The Frontstretch: Talladega Troubles Self-Imposed By NASCAR by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday November 4, 2009

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Talladega Troubles Self-Imposed By NASCAR

The Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday November 4, 2009


The yearly Talladega carnage has reached epidemic proportions these days, leaving everyone involved with the sport at a loss as to what to do. But this much, we do know — things are quickly spiraling out of control.

Three days following this past Sunday’s most recent unmitigated disaster at Talladega, most of the pundits have by now offered their assessment of what transpired over the weekend. Some dismissed it as just another plate race, others say it is nothing we haven’t seen before, and some are content to brush it off using the most convenient cop-out in our lexicon these days: “It is what it is.”

Having had a chance to let these heightened emotions settle and my elevated Italian blood pressure subside, I’ve had a chance to read all of the quotes, review the race again, and have reached my own conclusion:

Things have gotten way out of frigging control.

By now, we are all familiar with the paradox of racing at Daytona and Talladega. You take off the plates, and risk creating a morose scene of a 3,400-pound car cart-wheeling through the grandstands, killing hundreds of people, while oil, fuel, fire, and 230-degree engine coolant showers those who were fortunate not to be crushed by a sub-sonic stock car landing in their laps. The other option is what we have had to endure the previous 22 years: restrictor plate racing that puts the drivers in harm’s way by increasing the likelihood of a major wreck, confining the casualties to the track instead of the stands.

This weekend, though, everything seemingly came to a head.

In the aftermath of hours of single-file racing, followed by the violent accidents of Ryan Newman and Mark Martin, as much as NASCAR’s yes men took to the airwaves and other forums, trying to quell the upheaval with consoling words and assurances to the contrary, most everybody else that follows the sport is no longer willing to tow the company line. NASCAR has painted themselves into a corner after this weekend, and is just about out of both options and excuses.

It reminds me of that scene in Planet of The Apes, when Charlton Heston gets the fire hose turned on him by his captor, Julius, screaming, “It’s a mad house…A MAD HOUSE!!!!”

So what has brought us to the breaking point that so many fans and drivers feel that we are at with what used to be one of the most anticipated races of the season, but has now become the most reviled?

Restrictor Plates: Contrary to popular belief, these were used long before Bobby Allison’s Miller Buick nearly tore through the catchfence by the flagstand in 1987. Originally used to harness the big block horsepower of 426 Hemi Dodges and Plymouths, as well as Ford’s BOSS 429-based hemispherical engines, it was always seen as an economical, fast, and simple way of reducing power at Daytona and Talladega.

But there was another option that was exercised in the early 1970s as well, when the speed of the wild-winged Mopars was getting a little out of hand; run a small block sporting fewer cubic inches. So with unrestricted engines today cranking out nearly 900 horsepower out of 358 cubic inches, might it be time to look at a smaller engine altogether? Faster cars do not always promote better racing; for proof, just take a look at Formula One. There’s a reason why airplane racing hasn’t quite caught on yet on a major scale…

To me, it’s clear the big problem at the superspeedways, as well as the intermediate tracks, is that these cars are simply going way too fast. While a restrictor plate can cut the power on a bigger engine, it is still a big engine, and whatever horsepower a smaller plate reduces, the engine tuners usually regain it again by the next race. Decreasing the size of the hole into the engine is one thing; decreasing the size of the engine altogether is something that needs to be explored.

Aerodynamics: When Bill Elliott ran his record 212.809 mph lap at Talladega in 1987, he did it in a Ford Thunderbird that looked remarkably similar to the red one my buddy Kevin’s mom had. What on God’s green earth do these cars resemble today? I am not just talking aesthetics, I am talking about what design cues do production cars have that might actually be advantageous to help pull the reins in a little bit? I always like looking at photos of old race cars, and there were a few traits shared over the course of 25 years, from Petty’s Plymouth or Earnhardt’s Monte Carlo. Stock noses, grille openings, stock hoods, and trunk lids, body panels with creases and contours in them that look like the ones in the cars you and I might actually consider buying… instead of the ones NASCAR races now.

But take a look at some of the photos circulating following the Nationwide CoT test at Talladega on Monday of Justin Allgaier’s No. 12 Penske Dodge Challenger R/T. That is the direction the Cup cards need to be headed, post-haste. A stock SRT-8 Dodge Challenger has 425 horsepower, and tops out at 173 mph. That is with a stock body, ride height, 20” rims, and 4,100 pounds of lard to lug around. Not everything has to look like a bar of soap with headlight stickers on it.

