The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Bread and Circuses by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday May 1, 2008

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Bread and Circuses

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday May 1, 2008

 

Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears.

It’s time to put an end to this restrictor plate madness at last, before some other driver pays the ultimate price.

It has been nearly two decades since NASCAR implemented the plate rules as a “temporary fix” at Talladega and Daytona. Tuesday would have been Dale Earnhardt’s 57th birthday were it not for the last lap tragedy at Daytona in 2001; let’s ensure that we learn something from that death, and those of many others.

But, a neophyte might object, NASCAR needs the restrictor plates. After all, they were implemented in the wake of a near miss, when Bobby Allison’s out of control Buick tore down a section of the catchfence separating the track from the grandstands in May of 1987. It was at that point NASCAR decided that speeds well over 200 MPH were just too dangerous, and that a stricken car might one day land in the grandstands with horrific results. But let me remind me you, in 1993 Neil Bonnett’s out of control car was also knocked airborne and tore down a section of the catchfence; though once again, perhaps, divine intervention was all that kept the No. 31 car out of the stands. Note in that incident, Bonnett’s RCR Chevy was fitted with the proper NASCAR-mandated restrictor plate under the hood. In that same July race, Jimmy Horton flew over a section of wall not protected by catch fencing, falling three stories into the parking lot outside the track. So, if the intent of the plate rules is to keep the cars from becoming airborne to protect the fans, then they have failed miserably at that job. Time is too short to recount all the tumbles drivers like Tony Stewart, Elliott Sadler, and Rusty Wallace have taken at the plate tracks despite wheeling cars equipped with them.

Cars racing in three wide packs, ten or more deep while jockeying wildly for position, are the norm at Talladega and Daytona.

And if protecting the fans is the primary goal of the plates, they may have, in fact, made it )_more_ dangerous for them to attend a race. With cars reduced to the least common denominator, competitors typically run in three wide packs, ten or more deep, jockeying wildly for position and forming various drafting alliances. Given the speeds and proximity of the cars, the huge smoking wreck the TV types call “The Big One” is a routine part of plate racing that happens more often than not. When things really go wrong — and they do so often — cars start tumbling, shedding parts as other drivers inevitably run into same of that airborne flack. One such wreck in the 1990s sent Ernie Irvan’s hood into the grandstands; fortunately, it caused only minor injuries. NASCAR has made well intended efforts to tether tires, hoods, and decklids to the cars, but even an object as small as a coil spring entering the stands at over 100 MPH can potentially cause incalculable tragedy. So in summary, the plates don’t keep cars on the ground, and they cause more wrecks putting both drivers and fans at plenty of risk.

“But plate racing is exciting,” others contend. Look at all those leaders and passes for the lead last Sunday! Um, racing at Talladega in the days of yore was exciting as well, back when the cars resembled their stock counterparts but lacked the plates. In the 1984 May Talladega Cup race, there were 75 lead changes. In the July Talladega race that year, there were 68 lead changes, and a thundering pack of ten cars took the checkers in such close formation that, while almost everybody knew Dale Earnhardt had won, it took hours and the use of three start/finish line cameras to figure out where those other nine drivers finished. The plates, in fact, have ended what was one of the more exciting parts of the Talladega and Daytona races in days of yore. Back then, the last place a driver wanted to be running at the white flag was in the lead. The second place driver could use aerodynamics to make a slingshot pass and take the lead at will back when the cars punched bigger holes in the air. And it wasn’t unusual for the fourth place driver to pull out and blow by the three leaders, either. Keep in mind that in those days, a single car could pull out and make such a pass; he didn’t need a drafting partner pushing him from behind to make his move.

Yes, modern day plate racing is exciting, but it’s contrived excitement. It can be interesting to watch, of course, as driver’s strategies play out or fail as they did on Sunday. But like many folks I talk to, I watch today’s plate races with a gnawing in my stomach, waiting for the big wreck to happen and wondering how bad it’s going to be. Once the inevitable occurs, I wait, hoping to see each driver emerge from their car uninjured. Only then can I laugh at the madness of it all. During a typical plate race, I will chew down an entire roll of Tums; that’s not entertaining to me. I liken watching plate racing to watching a teen slasher horror film.

