The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: Talladega... That's Entertainment? by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday April 29, 2010

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MPM2Nite: Talladega... That's Entertainment?

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday April 29, 2010


Is there anyone left out there who knows I don’t like plate racing? If there is, I don’t. Never cared for it. Never will. I’ll go to my grave considering plate racing dumbed-down competition for the least common denominator type of fans, those ghouls who really do watch races just for the wrecks. There are two words and four numbers for those who fit in that category: February Eighteenth, 2001.

With that said, some folks were taken aback by my lukewarm reception to Sunday’s Cup event. The race featured lots of passes for the lead, lots of different leaders, and a last-lap pass for the win exiting turn four. That’s what I’m always preaching about, right? I’ll admit I’m a demanding type. That’s why I ride a Harley, not a Royal Star. That’s why your granny could run my 375 horsepower Nova to the grocery store without drama or fear of breakdown. (As long as she didn’t die of embarrassment getting into the yellowest car that has ever existed.) I want it all. I want stuff perfect. Stupidity, banality, and compromise annoy me.

Well, my new buddy Ryan Fox noted in the comments section below in Monday’s article he was so disgusted by my attitude towards plate racing he read two paragraphs and left for another Web site to read more positive coverage of the race. (Ryan, if you’ve made it this far you’re now three paragraphs in. Time to bail back to The Sunny Side of the Street. You might want to carpool with Randy Goldman, another new buddy of mine. Yes, folks, I do read the comments section. I just don’t respond too often any longer because it tends to get me in trouble with site management.)

Editor’s Note: It’s true! ;O)

Speaking of site management, even they seemed a bit taken aback I wasn’t showering the Talladega race with Hosannas after the fact. Here’s the blurb they inserted under the photo above my article Monday: “88 lead changes, 29 leaders, and a green-white-checkered finish that had a pass for the win in the final 500 feet. So why did the racing at ‘Dega leave a little something to be desired for our own Matt McLaughlin?” Talk about a ringing endorsement of what was to follow!

Racing is, after all, just entertainment, right? On paper, if not on asphalt, Sunday’s race statistically speaking was one of the top 10 in the last decade and featured the most lead changes in NASCAR history. (Eclipsing a record set at Talladega, oddly enough, in the days before plate racing.) If your favorite driver didn’t lead at Talladega for at least one lap, he probably sucks.

So, what gives? Here’s the deal, at least from where I sit inside the warm confines of Eyesore Acres tonight as thunderstorms make the great outdoors not so great for any activities other than kayaking or jet-skiing behind the stables on the newly formed Lake Matt.

Racing is not entertainment. Racing is a sport. Racing is a sport that at its best is entertaining. When you blur the line between sports and entertainment, the result is pro wrestling. What goes on at Talladega is entertainment. It isn’t racing. If I want entertainment, I’ll go to the moving pictures or rent a DVD. That way, I know no matter how hairy and violent a situation the protagonist finds himself in, no matter how many times he gets shot, gets in spectacular car wrecks, or how many punches are thrown, when the last reel was shot the actors pick up their big paychecks and go home safely to their loved ones.

Sunday’s events at Talladega lead to wrecks like these drivers can’t avoid, leading many to say entertainment…not racing… is the point of 500 miles at a track that’s narrowly averted tragedy as of late.

Some will argue that death and crippling injury are part and parcel of the racing game. These drivers earn big money, and they owe it to the fans to stick their heads in the lion’s mouth. Death, unfortunately, has always been a specter in auto racing. Fortunately, death has been moved from the center ring to the cheap seats despite occasional aberrations like the 2000-2001 NASCAR seasons. (And I steadfastly maintain that none of the four drivers killed in that era would have died or even been seriously injured had NASCAR adopted the HANS device and SAFER barriers sooner, readily available technologies at the time.)

But if anyone reading this column goes to the races hoping to see a driver, any driver (and I don’t care how much you dislike him) killed or maimed, I hope you get involved in a fatal one-car wreck on the ride home so you can experience death firsthand, and while you lay dying in agony a bunch of people in the breakdown lane stand around gaping, watching, and filming your demise on their cell phones to post on YouTube. The gene pool would be cleaner for the rest of us with you cleaned out of the shallow end.

Not all of you grew up racing out at the trestles and wrenching on cars looking for lower elapsed times and bigger numbers at the big end. I’ve been asked a couple times this week and often over the years what a restrictor plate is and what it does. Here’s the simplified answer: a restrictor plate is a metal plate with four holes in it that fits between the carb and intake manifold on an engine. Engines require a gaseous fuel-air mixture to make power. The more of that mixture you can cram into the combustion chamber (the area above the piston and within the cylinder head with both valves closed) the more horsepower you make, all other things being equal. The more horsepower you make (again, all other things being equal) the faster your car goes.

