"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.
"When you look at the problem we've got at Daytona and Talladega, we don't have that problem at Pocono, Indianapolis, California or Michigan without restrictor plates," says car owner and engineer Jack Roush. "You can ask, 'What is the difference?' Well, I'm not going to say what the difference is, but it's really obvious. But it was definitely a closed issue (in the meeting with NASCAR) to discuss the things that could be done, except for changes to the car. I think that working on things other than the car would be more useful and as timely, but we're not gonna do that." Of course, the difference to which Roush alluded is banking. Pocono and Indy, 2.5-mile layouts, are essentially flat and banking in the turns at the two-mile California and Michigan tracks is 14 and 18 degrees, respectively.
Reducing engine size has been kicked around for some time as speeds increased to the edge at tracks longer than one mile. Car owner and engine builder Robert Yates, who, not incidentally, is arguably Winston Cup's horsepower king, is a leading advocate of smaller engines. Those who know say cutting displacement from 358cid to, say, 305 would allow racing without engine restriction at Daytona and Talladega, certainly for several years. The restrictor plate, despised and cursed by competitors for years, equalizes power and reduces throttle response, thus contributing to the precarious bunching and packing of cars. In fact, why not use a smaller, unrestricted engine exclusively at Daytona and Talladega? Conversion would be costly, but we doubt more expensive in the long run than the thousands of dollars teams spend annually on the relentless quest to gain horsepower in restricted engines.
In the mid-1970s, NASCAR phased out the big-bore 426 and 427 hogs by severely handicapping them with restrictor plates and in 1974 mandated the current 358cid engine. For 13 years, cars raced with engines unrestricted at Daytona and Talladega. Through the ingenuity of engine builders and engineers who consistently squeezed more horsepower out of the smaller engine, speeds gradually increased at Daytona and Talladega. Benny Parsons was the first to crack 200mph in official qualifying at Talladega in 1982. Cale Yarborough broke the 200mph barrier at Daytona in 1984. Bill Elliott won the pole for the 1987 Daytona 500 at 210.364 and for the 1987 spring race at Talladega at 212.809.
After Bobby Allison's car climbed and cut a swath in the grandstand catch fence at Talladega, injuring a few spectators, in the same race for which Elliott set the existing qualifying record, NASCAR had no choice but to dust off the restrictor plate to help cap speed in 1988. The pole speed dropped by almost 14mph at Talladega and 16.5mph at Daytona, but the problems unresolved surfaced today.
The restrictor plate was introduced at Michigan, then first used at Talladega, in August 1970. The inaugural Winston Cup race at Talladega, Sept. 1969, was marred by NASCAR's only boycott of nearly all of the top drivers. The issue at the time was tires that would not withstand blistering speeds a tick below 200 mph, not plates or aerodynamics. However, those conditions led to a 1.25-inch restrictor plate-the something Pearson said had to be done-at the third race, resulting in a 13mph decrease in speed. At Daytona in 1971, the pole speed fell 11mph.
A second boycott, given the value of championship points and commitments to sponsors, is unlikely, but the threat last October for some sort of action by competitors was as strong as it has been since 1969. Fans deserve quality racing, but concern for the well-being of drivers should be top priority. It is unfair and, in truth, unnecessary for them to face risks beyond those that are inherent to their job.