But, some tell me, you’re in the minority there. Most fans love the plate racing. Do they then? Here’s what I find interesting. Sunday’s Talladega race drew a 5.2 Nielsen rating. The Martinsville Cup race drew a 5.3 rating, while this Spring’s Texas Cup event drew a 5.4 rating. I guess if fans love plate racing, they really must love Texas and Martinsville racing. Or, maybe the sort of fans who really love plate racing don’t own TVs? Yes, Talladega can still draw a big crowd on Sundays, but Talladega drew a big crowd before they added plates, too. Talladega race weekends are as much an event as a competition, much like the Bristol night race. A lot of folks wouldn’t care if they were running lawn tractors during the race — just as long as the partying kept right on going.

In an era where NASCAR claims to be trying to reign in the costs of running a race, team plate racing also flies right in the face of that stated goal. Teams must spend millions annually on engines that will run in just four of 36 points races each year. And the costs of replacing a car wiped out in one of those big wrecks (and some team owners will lose more than one in each of the four plate races) is expensive, as well. Next time you’re watching the aftermath of a big wreck at Daytona or Talladega, imagine you are watching a couple million dollars in cash going up in smoke. Yes, team owners have cars demolished at other tracks, but the numbers are larger and the damage is typically more severe at Daytona and Talladega more than anywhere else.

One design goal of the Car of Tomorrow was that its decreased aerodynamics would allow them to race at Talladega and Daytona at reasonable speeds, so the plates wouldn’t be required. In that context (and others), the new car has failed miserably. I figured they’d still need plates at Daytona and Talladega even with the Ugly Pup cars, and I wasn’t disappointed. My fear is with advancements in safety like the HANS device, better seats, Roush flaps, SAFER barriers, and the door foam in the Ugly Mutt cars, fans, track owners, and even some drivers have grown nonchalant about the crashes. They think that no matter how bad the wreck, no one could die. Well, they still can; and when it comes to the safety of drivers and fans, I am still decidedly chalant.

It would seem unreasonable to complain about a problem without offering a solution or two. Two possible remedies to plate racing occur to me…

The first would be to reduce the size of the engines Cup cars run at the current plate tracks, down to somewhere around 4.6 liters. The old hot rodder’s axiom goes, “there ain’t no replacement for displacement.” The goal of the smaller engines would be to reduce horsepower down to the level of the plate engines, but without the plates so drivers would have better throttle response. In fact, in a perfect world, the new smaller engines might run on all the tracks, because it’s been shown time and time again in oval track racing that lower speeds actually make for better action with more side-by-side racing and passes for the lead.

But I’m uncomfortable with that solution, as once again it dumps the bill for fixing the problem into the team owner’s lap. Once again, they are forced to dump expensive inventory that is no longer legal, and to pay millions to develop the new smaller powerplants.

No, I feel this time International Speedway Corporation, which owns Daytona and Talladega, should foot the bill. It’s time for them to tear up those two tracks, reduce the banking, and configure the corners so that drivers don’t just hold it wide open the whole way around the track. With modern computer simulation, it would be possible to find the ideal degree of banking that allowed for the lower speeds and better racing to occur. Do it once… and do it right. If Bruton Smith owned Talladega or Daytona, the fixes would have been made years ago; and if he balked, NASCAR would have threatened to take race dates away from him. Yes, it’s going to be expensive for ISC. But Las Vegas was redone at great expense by SMI, and so was Texas — several times in a decade, in fact, until they got it right.