Modifications: It used to be that crews and crew chiefs would take a car to the wind tunnel and try to come up with novel ways of tweaking their cars to find the right balance of drag and downforce. At the same time, they’d conjure up a suspension setup that balanced mechanical grip with trying to keep the correct attitude on the front, all while trying to hide the spoiler from the air.

That is still the case today but to an even a lesser extent, as there is virtually no room to work within the current rules. Everything is now measured not with a ruler, but a micrometer. Today, you get state-issued springs, mandated shocks, and remember, don’t get too frisky with those end plates on that big dumb wing!

As bored as Tony Stewart was riding around in cue Sunday, the teams and crews must be equally dispirited and uninspired when constructing these machines.

On-Track Rules: In a publicized Tweeting exchange between Toyota drivers Michael Waltrip (who I have now deemed CincoCinco) and Denny Hamlin (UnoUno – OK, I’m done), the banter back and forth was regarding the heavy hand that came down prior to the race even being started Sunday morning in the driver’s meeting. Waltrip understood NASCAR needing to officiate, but Hamlin wanted some say in how he conducted his car.

Whether they agreed with it or not, though, the message was clear Sunday from NASCAR: No hard bump drafting down the straights, no pushing (Draft Lock, using ESPN’s nomenclature), and daylight between cars in the corners. The yellow line rule was also going to be enforced; you cannot go below it to advance position, lest you be penalized. So what you were left with is a 43-car parking lot, with no way to pass, and now, nowhere to go.

Sterling Marlin once drawled after a memorable Talladega Demolition Derby in 2001, “These cars need to be runnin’ 200 mile an ire. But I guess we’ll jes load ‘em up, take ‘em to Daytona, and wreck ‘em again.”

I have admittedly never driven a car in oval track competition. My experience to any sort of organized racing has been confined mostly to drag racing and autocross, though after 16 years of driving through snow on the moon-scaped roads of Michigan, I’m sure I could give Smoke a run for his money at Eldora.

That being said, everything I’ve detailed above is working in concert not to prevent a wreck, but to virtually guarantee that one occurs every single time. To keep score at home, you can’t lean on the engine, you can’t tweak the body, you can’t really work the suspension, and now you can’t drive the car and do things to get away from the other guy. One-time legendary race car builder Smokey Yunick was concerned that his car was not going to be fast enough to be competitive for a race. His driver at the time, Glen “Fireball” Roberts, told Yunick, “Don’t worry – superior driving ability will solve the problem.”

That is no longer an option.

If everybody has pretty much the same car, and everybody gets the same engine from one of five major team vendors – isn’t everybody going to run pretty much about the same? The whole reason the wrecks happen in the first place is the duration these cars are running in close proximity to each other. There is nothing to break up the packs and separate the fast cars from the average cars – and don’t say that 18-gallon fuel cell, because that just makes them pit quicker and is empty long before the tires wear out.

In previous years, we’ve been content with discounting “The Big One” or airborne stunt as just a part of superspeedway racing. This weekend, though, seems to be the breaking point. NASCAR is out of bullets, so to speak, with trying to control 43 cars from racing in competition at nearly 200 mph. It’s time to change the magazine, reload, and start from scratch. Throwing on a smaller plate and issuing some arbitrary rules about racing hard an hour before the race starts is simply not going to cut it anymore; not by the drivers, and not by the fans.

Sunday, as Ryan Newman’s No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet ground through sheet metal and roll bars, it went airborne and flopped onto its roof on two separate occasions that were eerily similar to the manner in which J.D. McDuffie lost his life at Watkins Glen in 1991. When Martin’s No. 5 Chevrolet violently tumbled over on its side coming to the checkered flag, Robert Richardson was screaming towards him in his No. 36 Toyota, while out of the smoke came the car he drove for the majority of his career, the No. 6 of David Ragan. By either dumb luck or divine intervention, it deflected the No. 36 away from his inverted Chevrolet, preventing it from striking the driver’s side door at 180 mph.

It took the death of NASCAR’s biggest name, and one of the greatest drivers in history, to finally make legitimate strides in racetrack construction and the implementation of ground breaking safety devices. Is it going to take the death of yet another driver – or grizzly injuries to some fans – until they finally make the move to rethink how to race at two of NASCAR’s signature tracks?

As a member of the media, I have had the opportunity to meet these drivers, speak with them, and spend some time getting to know them professionally. They do not deserve to be put in the position they are consistently subjected to, simply for the sake of “putting on a show.”