The four holes in a restrictor plate restrict (thus the name) the amount of fuel-air mixture that can be crammed into the cylinders when that intake valve opens. This lowers horsepower, which in turn limits speed. We could debate the nuances of stoichiometric ratios, valve overlap, ignition timing, combustion efficiency et al until the cows come home, but that’s the gist of it. NASCAR mandates the size of those holes in the plates to govern speed to a zone they are comfortable with.

If the above is too technical, let me offer this analogy. Imagine if the Boston Marathon were run with all competitors forced to breathe through a soda straw the entire route. They’d run slower due to lack of oxygen. The difference in speed between the fastest and slowest runners would be greatly diminished. You’d likely have a lot of passing (and passing out) but a really crappy marathon.

Restrictor plates are used at just two NASCAR tracks, Talladega and Daytona. Why? Given the lengths of the courses and the banking, unrestricted cars would probably be circulating these joints at over 230 miles per hour, greatly increasing the likelihood of cars going airborne and perhaps entering the crowd with devastating results. The current generation of plates were added at Talladega and Daytona after Bobby Allison’s savage ‘87 wreck at Talladega that nearly put his car into the crowd. (I’d argue that Carl Edwards and Neil Bonnett’s cars came equally close to entering the stands, albeit at reduced speeds with plates secured firmly in place in ’93 and ’09, respectively.)

When installed, Plates were not a new idea at the time. They’d been used at earlier Michigan events to lower speeds and increase passing. In the ’70s, plates were used to achieve parity between the big and small block engines of various manufacturers. About from Jump Street, drivers and car builders hated the plates. When the plates were added after Allison’s frightening 1987 crash, NASCAR said they were a “temporary measure” to be used only until a better solution could be found. 23 years later, we’re still waiting. And my guess is that absent a general uproar from the fans and more vocal uproar from the drivers, we’re stuck with the plates.

Why? Look at the sort of racing the plates have produced, as evidenced by Sunday’s race. You have most of the field running nose-to-tail in a huge group three and sometimes four-wide, causing the resulting spectacular wrecks that have earned the name “The Big One.” One can only imagine the amount of passes that might have occurred had not some of the drivers in the strongest cars (as evidenced later in the race) chosen to cruise around behind the lead pack trying to stay out of trouble until the final fifty laps. Yeah, a lot of drivers led the race. They’d get up there to lead their one lap and collect five bonus points, then fade away like Bobby Weir’s voice at the end…Not Fadeaway. Naturally, with the new side-by-side restarts (which I endorse) it was easier to get up there and lead that one golden lap on a plate track. But just let’s overlook that rule change and label this “The Best Gul-Dern Race Ever in The History of Mankind” because liking the nuances of the sport and understanding how it all works might make some folks’ brains hurt. Now, if they put a plate on the cars at Bristol and added a jump on the back straight, that would really be sumpin’ now wouldn’t it, Cuz Billy-Bob?

With the cars restricted down to the least common denominator by the plates, the best drivers in the best cars can’t get away from the worst drivers in less adequate equipment. Usually, a better driver can’t make a legitimate pass by pulling out of line on his own and passing the driver in front of him. If he tries two or three (or sometimes sixteen to twenty) drivers line up behind the lead driver, then the pack blows by the fellow who stepped out of line and that fellow drops through the field like a rock. If there is a skill to driving the plate tracks, it is deciding to get in the line of traffic that is moving forward at the time, not the one falling back. That leads to moves like Jamie McMurray’s last-lap decision in Sunday’s Twilight Nationwide race to try to jam his car into a hole that wasn’t big enough to fit in in the inside lane – a move that triggered the terrible crash that saw Dennis Setzer’s car up into the fence and on fire. In the blink of an eye, millions of dollars worth of equipment and man hours paid were reduced to rubbish yet again by the expediency and entertainment of plate racing.

Look at the facts. Daytona opened in 1959. Talladega came along in 1969. Race car technology has moved forward by leaps and bounds since that era, and yet no effort has been made to update either track to more modern racing. Even with the much ballyhooed plan to repave Daytona this year, I have not read a single word about using the opportunity to lower the banking at the track to control speeds of the current generation of race cars without the plates. C’mon, they’ve got the track dug up anyway. Why not fix a basic design flaw?