When discussing this topic this week in the comments section of another article, I wrote some folks thought I was flat out crazy to even suggest modifying the two plate tracks. They assured me, as some do weekly, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Maybe they do know more about racing than me, though this ain’t my first rodeo, Cowgirl. But I remember the words of the late Dale Earnhardt, certainly the greatest and most successful plate track racer of all time. Earnhardt scored a ton of wins at both Talladega and Daytona, and the last victory of his storied career was at Talladega. In the waning laps of that one, he drove from seventeenth to victory while making a stunning set of moves that left those of us who watched awed and amazed. Yet even after that win, Earnhardt didn’t mince words when it came to plate racing. “I don’t care what they say. This ain’t real racing,” he said after taking home another trophy.

I figure Earnhardt knew a thing or two about stock car racing; but he’s not around to comment about it anymore due to that last lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. So, it’s time to stop the madness now. Spend the bread and end these grisly circuses.

Drivers to Watch at Richmond

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. — Junior returns to the scene of the crime, the track where he last won a Cup points event two years ago this weekend. He’s due.

Jeff Gordon — If Earnhardt hasn’t won this year, at least he’s been finishing well most weeks. If Gordon is to have any legitimate chance of contending for a title, he needs to turn things around starting now.

Kyle Busch — The way this kid is winning right now on any sort of track, in any sort of vehicle NASCAR chooses to compete, he’s a factor any given weekend.

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marc
05/01/2008 06:29 AM
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You’re not crazy Matt, just misguided and prone to confusing fact with opinion.

For example in this piece you claim Bruton Smith would have reconfigured Daytona and Talladega if he owned them.

That’s opinion and does nothing to further your argument. Unless of course you can dredge up a quote or two and I’d by more than happy to read them.

However, as you may remember I agree, engine size should be reduced and at some point in the future it will be.

NASCAR has no alternative. NASCAR has, or had, a plan for an “engine of the future” but with the introduction of the new Cup car and the NNS car next year that program has lain dormant since June 2005.

As a result of monumental bickering between the car makers it hasn’t progressed as planned.

It was originally scheduled to debut at California in February last year and word then was it had been pushed back to 2009 or 2010. But, since than I’ve seen no word on the program.

Now, about that flying hood. As you know the two of us have already gone over that slightly.

But here’s the question, what makes you think a reduction in speeds via smaller engine or dumping the restrictor plate will prevent that from occurring again?

Considering parts fly off at any speed and regardless whether a car is in a multi-car accident or not I have serious doubts either solution would reduce the possibility.

What would reduce it is stronger tethers on hoods and rear deck lids. A much cheaper option.

And note I said stronger, Gordon’s hood flew off, despite the tether, and hit a female spectator at New Hampshire in 2003, and McMurray had the TV panel fly off in an accident the same day and land in the walkway fronting the grandstands.

Now, about The Big
One. You seem to blame the “event” entirely on restrictor plates and nothing in the tracks history seems to give that edge to plate races.

You claim the bunched-up fields are part of it.

But can you quantify how many Big Ones since 1988 have been the result of plates as opposed to a bunched field because of the ever present yellow flags of recent years?

I know I can’t and doubt if you can.

Without that data set there is no way to determine what the predominate cause of them are.

And it’s not like they never happened prior to 1988.

What was alleged to be the very first one at Talledega in 1973 effectively ended the career of Wendel Scott and collected 19 other cars in the mess.

Douglas
05/01/2008 07:08 AM
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Right on Matt! I prefer the engine size reduction, but do it for all races!

And simply reducing the CID’s should not cost any team a fortune in gold, as do the plate engines as you mention!

They, NA$CAR, (of course they would have to be thinking to come up with a solution to plate racing) could not only reduce displacement, but also play around with reducing the car weights, a balance that would provide “controllable speed”, and real racing!

Cheryl
05/01/2008 07:46 AM
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Like you, Matt, I get incensed every time the media or drivers say “the fans love restrictorplate racing.” Yes, we like to see high-speed racing, but not with the plates. I think putting a smaller engine in would be the solution. Can’t go with lowering the banking. High banking always makes for better racing and gives the drivers options and multiple grooves. But I’d like to see the cars out of one big glob and with more throttle response, so give them smaller engines. Hell! They already spend a ton of money on special engines for these tracks anyway, so why not come up with a whole new engine that will reduce speeds?