What I am trying to say is what so many fans are no longer asking, but rather demanding that NASCAR heed: forget your race for a minute, and help keep our guys from getting killed. This is supposed to be organized competition, not some Figure-8-School-Bus-Death-Jump-Through-a-Ring-of-Fire at your local county fair. What used to be one of the most spectacular forms of motorsports and one of the most unique racetracks in the world hosting the most compelling event is no longer.

It has become nothing more than a mad house.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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11/04/2009 07:47 AM

“bar of soap with headlight decals”. nice!

i heard a great interview on sirius radio yesterday that tradin paint did with mario andretti. they asked for his thoughts on the whole talladega contraversy and he gave them. he talked about how when they built daytona they wanted a track where cars could run the same speeds as what they open wheel cars were running at indianapolis. obviously the fendered cars at that time couldn’t get around a flat 2 mile track at that kind of speed so the only answer was to bank the corners at 30+ degrees. so as many people have said this week the technology has passed the race track by. his suggestion was to bring the banking down to somewhere around 22 degrees so handling will play a role. they’re not going to go backwards with the cars. we all know that. and even if they did the engineers and technical wizards that these teams employ today would find work arounds. the track needs to be altered so that you can not just simply flat foot it all the way around. regardless of what they do with the car, with a 2-1/2 + mile track and 33 degrees of banking as long as drivers can just stand on it all the way around and not lift the problem can not be solved. how many times have we heard mark martin say what makes him so good is his ability to make his cars go fast through the corners. well when everyone can run the same speed all the way around the racetrack you are going to have the pack racing and violent wrecks. we have seen racetracks altered quite bit over the years to improve the racing at a particular venue. i just don’t understand why they won’t at least try bringing the banking down 10 degrees? hmmmm…… could it be that nascar likes the spectacular crashes and flips?

M.B. Voelker
11/04/2009 08:15 AM

Its not the cars or the engine or the drivers. Its the track.

Yes, each of the above contributes a bit (people ought to remember that the COT was designed when engines ran 600hp, not 850+). But none of those is the primary problem.

Talladega is too big, too wide, too fast, and too easy to drive. There’s a reason why the fastest closed-circuit cars — the F1 cars — don’t run ovals. Making them brake to make the turns is the only way to keep them from flying off the track.

And there’s no aero solution to the problem. Even the trucks are running plates (they call it a “tapered spacer”, but its a plate nonetheless), because in 2004 they reached the point of speed where even that degree of bad aero started to fly.

The advances in engine and aero design have simply made Talladega outdated. Its time to reconfigure the track to make actual racing possible.

However, merely knocking down the banking would turn it into another Fontana/Michigan snoozer.

IMO, its time to consider the same solution to having too much power that’s used in F1 — chicanes. Put enough banking, variable banking to create multiple grooves, in the turns to make the racing possible then add chicanes to the stretches to force them to slow.

This would also have the benefit of putting skill back into the equation since the track would become much more difficult to navigate.

Difficult tracks make for the best racing. Fix Talladega by making it hard to drive and impossible to coast around wide open and it will fix the racing.

Meanwhile, the engineers can look at adding some kind of flap or swivel to the wing to deal with the tail lift they’re getting from turning around at the high speeds those insanely powerful engines give them.

Bad Wolf
11/04/2009 10:01 AM

Damn dirty Frances, DAMN YOU- DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL. (since we are qouting Planet of the Apes)

The Turnip!
11/04/2009 10:09 AM

Make no mistake, and my tongue-in-cheek comment yesterday about Talladega being dead! It might very well be!

We are spoiled with the speed at Dega, in fact for 20+ years I have told everyone, if they watch one race in their lifetime, it has to be DEGA!

But present technologies have put the tremendous speed Dega offers, at the danger zone!

I don’t care how much, or how little horespower a car has, it will simply ALWAYS BE FASTER TO RUN IN A PACK! THE MORE, THE BETTER!

And on a 2.66 wide open race track this will always be the case, even at 100MPH! It will continue to be, a PACK menatality, out of necessity!

Unfortunately, the ONLY way out of this mess, and still provde “the need for speed”, Is to loosen up the rules, cars and motors, and let the teams/engineers affect how many cars will be capable of running “with the pack”!

I know, I know, the word “parity” comes to mind. But did you watch “parity” in action Sunday!

It was not good!


11/04/2009 12:12 PM

A good article, all in all, but I’m still laughing—at you, of course—for the comment about giving Tony Stewart “a run for his money at Eldora.” I’ve seen him run there several times, and I’d bet the only question would be how long it takes him to put you a lap down. At this year’s Prelude race, he whipped everyone else handily—with a car he put into the wall—twice.