I’m not alone in my dislike of plate racing. Most of the drivers hate it. And we’re not just talking about guys who are sore because they wiped out their car, had to be cut out of the carnage, and finished 32nd. Any reasonable person would agree with what the late (as a result of the plates) Dale Earnhardt consistently said from Victory Lane, “I don’t care what they say, this ain’t real racing.”

Another timel Earnhardt famously fumed, “If Mr. Bill France could see the sorry mess they’ve made out of racing here at Daytona, he’d been turning in his grave.”

And that’s coming from a guy who won ten times at Talladega.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has won at Talladega five times, and Daytona twice. Those seven wins easily exceed more than one-third of his total Cup victories. Yet here was his take on Sunday’s race:

“It’s not really about someone’s car handling better or somebody’s motor being better. Cars might as well all be kit cars for these two races. It was fun, but it was kind of like a carnival ride. After two or three of ‘em, you’re kind of like, ‘All right, I’m burned out on this.‘”

Carl Edwards said after one of last year’s savage Talladega wrecks, “I guess we’ll just keep racing like this until we kill somebody…”

So no, despite the stats Sunday’s Talladega race wasn’t the greatest ever. What was great was no fans or drivers left the track in a pine box. And as long as little miracles like that keep occurring, I guess we’ll just keep racing like this until we kill somebody… again.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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04/29/2010 06:59 AM

Outstanding column and I totally agree. Just one small correction though, it was Carl Edwards who said we’ll race like this until we kill somebody, not Ryan Newman as you say. Small detail, doesn’t matter who said it since it’s true.

Ryan Fox
04/29/2010 07:53 AM

You may be surprised to read this Matt (if you still are checking comments)but my favorite track is Richmond. Do I like plate races? Sure. I live in Florida and Daytona is the closest track to me so it’s what I see most. Do I think that it’s dumbed down and a lottery? Compared to other tracks, absolutely. Just like I knew there was going to be a wreck on the restart at the end of the race. Who didn’t? My point was that with all of the problems NASCAR has at the moment the LAST thing they are going to do is change or get rid of the closest, most dramatic races they have. Is it artificial? Sure it is. Is complaining about the plate races on every time one rolls around annoying? Yep. How about just talking about the racing, artificial or not, rather than getting on the soapbox 4 times a year. What about Gordon and JJ being pissed at each other? What about the first plate race with the new spoiler and how that affected the racing? What about anything else besides complaining about something NASCAR isn’t getting rid of. Barring a car going into the stands they are more likely to get rid of the Chase than restrictor plates.

I remember right after they started the double file restarts reading Mirror Driving and Vito was complaining about that and thinking “Really?? The best change that NASCAR has made (safety improvements excepted) since I started watching in 1986 at the ripe old aged of 14? And somebody is complaining about it?” I still don’t understand that one. Who wants to see the leader racing a lap car with 3 laps to go on a restart? Makes me think sometimes that some of the staff at Frontstretch are happy to bitch just for the sake of it.

And yes I read the whole column today. Keep up the good work.

04/29/2010 08:23 AM

they’ll mill the asphalt surface at daytona, won’t actually do digging. they’ll take down the asphalt a layer, lay a new base, and then pave it. on the banking milling is rough. look at photos from ‘dega repaving.

i’ve always hated plate racing, and it’s interesting how dale earnhardt, the jr is now complaining about plate racing. wonder if he would have felt the same way if he had won?

i was at dega…watching those cars draft with no space between the fenders is nerve wrecking from the stands. look at the bumper of jr’s car from that race. i’ve never seen them bump draft all around the track like they were doing this past sunday and i’ve been to several races at ‘dega over the years.

04/29/2010 09:44 AM

To get a true perspective on the question of racing being sport or entertainment , read the book by Chris Economaki . When you do , you won’t be confused over which one racing is , and why .
The alternative to plate racing is what ?? It’s always been said that if you remove the plates , then drivers have the horses to pull out and pass . My observation would be that , unlike in the days before the plate , engine specs are so tightly controlled that every team is within 20 horsepower of every other team . So remove the plate , which will give everyone another 100 horsepower , and they will still be nose to tail and three wide at the big tracks because they will still all be pretty much equal . Just a lot faster . Because at Talladega and Daytona , the drafting is what allows all of the cars to run in a big pack .

Doug In Washington (State)
04/29/2010 10:50 AM

Lower the banking at Tallagega and Daytona, and you make them a 2.66 mile and 2.5 mile version of Matt’s favorite track: Fontana.

Take the plates off, and you’ll likely have a fatality the first race.