Steve Cloyd
05/01/2008 07:48 AM
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“Yes, modern day plate racing is exciting, but it’s contrived excitement.”

Bingo.

Plate racing is boring and dangerous. The man himself, Dale Earnhardt, said many times,“that ain’t racin’!”

Ed
05/01/2008 07:59 AM
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You are exactly right, Matt! When NASCAR put the plates in, it was supposed to be temporary. However, NASCAR found a “product.” They can sell contrived, dangerous, excitement for those who come to see “the big one” and the gore that goes along with it. It isn’t racing when a driver has to have a buddy to pass and the guy behind has little chance of winning. As the FOX NASCAR mouthpieces said Sunday, the winner has to find someone willing to run second. My friends, that ain’t racing.

Janice
05/01/2008 09:30 AM
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finally we had a car sponsored in plate race with a product i use in excess during a plate race…tums.

said it all along….plate racing is no good. i love racing, but what it’s become is a farce. i really thought after 2/18/01 that fans would of visited daytona and ‘dega under the cover of darkness with pick axes, dozers and whatnot and fixed those tracks themselves.

ever wonder why those drivers look so horrible after race at daytona or ‘dega….it’s the plates. sunday was a classic case….they rode around all day behaving behind the wheel. 30 to go, the switch goes off in some heads and bam….cautions. i can’t recall a plate race in the past few years that hasn’t ended under caution or a g/w/c which still caused cautions.

Travis Rassat
05/01/2008 10:25 AM
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I agree with Matt and Douglas – reduce the engine size for all tracks. I also like Douglas’ idea about reducing the weight.

I also agree with the idea of track reconfiguration – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is bigger than Daytona and almost as big as Talladega, but because of its more squared shape and relative flatness, it completely changes the style of racing. The same could be said for Pocono.

Tom
05/01/2008 10:44 AM
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how about smaller “crate engines” or something like that? That will control the cost.Half of the chevys are hendriks anyway

rjh
05/01/2008 10:47 AM
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Tear the walls and banking down, they were built for the Aero-bricks of the 60’s. Besides the “no-talents” who ‘never had to lift’ will actually have to brake and do some real driving. Its why I like Michigan so much….besides being a Ford Track 63% of the time.

Kevin in SoCal
05/01/2008 01:25 PM
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Lighter weight will only increase the speeds. The new car is a brick like the cars of the 60’s and was designed to slow the cars down. Indy is 2.5 miles, same as Daytona, not bigger.

Max
05/01/2008 01:58 PM
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With all the safety improvements built-in to the COT, not to mention the all-important roof flaps, it could run unrestricted at Talladega without any safety issues.
Talladega is wonderful for those of us that love speed – and the best place to see it on the whole curcuit is there.
I know Atlanta is a fast one too, but I love seeing a car go 200 for 2.66 miles. There is nothing like it.
I know what Allison did to the fence in ’87. The car he was driving is in no shape, fashion or form anything like what they have now, or even what they had previously.
To me, it is argueing apples and oranges – another world long left behind.
Nascar shoves that image down our throat every time removing the plates are mentioned. I agree the old car would have, as has been proven, been a lot more dicey running at 225-230 mph.
But this current car could run 200-210 with no more issues of it taking flight into the grandstands than in Atlanta.
Throttle response has been one of the biggest issues – no passing and large conga lines due to the lack of it.
Get the plates off and give the drivers more throttle response and you will see better racing, faster racing, and just as safe racing.

marc
05/01/2008 04:42 PM
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rjh – “Tear the walls and banking down, they were built for the Aero-bricks of the 60’s. Besides the “no-talents” who ‘never had to lift’ will actually have to brake and do some real driving. Its why I like Michigan so much….besides being a Ford Track 63% of the time.”

Do you mean like real driving and braking as seen on every track on the circuit today with the exception of Daytona and Talladega?