11/04/2009 12:43 PM

I bet David Poole would get a kick out of knowing that Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin agree with him on the track!

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
11/04/2009 01:18 PM


Yeah well….uh…let’s see him get from Michigan City to Grand Rapids in 22” of snow in an ’04 Pontiac GTO. I did it in Decemeber of 2004.
Man’s Game.

11/04/2009 02:17 PM

good article. I don’t want to be reading about the death of a NASCAR driver and hearing NASCAR officials make excuses. There are solutions to the problem available. I used to look forward to watching the race on TV (all the races) or going to a track when I had the chance. Over the last 2 years since the bar of soap with decals became the norm, I find that I’m not that interested any longer. I don’t watch any of the pre-race garbage, I mostly tune in for the green flag (if I can figure out when it will actually be), watch the first 10 laps, go do something else for the rest of the afternoon and come back for the last 20 laps when they actually race. Ryan Newman and Mark Martin were lucky. Newman’s been lucky at the RP tracks a lot — I hope his luck continues to hold. Lots of fans leaving this sport behind because NASCAR has forgotten the sport was built on people and their love of fast cars and the personalities of the people who raced those cars. Hard to be loyal to a decal.

11/04/2009 02:37 PM

I am sure this has been proposed before, but…
Why can’t they use nationwide engines in the Cup cars for the tracks where the speeds are “too fast”? Most (if not all) of the teams have nationwide engine programs or at least have access to them. The smaller engines, combined with higher weight of the Cup car and the wing/splitter combo should slow them down and the lack of a plate would allow for the drivers to have some control over what happens. Too simple?

Kevin in SoCal
11/04/2009 04:09 PM

The Nationwide engines are actually the same size as the Cup engines, 358 cubic inches. The difference is the compression ratio and something else I cant remember, along with the “tapered spacer” on the Nationwide engines.
As I mentioned in a comment last week, Chevy High Performance did a test in a magazine a month or so ago, between a Chevy 302, 327, and 350 engines. They used the same heads and camshaft, and they all made around the same horsepower, within 10 of each other. But the torque was higher in the bigger engines, of course. So even if NASCAR reduced the engine size from 358 to 302, I think you’d still see the same high speeds, but with less torque, it would take longer to get there. In other words, the 0-100 MPH time would be greater, but you’d still be able to get to 200 MPH.
I used to think smaller size engines was the answer, but after reading that article, now I’m not so sure.

The Turnip!
11/04/2009 04:40 PM

Hey Kevin in SoCal, your kinda right on this displacement thingy.

In my GT-1 days, I ran mostly a 355 with lots of torque, so you set the driveline up accordingly.

Then for the National Championships one year, I decided to build a 310cid. (we were allowed to remove some weight for the record, not much but some), and with re-setting the drive line, gear ratios and such, I went faster with the 310 than the 355.

The hardest thing to get used to was the difference in RPM! With the 355, I used about a 7500rpm limit. With the 310, that jumped to 9200+/-.

So, my point is, one that I have stated before, well, sorta anyway, a mere displacement change might not be enough, but a displacment change along with an RPM limit just might do the trick. Lots of flexibility for the drivers to control at lower RPM, but when that rev limiter hits, say 5500! That’s it! No matter how much torque, no matter how much HP, no matter what gear ratios you have!


Of course, at this point you must give the teams the ability to use any gear ratios and transmissions to select the gear speeds they feel give them the best race car.

11/04/2009 06:14 PM

holy moley…Kevin in SoCal and The Turnip finding common ground on a discussion!?!…I think this is a greater harbinger of doom for Nascar than any decline in ratings or attendance could ever portend ;)

The Turnip!
11/04/2009 08:21 PM

Oh my “ConfederateWolf”, your making me blush!

But sometimes differing brilliant minds do not clash!


(just hope it does not become a habit)

11/04/2009 10:48 PM

M.B. What the heck have you been smoking? Chicanes on an oval? These guys can barely handle them on a road course let alone barreling down a straight only to navigate a chicane twice a lap. I thought the point was to reduce the number of wrecks. Might as well add a Figure 8 while we’re at it.
In closing, my real thought here is, BRIAN FRANCE IS A FRIGGINMORON.

