and in a similar way, a skilled driver can use the drafting partner in front of him to gain speed. What the “sling-shot” requires is using this phenomenon in tandem with a wide sweeping break away from the stream, and frequently, a drafting partner or two will fall in behind. The key to carrying this out is timing. If you do it too soon, you’ll have the same thing done to you. If you wait too long, you won’t have the space to get it done, and because you’re not out front, it will be easier to get caught in another driver’s wreck. Timed correctly, this maneuver yields the best chance for success, and in race after race, the people who led most of the way are eclipsed by this maneuver within seconds of the finish. You might wonder why the driver in fourth would go along with the driver in third, and the driver in fifth would go with them. The answer is that in choosing to do so, you increase your chance to finish higher, in this scenario finishing first, second, and third, rather than third, fourth, and fifth.
You may ask how this could apply to Sarah Palin. Simply put, despite not being officially in the race, only Palin is in double digits other than the two alleged front-runners. That’s right. She’s sitting in third, and the front-runners have begun to battle side-by-side. In two consecutive debates, Perry and Romney have been hammering one another, and it’s beginning to take its toll. The two are beginning to induce a great deal of drag for their efforts, and the rest of the field will begin to catch up. All that is now required is the momentum of a sling-shot maneuver, and only one person is really positioned to carry it out, but timing will be critical.
What does a NASCAR fan in Texas know about the competition that would apply to politics? I can tell you without flinching that just as the race of 500 miles frequently comes down to the maneuvers executed within sight of the finish, so it is also true that a presidential primary can come down to those last weeks before state ballots begin to close to new entries. As we turn and burn toward that date, the front-runners are now all the more conscious of their rear-view mirrors. They can see the lady from the north bearing down on them with steely resolve, and she may well have drafting partners, but if she can gain enough momentum, and time it correctly, she won’t really need them. There’s still a lot of track ahead, but the front-runners know she’s back there, and much like her comments Monday night about Perry, she occasionally gives them a little bump to remind them she’s back there. The closer to the end we get, the more tempting the side-by-side battle between the two leading egos will become, and then, when they will have thought themselves safely ahead, and beyond her reach, the crowd will start roaring “Run Sarah, Run” and the real race for the nomination will begin in earnest, as with a momentum her competitors hadn’t thought possible, she suddenly roars up to fill their mirrors. She drops down to the inside in turn four with the field following her, and suddenly the two-car race has come down to three, but she has the momentum…
As they come to the line, the crowd thunders: “Game on!”