What are you trying to say man, that they don’t drive and brake at the other 20 events on the schedule that aren’t Daytona and Talladega?

And BTW, your 63% figure is a bit of a stretch. Of the 76 Cup events at MIS since 1969 only 29 have been won with a Ford. That’s far below your figure.

Matt
05/01/2008 05:40 PM
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Marc,

Actually the record books (not coloring books) show it was 21 cars involved in the big ninth lap crash at Talladega. You might be thinking it was nineteen cars that could not be fixed well enough to return them to action later in the race. And for those unfamiliar with the race in question the wreck was the result of A) Ramo Scott blowing an engine B) A NASCAR being slow to call a caution C) The France family’s brilliant idea to start 60 (Yes SIXTY) cars in that event. DOH! That didn’t work too well.

Also as you are doubtless aware the energy of a wreck goes up exponentially not proportionally as speed increases. Thus at higher speeds like they run at Talladega the force of the crash is much greater than at New Hampshire, one track you cite. More force being dissapated means objects are going to be flung further and at greater velocities. The fact cars are running inches apart two and three wide greatly increases the chance of a wreck.

I suppose if it were important to me to outargue you, I could go to my notes and RacingReference, and compare the lap races at Talladega and Daytona restarted after a yellow and how many laps later the big one occurred so I could have stats to cite. My memory is clear enough to remember that most were not a result of a restart (the one that was I can recall clearly is Gordon and Harvick’s little brouhaha in the race Ward Burton won.) But frankly I don’t have the time. Life just isn’t a breakfast cereal. I know. I have one. Ciao, babe. We’ll do lunch I’ll be in the garage if anybody needs me.

SS Mike
05/01/2008 07:19 PM
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It is easy to slow down the cars. Just run a harder tire and get rid of the aero stuff. The drivers will have to lift going into the turns.

I do not get why folks seem to think Dega and Daytona are the fastest tracks. The cars go faster at Charlotte and Atlanta.

Yeah plate racing is exciting. So is Russian Roulette. Sex without a condom. Bullfights.

“Exciting” does not make it good or right.

marc
05/01/2008 08:58 PM
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Matt – “Actually the record books (not coloring books) show it was 21 cars involved in the big ninth lap crash at Talladega. You might be thinking it was nineteen cars that could not be fixed well enough to return them to action later in the race.”

Thanks for the correction Matt, and no I wasn’t thinking that, my recollection was 20 total regardless of how many returned.

See how easy that was? No diverting attention by changing the subject or ignoring the error all together which is your normal Modus operandi.

You should try it sometime, coloring book or not.

“ Thus at higher speeds like they run at Talladega the force of the crash is much greater than at New Hampshire, one track you cite. More force being dissapated means objects are going to be flung further and at greater velocities. The fact cars are running inches apart two and three wide greatly increases the chance of a wreck.”

And your point is what? I haven’t in the slightest way disputed bunched fields and or higher speeds will contribute to parts flying off and landing in grandstand areas.

But the reality is an event such as that happening at very much lower speeds at New Hampshire, to say nothing of local bull rings, isn’t a reasonable argument for reduction of speeds or the total reconfiguration of both Daytona and Talladega.

“I suppose if it were important to me to outargue you, I could go to my notes and RacingReference, and compare the lap races at Talladega and Daytona restarted after a yellow and how many laps later the big one occurred so I could have stats to cite. “

You’ll have to rely on your notes because that type data isn’t available at RR, only the number of yellows not when they occurred.

Susie
05/02/2008 10:02 AM
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“Life just isn’t a breakfast cereal. I know. I have one.” — Matt McLaughlin

Perfect.

Chris
05/04/2008 11:20 AM
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Exciting? Yeah, it’s like waiting for a bomb to detonate.

It is not racing if everyone is required to add something to their car to reduce performance.

I’ve only been to Bristol, Daytona, Homestead, and Las Vegas to watch races over the last 5 years. I can tell you the Daytona event had the least amount of true racing than all the other venues. I wouldn’t pay to go see that again.