Any other change to lower horsepower or speed mechanically won’t change a thing- if you can run wide-open all the way around the track then the cars will always run in bunches because the draft produces higher speeds.

I can think of 2 solutions:

1) Make the cars so aerodynamically unstable that drafting becomes impossible and the cars are faster side-by-side rather than nose-to-tail.


2) Impose a gear rule rather than a plate. A gear rule that puts the engines at redline at 190MPH. Make Wide-open throttle a liability- go too fast, you blow up. Make the drivers have to back off. With the plates and the current gear rule you can’t redline the engine at Talladega, so you can run WOT all the time.

Both of these would put the control back in the Driver’s seat, rather than making it a pack mentality.

Michael in SoCal
04/29/2010 11:20 AM

So, according to this article, the following drivers suck:
Clint Bowyer
Mike Bliss
Carl Edwards
Martin Truex, Jr.
Scott Speed
Bobby Labonte
Robert Richardson, Jr.
David Stremme
Kevin Conway
Marcos Ambrose
Max Papis
Johnny Sauter
Joe Nemechek
Dave Blaney

Good article, I do disagree though, which is fine. We’re all entitled to our opinions. I think having 4 of 36 races being plate race ‘lotteries’ is okay with me, because usually it still takes skill and strategy to win a plate race, and the drivers all know what they’re facing. I never want to see an injury or worse, and when cars get airborne it is scary, but cars have dangerous scary wrecks everywhere (Dover for Logano last year), so if we’re going to skip the Super Speedways because of safety reasons, we might want to skip everything but the shortest of tracks – Dover is only a mile long.

04/29/2010 11:23 AM

What made this race particularly bad was the three GWCs. And the brilliant Robin Pemberton says “I think we’re pleased at the way it went”. Well darn, either you’re pleased or not, but you THINK you’re pleased? He is way under qualified to be the Vice Pres of Competition. Why don’t we just keep up the GWC until there’s one car left that will run, and dub the race as the great All American Demolition Derby? Nascar has turned itself into a sideshow unworthy of the smallest town in The USA. Instead of naming the Dega race as the Aaron’s 499, it could have been called The Crapshoot We Don’t Know How Many Miles.

Yes Matt, I’m disgusted too. I’ve been a race fan for 57 years and I was grown when I became one. You think Gordon is PO’d, not near as much as I am.

Walt B
04/29/2010 11:44 AM

Matt I completely agree. The plates have to go. They already build special engines for plate racing let them build small displacement V-6s unhindered by plates. If the cars go to fast lower the displacement until they get the desired top speed.Most of the cars that the COT is supposed to resemble only have V-6s in them any way. This should allow the top teams and drivers separate themselves from the back markers and allow real passing.

On the ghouls, I was at Pocono several years ago when Jeff Gordan lost his brakes on the main straightaway and spun driver side first into the 1st turn wall at full speed. Now I have never been a Gordan fan or a fan of anything Hendrick but I couldn’t cheer when he wrecked and felt uncomfortable around the people near me in the seats that were. I thought about it later and figured most did not realize how serious a hit it was. But I knew there were some there that would have cheered harder if he had been carried off on a stretcher with a cover over him.
04/29/2010 08:06 PM

“Doug In Washington (State)” I agree on the gear rule to reduce speeds and maybe throw in a smaller carb as a combo to reduce speeds but still give great throttle response. This way backing off for a second or two then matting it again will still let the motor power up again immediately instead of half a lap later.

04/29/2010 08:15 PM

I could not disagree more, Matt.

Sunday’s Cup race was the greatest I’ve ever seen because of the racing, not the crashes. You completely overlook that, in the Cup race, there was much more of the former than the latter, yet fan enthusiasm over the race is even greater than I ever remember it being.

Your grim driver quotes – all but Junior’s from other races – overlook those of Michael Waltrip and Jeff Gordon on Sunday. Even after they crashed out of the race, both still said they had fun battling for the lead on Sunday. Yes, they were angry (especially Gordon), but it felt more like the disappointment one feels when a fun “carnival ride,” as you describe it, ends earlier than you want it to.

You’re right to express horror at Setzer’s wreck, but you’re flat wrong in saying it’s a symbol of why restrictor plate racing needs to go. You completely overlooked the fact that the Nationwide Series was still running the old car while the Cup Series – with its ever-evolving CoT – never had a single car get airborne nor a single driver injured in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499. Setzer’s wreck was an unfortunate and, now, final chapter in the checkered history of NASCAR’s “old car” at the restrictor plate tracks. Yes, there were multi-car wrecks in the 499, but even then, fewer cars were involved in each and plenty of drivers were still in contention for the final thrilling sprint to the checkers. We should be expressing hope, not despair, that soon the Nationwide Series may also enjoy such safe and competitive racing with their CoT.

