The Frontstretch: Don't Shoot The Messenger: Earnhardt Asks Journalists for Their Opinion by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday July 6, 2011

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Don't Shoot The Messenger: Earnhardt Asks Journalists for Their Opinion

The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday July 6, 2011


I have been ordered by the most powerful man in NASCAR to write this article.

Before Saturday night’s edict, I was going to unleash a startling expose on the current perilous economic state of the sport, with facts, figures, and even a multi-colored pie chart. Instead, the gauntlet was thrown down after the race (I have never seen a gauntlet; however, I am confident it was cast with authority). The aggressor? None other than Dale Earnhardt, Jr., excitable to say the least when asked his opinion of the style of racing at restrictor plate tracks.

“You guys need to get your own opinions and write what you all think about it. I think it is probably pretty damn close to mine. Stop putting my damn mouth with y’all and getting my (butt) in trouble,” he said, in the midst of criticizing the tandem drafting. “Y’all write what y’all think, man. Come on, y’all are good. Y’all have an opinion about it. I read y’all’s stuff. You put us in the damn crow’s nest.”

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. took the media to task for asking the same restrictor plate questions that were presented to him in February.

Well far be it from me to threaten anyone’s livelihood or put them in an uncomfortable position of saying what is on their mind. So what do I think about the current state of restricted racing at Daytona and Talladega? The same thing I felt about it five years ago; it’s not real racing, merely a reasonable facsimile.

For the driver who dominated plate racing from 2001-05, his thoughts on superspeedway racing have soured significantly; even more so when asked to express his true feelings on the matter and what needs to be done to improve it.

“What kind of move can you make in racing like this?” he claimed, frustrated over the competition. “There ain’t no move you can make. You just hold it on the mat and try not to wreck into each other. You see how good we are at that.”

The wreck he is referring to occurred exiting Turn 4, when Earnhardt, Jr. was collected by Jamie McMurray, triggering a 15-car crash – the reason Junior was left with his third finish that was not indicative of where he had been running in the last four races. Results of 19th, 41st, and 21st have been the results over the course of the past month, ugly endings to what was a promising season. A few weeks ago, No. 88 was within 10 points of the championship lead, but now finds himself in seventh, one more poor finish away from falling outside the top 10 in points.

Yet these words aren’t just the mark of a man angry over his slump. Let’s be honest; what is so competitive about making a deal with somebody, committing to pushing another competitor forward and on to victory as your own vehicle is in danger of overheating? In essence, you have surrendered before even firing a shot – the motorsports equivalent of dropping the magazine, clearing the chamber, and handing over your weapon.

My biggest regret about the current situation is that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. is not around to voice his opinion of the current form of racing. He about blew a gasket after the 2000 Daytona 500 when the cars were completely incapable of passing one another to the point that it took a string of four Fords to overtake the virtually unsponsored plain-white wrapper of Johnny Benson, Jr.’s Pontiac. Remember that? The sport is missing an outspoken leader here, someone who’s willing to stand up, with authority and say the racing is unacceptable – then have NASCAR officials cower with fear after they talk.

As much as I hate to draw parallels between stick ‘n’ ball sports, the comparisons to “The Big Four” would be equally hateful and ugly. Does Justin Verlander tell Travis Hafner what pitch he’s going to throw and ask him to hit it towards Austin Jackson if he could? What if Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis told Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson he wasn’t going to tackle him, but just run alongside and let him score a touchdown? Teammates helping teammates win in plate pairings is a little different – I guess. Kind of like in Formula One, but at least then they get mad about it sometimes, and almost ignore orders – like Rubens Barrichello at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002.

Too obscure a reference? Fair enough, not everybody likes Euro-parading like I do; blame my Mediterranean heritage, I suppose. Dial up a YouTube clip of the 1993 Talladega 500 to see plate racing ran properly, or the July Daytona race from 1994 – a hot, slick track, with cars spread out, forcing handling, horsepower, and aerodynamics to play an equally important part in determining which car and driver go to Victory Lane.

Now, two of the most anticipated races of the year have been relegated to finding out whose car can run the longest with the air openings blocked off. And, if you make it to the end which driver won’t wreck the guy he is shoving forward against his bumper in a turn? It’s a race of strategy and survival… not speed.

So what are the solutions to this bastardization of competition? Carl Edwards says remove all of the downforce from the cars and that would spread the packs out. I’m not so sure that would work. We saw what kind of wrecks followed restarts; having less grip, less drag, and double-file acceleration might just wipe out the field after every caution flag.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. thought that given time, the track would wear out a little bit and spread things out. SPEED commentator Dave Despain on his program Wind Tunnel Sunday night suggested that a wrecking ball dimple the banking and make some bumps – the kind that Daytona used to have, which helped give it some character and separate it from Talladega.

Jack Roush has always been an advocate of reducing the banking at both restrictor plate tracks – a solution he said that would not cost the competitors money for a change. Not sure how good that would turn out; we already have enough carping and moaning about Michigan and California races being “boring,” though both events came down to the last lap in 2011.

So what is my bright-assed idea? Much like American automakers, when we have completely run out of new ideas, I look to the past for inspiration and an answer. The aerodynamic package that produced some of the best racing in 2000 and 2001 – the one with the wicker bill across the roof – always appealed to me.

We could probably stand to cut that massive rear blade down a bit, which would reduce some downforce as Edwards suggested. The front of the car needs some attention as well; maybe raise the air dam up a couple of inches. How about those big gumballs these things ride on? There was a time in the mid-to-late 1980s when these cars would sail around Daytona and Talladega at over 210 mph without incident; the tires would typically hang on, wear out, and string the packs out a bit. There was also the ability for aerodynamics to play a role in things with cars that were genuinely shaped differently, with characteristics that went beyond grille stickers and headlight appliqués.

