Thomas Bowles · Monday May 2, 2005
This column comes a day later than usual, but in hindsight I could have written this column three weeks ago and it would have still been the same. Sadly, the two races a year in Alabama are becoming nothing more than sickeningly predictable. 500-mile Cup race at Talladega, 20-car wreck, drivers get angry, a dozen cars finish in one piece. And when it’s all said and done, we end up with the same question that’s been asked for more than a decade now, to the point where writers have gotten tired of repeating it, and drivers have gotten tired of asking it: Why are we using restrictor plates?
I’ve followed NASCAR in one form or another for the last sixteen years. Ironically, that’s just two years after the initial restrictor plate system was put into place back in 1987. That makes it hard for me to judge what life was like before restrictor plates, although none of the modern races have come close to generating the 75 lead changes that occurred in pre-restrictor plate racing at Talladega in the mid-1980s. What I do know that I can tell newer fans is during a 1990 Talladega broadcast on ESPN, I can remember clearly restrictor plates being explained to me for the first time. The concept, it seemed, made perfect sense, even to a little fourth-grader; the cars were going too fast and things got too dangerous, so NASCAR had to put something in the engine to slow speeds down and make things safer for everyone. However, the problem was that this made everyone go the same speed, and made it impossible for people to pass other cars and pull away because their engine could only get so much power. The announcers explained this would be temporary, and NASCAR would be searching for a permanent solution soon.
Fast forward to 2005. 70 Daytona/Talladega races later, we’re stuck with the same restricted engine package, which keeps all 43 cars strung together closer than a car full of people in a cramped New York subway. We’ve had over two dozen wrecks in those races that have led to serious carnage (and should have led to more serious injuries). Kyle Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, and Ricky Craven are just some of the drivers who have lost a partial season due to injuries suffered in those wrecks. And while the “Big One” did not claim the life of Dale Earnhardt, the fact remains, four years later, that he was killed on a restrictor plate track. Cars have gone airborne, drivers have gotten frustrated, and crews have gotten tired of having to repair a totaled race car every time they head to these 2.5 mile tracks. And yet, no solution to restrictor plate racing has been found. It’s as if NASCAR announced it had a problem, then threw it in a closet somewhere, locked it, and pretended it never said anything, even though you hear screaming coming from behind the closet door.
And if you have any doubt of how the drivers feel about this package, just look in the eyes of some of the older drivers sidelined on Sunday. Sterling Marlin. Ricky Rudd. Mark Martin. Veterans of all the restrictor plate races past, the three of them looked like they were ready to take Mike Helton, stuff him into a race car, and drive him right into a multi-car wreck off of turn 2 to see how HE liked the idea of restrictor-plate racing. The media of today don’t allow these guys to open their mouths and express what they really feel, but trust me, the look in their eyes should tell you more than enough. Go back five or six years, when NASCAR was not as closely scrutinized, and you’ll see drivers’ quotes on restrictor plates after the “Big One;” trust me, they’re not singing its praises.
Yet, we still race here, and we still expect 43 drivers to keep from bumping into each other when they’re running 3-wide, at 190 mph, unable to separate for 500 miles. We allow demolition derbies at frightening speeds for the sake of TV ratings and a few fans who have caved into the ideas behind the Roman Gladiators of 2,000 years ago. Who cares if someone dies, their twisted mind thinks, as long as it’s a cool fiery crash that can be replayed on Sportscenter 1,000 times? Sadly, there are people out there following the sport who may deny it, but ultimately are thinking that way. My question to you is, should we be catering to them?
Now, writing this column, a yearly ordeal, frustrates me because I don’t have a solution to this problem. Removing the plates is just as dangerous, and creates a problem of 230 mph speeds with possible deadly results. Building a chicane between turns two and three on the back straightaway turns Talladega into a road course, and costs lots of money. Specialized compression ratios for an engine forces teams to spend too much money on only four races a year. All I do know is that in the real world, you can’t use the excuse “no other solution” for SIXTEEN years and get away with it. You can only say “I don’t have my paper done” in a college class for so long until you fail the assignment, and you can only cheat death for so long until you get bitten. NASCAR’s already lost its greatest driver on one of these two tracks, and I simply don’t want to lose anymore. You’d think someone, somewhere, would have taken that failure to heart by now and come up with a solution so that none of this madness happens again.
Well, maybe someone, somewhere in NASCAR’s upper brass will read these 50 columns hitting on the same general topic and realize that Talladega needs to be fixed in some way as it’s too fast for their own good. Either that, or find us a permanent solution to the plates problem. NASCAR’s only had about 5,000 days to work on it, and it’s running out of room for error until we see one, two, or three serious injuries all in one wreck. And then all the TV ratings and all the fans cheering over this weird contrived racing we’ve come up with won’t be worth that…at least, I hope not.
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