"Something's got to be done before we race down there again."
David Pearson said this in July 1970 after crashing when the right-side tires on his Holman and Moody Ford failed during tire tests for the third Winston Cup race at what's now Talladega Superspeedway. The appeal by the retired three-time Winston Cup champion and 105-race winner would have been just as appropriate and urgent in October 2001.
For more than 30 years, NASCAR has been befuddled and frustrated by the problems of high-speed racing at the massive 2.66-mile Talladega facility, and to a lesser, more recent extent at 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, the two tracks where engine restrictor plates are required to control speeds.
The enigma at the two fastest speedways on the Winston Cup circuit is how to make racing exciting without increasing the risks of multi-car wrecks that compromise driver safety, particularly at Talladega. All sorts of aerodynamic packages have been used in tandem with the carburetor plate in recent years with little success toward an ideal solution. Drivers and teams approach restrictor-plate races anticipating with trepidation the seemingly inevitable "Big Wreck."
A destructive, 16-car melee that created an instant, high-dollar junkyard on the final lap of the EA Sports 500 at Talladega last October was the last straw for many competitors. The race was exciting, in fact typically breathtaking, for spectators, but it was a miracle no one was seriously hurt in the carnage. Excitement be damned, drivers and crew chiefs took their case and their anger to NASCAR officials on the spot, demanding relief.
The attitude of drivers after the race was that NASCAR didn't care about their well-being so long as the spectators got their fill of thrills.
Competitors have fussed about the carburetor plate and aerodynamic rules at the two tracks practically every race for a decade, but the latest outcry got NASCAR's attention. The sanctioning body expressed concern and promised to work with the teams toward eliminating cars bunching tightly in ominous packs, the characteristics of restrictor-plate competition and the root of devastating multi-car crashes.
At a meeting with teams in November, NASCAR and competitors agreed on a new aerodynamics package, effective with 2002 Speed Weeks' preliminaries and the Daytona 500. Essentially, aerodynamic drag was decreased on the cars by increasing the rear-spoiler angle and removing the spoiler flange and roof air deflectors. Air dam height was to be set based on speeds in manufacturers' tests at Daytona in January.
"A majority of our drivers and teams said after Talladega we weren't listening, but we are listening," says Jim Hunter, NASCAR's director of communications. That may be true, but the new package is yet another experiment, and the Daytona 500 is the test, although this one has the blessings of competitors. If NASCAR knew precisely what to do to the cars, the issues would have been resolved long ago.
"The competition at Daytona and Talladega has been a benchmark of our sport," says NASCAR President Mike Helton. "And while we want that to continue, we also want to place the drivers and crews in a position so their talents in driving and setting up the race cars play a bigger role in the outcome. We're confident the decisions made are steps in the right direction." That is, steps in the right direction when the focus is on the cars and when doing something is extremely urgent.
The mere fact that NASCAR called a meeting of teams and asked for discussion and input was productive. But the real, or partial, answers to the puzzle may lie beyond tinkering with the cars, many competitors believe. The banking (33 degrees at Talladega and 31 degrees at Daytona) could be reduced. Hades will freeze before that happens. Another, cutting the cubic-inch displacement of Winston Cup engines, is mostly talk at this point.