LAURA SULLIVAN, host: Now, Henry Ford made a lot of noise with the Model T, but nothing like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR RACE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Still with you. Still with you.
SULLIVAN: That's the sound of NASCAR's Sprint Cup series. Tonight's race is at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. That's the shortest track on the circuit. But on the longest tracks in Daytona and Talladega, a dramatic change is underway. NASCAR drivers have begun pairing up on the track. It's called tandem racing and it's upending a sport that has always prided itself on individuality. Fans and drivers are split. Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently called it foolish.
[VO] But tandem racing pushed an unknown 20-year-old rookie, Trevor Bayne, across the finish line at Daytona this year and fans went wild. Here to breakdown tandem racing for us is Ryan McGee. He covers the circuit for ESPN The Magazine, and he joins me now from the NASCAR hotspot of Charlotte, North Carolina. Welcome to the show, Ryan.
RYAN MCGEE: Thank you. I'm actually just maybe two miles from the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where most of the race teams are based, so this is, this fits.
SULLIVAN: It's perfect. It's perfect. So explain to me just in the most basic terms exactly how tandem racing works.
MCGEE: Basically, two cars together are faster than one car by itself. Two cars (unintelligible) run away from the pack if it's the correct two cars and the right combination.
SULLIVAN: And they are bumper to bumper. They are actually touching.
MCGEE: Absolutely bumper to bumper, to the point that they will actually rub the paint off of a front bumper or a rear bumper because they're just bang, bang, bang, bang all the way down the back stretch.
SULLIVAN: Now, why are they faster together?
MCGEE: I wish I could answer that, and if I could, I would be an engineer for a NASCAR team. But basically, one car punches a hole in the air. The second car tucks in behind that car that is punching the hole in the air and it pushes that front car through the air. The horsepower actually is coming through the second car, but the dynamic pressure is being blown apart by the nose of the car in front.
SULLIVAN: There's always been drag behind the cars, and there's always been cars coming up real close to the other ones to try to feed off that drag. But why now has this become so prevalent?
MCGEE: When we go to the two biggest racetracks on the NASCAR schedule, Daytona and Talladega, they are so big and so fast. And the track is banked so steep that they have to put what's called a restrictor plate on top of the engine that caps off the amount of horsepower and the amount of output these engines can have, just to keep them from going too fast and simply flying off the racetrack. And over the...
SULLIVAN: Just to slow them down.
MCGEE: Just - exactly right. And over the years, particularly over the last two years, there's kind of this grand equation that's happened between the restrictor plates, the tracks themselves and the shapes of the cars that have created these two-car breakaway tandems.
SULLIVAN: How much faster can these two cars go?
MCGEE: Oh, a lot faster. And it's striking. You know, for years, we had different rules and we had different size restrictor plates, and they would create big packs. They would create long trains of 20 cars. For a few years, we had just smaller trains of five or six cars. Now, we're down to two. And even more than that, certain cars go faster with other cars. And it may not matter what the car make is, it may not matter what engine's under the hood, it may not matter who the drivers are. For whatever reason, certain cars work better with other cars.
MCGEE: And in the case of Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500, he hooked up with Jeff Gordon, one of the greatest champions in the history of the sport. And it was such an unlikely union, a Ford and a Chevy, two rival teams, Roush Fenway and Hendrick Motorsports, and then here's this veteran guy and this kid who literally is just out of high school and the two of them hooked up and pushed their way to the front of the biggest race of the season.
SULLIVAN: How did they decide to do that? When did they decide to do that?
MCGEE: Well, for folks that don't know, every racetrack weekend is a pretty thick schedule. And it starts on Friday. And in the case of the Daytona 500, it goes on for a week and a half. And there are all these practice sessions. Well, what they're using these practice sessions to do now is figure out who the best dancing partner is. And so in these practice sessions, you see these guys literally with a dance card. OK, I'm going to try drafting behind Jimmie Johnson; I'm going to try drafting behind Mark Martin. And then when the green drops on the great American race, they find their best dancing partner and try to get them to the front.
SULLIVAN: It kind of goes against sort of the history of NASCAR, which is such an individual sport. Some of these teams are getting together before they even get onto the track.
MCGEE: Yep. Absolutely. And it is a totally different mindset. But to me, the beauty of stock car racing, and real NASCAR fans know this, every track is different. Every race has its own personality. Every driver has his own personality as far as how he drives behind the wheel. And this is just a new wrinkle. And some guys are good at it and some guys aren't. There's always one driver at the end of the race who loves it, and that's the one that's in Victory Lane. And the other 42 are always going to find a way to complain about it.
SULLIVAN: That's Ryan McGee. He's a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, and he joined us from the studios of WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina. Thanks so much.
MCGEE: Absolutely. Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.