On this, The Intimidator’s birthday, February 18, 2001 looms large in all our minds, but what transpired that day should only serve as an example of how much safer and even more competitive Sunday’s race was. I agree NASCAR was tragically slow in implementing the HANS device and SAFER barriers, but we have them now, and what’s more, NASCAR has spent countless hours and dollars since then working to make the cars and the racing just as safe, but still competitive. I admit that the last few years of ‘Dega racing have been more spectacle than sport, but for all these reasons, Sunday’s was far from it. It was Sunday in the Cup race that we finally saw the culmination of all that hard work. You should join us all in applauding the result.

04/29/2010 09:20 PM

Great article! Im glad that there is another journalist out there they knows what REAL racing is! Mad Mike Does!

04/29/2010 09:21 PM

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it—either:

a) Mandate specific engine rules just for the plate tracks so that they only make 450 hp. Use a displacement+rev limit, or a spec cam, or a spec head and cam package. Still room for the engine makers to play. And the argument that that costs too much is absurd—every NASCAR team already has a dedicated “restrictor plate engine program”, to try and find ANY way of making more power with it.

b) mandate wickers for the roof, or particularly large front and rear wings, to slow the cars down around 180 mph. Yes, they’ll be ugly—but the racing will be safe and still good, like the Camping World Truck Series.

Mr Bill
04/29/2010 10:16 PM

Matt, I did not expect an article from you in the middle of the week. I think it is one of your best pieces of work, and shows the compassion you have for the “sport”, and the people that make it worth being a part of. Plate racing is not racing. When other drivers on the track can take you from first place to twenty first place in one lap and you can do nothing about it, how is that racing? The only bright moment in Sunday’s race for me was the fact that two cars could hook up and separate themselves from the rest of the pack for a short time. When drivers have to put themselves and the other drivers around them in a very dangerous situation repeatedly just to obtain an advantage on the race track, how is that racing? I went to a basketball game of 8 year olds and the game reminded me of plate racing. No one stood out as individuals that could do anything to win the game. After the 8 year old game the 16 year old kids came out to play and there were some special moves and plays from some of the players. The 16 year old game was much better to watch, and produced some outstand individual plays. Plate racing is like a pack of wolves trying to bring down a running dear. They all take a shot at the deer and the final blow that brings the deer down had nothing to do with the wolf that delivered it, but was just the accumaltion of all the wolfs going after the same objective. If plate racing did not exist I think Mikey, Dale, and Dale would have been in a three car pack out front headed to the finish line with three of the biggest smiles a driver could have. I miss him to this day. Thank you Matt, and I look forward to Sunday’s article.

04/30/2010 09:41 AM

Matt, I liked your article. I do have a couple issues to address.

First, EVERY sport on the planet is entertainment. PERIOD! Whatever sport you tune in to watch, it is only a diversional activity with absolutely NO social benefit. Except racing, as the crash test dummies that strap themselves into these cars test the safety features we utilize in our street cars.

Second, if NASCAR chose to lower the banking at Daytona, it would require the complete destruction and rebuilding of the facility. The concrete for the walls would have to be re-poured, the safer barriers would have to be re-fitted, then the stands would have to be lowered and repositioned for easy viewing.
It would be much easier to leave the banks alone and adjust the stands to move them farther from the action. A section of where the current stands (think 120 horizontal feet by 60 vertical feet) could be filled with a series of catch fences and a second safer barrier could be erected against the secondary wall. The fans could sit elevated (better viewing) behind a final catch fence lined with lexan. That would keep trash off the track and track debris out of the stands.
Then crash test the cars for 250 mph speeds (it CAN be done) and throw the restrictor plates away.
NASCAR could also go to 6 cylinder engines when they go to fuel injection. That would give the auto manufacturers a reason to spend money on NASCAR. Go to 8.5:1 compression ratios.

Finally, are you related to ol’ MAGIC SHOES? If so, I’m just wondering how he is doing.

laidback racing
04/30/2010 11:24 AM

Can you say manufactured entertainment?

04/30/2010 01:48 PM

I LOVE PLATE RACING, not for the wrecks, but for the on the edge of your seat never know what’s gonna happen or who’s gonna win side by side RACING!

05/01/2010 10:24 AM

Make the tires half as wide and take the rear spoiler off. Problem solved. Nobody would run wide open into turn 1 then. They’d have to use the brakes, slowing themselves down.