11/05/2009 12:24 AM

So how many attempts at changing the car does it take before NASCAR realizes IT AIN’T THE DAMN CAR!!! Answer: ZERO. They know this and they’ve known it all along. Spoiler heights, wicker bills, COT, so many different restrictor plate sizes nobody can remember them all…..
All those changes were implemented to serve one purpose. So NASCAR could say, “see we’re doing something to keep our fans and drivers safe”.
THE TRACK IS THE REAL PROBLEM AND THEY DO NOT WANT TO FIX IT BECAUSE IT GETS THE SPORT MAINSTREAM MEDIA COVERAGE. They need Dega and “the big one” wrecks it creates for the highlight reel. The death defying crashes sell the sport and make the France family money. Unfortunately, In the end, that’s all that matters to some..

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
11/05/2009 12:53 AM

One thing I did omit from my column was indeed the track itself. Daytona is less of an issue because it is considered more of a handling tracking. How so?

Less banking, tighter turns.

In the past I have not been an advocate for reducing the banking, simply because I loved the fact that the track was engineered for pure speed. The cars have turned 200mph laps there since 1970 – and were hitting 200mph long before then.

There have always been massive wrecks at Talladega in years past – often the result of high speeds and not being able to stop, or cars getting airborne after wrecking driving in a straight line.

Now the wrecks occur because the cars are all exactly the same and have nowhere to go. Before it was bump drafting lifting tires off the ground. Now they run into the back of another car going 15mph faster, pushing them out of the way.

If you knock down the banking, I believe they would still be wrecking in the tri-oval and the straights – where all of the wrecks happen now. The cars will still draft, still hit 200mph, resulting in potentially MORE wrecks, due to the higher speeds entering the now slower turns.

They hit 208mph at Michigan going into turn one today – a track more than a half mile shorter than Talladega, and not nearly as wide. If the banking was knocked down, you would have still essentially have a big Michigan – really fast, and lots of room to run – but still, there would be packs of cars going nearly as fast as they do today.

Is knocking the banking down – making NASCAR pay for the latest round of changes instead of the teams – the answer? Coupled with the other items I detailed above it very well could be.

The main culprit of these accidents is not the speeds at the plate tracks – they have gone that fast for years. It is the proximity the cars run in, the rules the teams and drivers are forced to abide by, and the lack of car, driver, or team to have much input in the outcome of the race.

I also believe this new car is a bit of a culprit itself. The back and the front ends are beefy enough to withstand the impacts of bump drafting, so there is little to discourage it.

The wing on the back is acting just as the name implies – aiding lift once a car gets backwards.

If you notice, the new Nationwide CoT does not have a wing, but a traditional spoiler. I assume it will only be a matter of time before the Nationwide CoT – the one that fixes all of the ills of the Sprint Cup CoT – becomes the standard car in both series.

The Turnip!
11/05/2009 10:48 AM

Just a few miscellaneous comments on your latest post Vito!

And I hate to say it (again) is Talladega doomed? I mean lets look at the facts, it was designed and built for Speed! (capital S), we want, we need the speed! But SPEED KILLS, both people, and the racing itself.

So The Dega’ has worked itself into a corner!

Reduce the speed, reduce the interest!

However, as you point out, and as I have stated, allow the teams for flexibility in setting their cars up, get away from the IROC style cars, get back to a “rear spoiler”, to help keep the cars on the ground, and maybe keep the restrictor plates, but allow gear ratio changes and such so the cars are not total equals on the track thus splitting them into varying groups, all by themselves via their individual handling characteristics!

And one final thought/comment!

Can you imagine in your wildest dreams that NA$CRAP would design and mandate a “safe car”, we now call the POS, for good reason, AND MANDATE A REAR WING?

A wing that produces LIFT in the backwards mode, a WING that totally counteracts the effects of the ROOF FLAPS?

Is there any better example of why this car is called the POS?

Is there any better example of the extremely poor engineering and development work done on this car?

Remember, early on, ALL THE DRIVERS COMPLAINTS about this car, even during it’s initial test runs, it’s early races, AND NA$CRAP REFUSED TO LISTEN!

They, NA$CRAP just said to the drivers and teams:

“Here it is boys, it’s yours now, good luck”!

“Psss, hush up, don’t complain publicly about it either”! OR ELSE”!


“Remember, you, (the drivers) need us, NA$CRAP, more than we need you”! as so stated by one Mike Helton at MIS in 2008!


And if it’s not single file racing, then it is cars flying thru the air, and not “with the greatest of ease” either!


Wouldn’t you just love to take that “bar of soap with the headlight decals” and wash out Brain Farces mouth with it?

Contact Vito Pugliese