Considering how most guys now just kind of ride around and stay out of trouble until the last few laps (all of the incidents involving more than three cars took place on Lap 159 of 160 – or later), perhaps NASCAR should make Duel races at the two tracks. Have two races paying points of 200 or 250 miles each, then invert the field after the finish. Those who wrecked out of the first event are invited to bring out their backup car for the second.

Yeah, I know, it’s easy to sit here and bang out answers to everybody’s problems on a keyboard. None of my ideas might work in the wind tunnel or prove cost-effective. Then again, they can’t be any worse than two cars pushing each other, with a predetermined outcome of who is going to win; after all, each pairing has someone who is just content to sit there and push the car in front of him.

In boxing, it’s called taking a dive; in NASCAR circa 2011, it’s called restrictor plate racing. That’s not a knock against the competitors, it’s just the position that they’ve been put in – and that’s probably the most unfair result for them and the fans of all.

Let me know how that one works for you, Junior.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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07/06/2011 07:56 AM

Agreed, this type of “racing” is pretty pitiful.

But then again, we stopped going to Talladega after 4 straight years of trips as that race always turned into the Jr. show. That’s the real reason he’s twisted. The super speedways were places that he could count on to content but now that’s gone.

So until the rules change, boohoo, poor, poor Jr.

Kurt Smith
07/06/2011 10:39 AM

Plate racing outright sucks and always has, and there is no way to adjust the car, the rules, or a team’s plans that will ever make plate racing anything more than an utter crapshoot with at least a dozen torn up racecars in EVERY event.

Any way you try to arrange it, plate racing isn’t, never was, and never will be racing.

07/06/2011 01:26 PM

Plate racing is not racing. Never has been.

If Daytona and ‘dega were owned by Bruton nascar wouldn’t allow it.

07/06/2011 01:34 PM

Thank you for having the courage to give your opinion. Not many drivers will tell you the truth and that goes for the media too.

I have always liked RP racing, but this 2X2 dance isn’t racing. Racing pits one driver against the other 42. You can’t do that today. It just isn’t possible. Most of the race is boring with the last few laps being a demo race.

If Nascar wanted to fix this problem, they could. They however will probably say it can’t be fixed. Nascar is very good at lying to the drivers and the fans.

07/06/2011 02:22 PM

I’m not a gear head by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me that with NASCAR going to Electronic Fuel Injection next year, there won’t be any carbeurators* (sp?) to mount restrictor plates on.

It seems to me that the 2×2 racing only works because the RP’s limit the air so much that the cars can’t race fast enough on their own. Seems to me if the cars had enough power to get up to 200mph on their own and they were governed or had rev limitors that kept them from going beyond 200mph there would be no need for the 2×2 racing.

Can anyone with a better understanding of physics/engineering explain to my why this won’t work?

P.S. Vito, Thanks for taking Jr’s words to heart and telling us what you think about it. It’s good to hear things from the journalists perspective. The journalists who follow the sport have a wealth of knowledge, and experience and your opinion matters as much as anyone elses.

sylvia richardson
07/06/2011 03:57 PM


07/06/2011 09:05 PM

I am not at all impressed with this 2 car tandem racing, boring and makes for an awful race, I want the old Daytona & Talledega racing back. I used to love those races, not anymore. I barely stay in the room to watch. Very sad that NASCAR is ruining such a great sport.

Doug in Washington (State)
07/06/2011 09:15 PM

They can already govern them down below 200MPH wit the ignition system. But NASCAR doesn’t mandate a set RPM limit, and enforcing it would require require a data recorder.

With fuel injection, you still have a throttle body. It doesn’t matter of it’s throttle-body injection of multi-port injection, you still have to meter the air and that’s done with a throttle plate. You can add a restrictor plate to a throttle body just as easy as to a carb base.

The reality is, that as long as cars are running WOT at Daytona and Talladega, you’ll have either tandem racing or packs. The only way to break that up is either go so fast that the drivers have to back out of the throttle to make the turns (meaning laps in excess of 210MPH), or change the gear rules to make it possible to blow up the engine if you don’t lift (gear it so 200MPH = 10,000RPM).

If a car can only do 178 by itself but can do 200 hooked nose-to-tail of another, no one will run alone. That’s what restrictor plates have wrought. But if you had to lift, push-drafting, bump-drafting, or pack driving would no longer be possible all the way around the track.

And then it becomes Fontana with an extra half mile.

Solution? Run REAL, STOCK cars. But that’s not gonna happen.

07/06/2011 09:36 PM

@Kevin. As long as there are restrictions in any form, the racing will remain the same. If NA$CAR mandates, through fuel injection, that a lone car can only run 200mph then the drivers will still hook up in a draft to go faster.
The answer IMO that will never happen is to open it up to the engine builders and the body strokers. You know, like back when we had real race cars.

I love the safety innovations with racing today but, sorry fans, I believe the 2001 Daytona 500 didn’t just kill a racing icon but it killed racing competition that has made the sport great. It took away the innovators, the future Smokeys and the Suitcases. The real geniuses that could take what was in front of them and make it better than the others. That’s what was great about the sport. I sometimes think that when today’s fans complain about the old school fans, they don’t really look at the history and what it took for this sport to get to where it was. And the loss to see where it is today.

Yea, I know, another old timer lamenting on the days when it was wine and roses. Bullshit! This fan is looking at the sport that, day by day, is sinking. The “competition” today is unsustainable. Sponsors, who are far smarter than us lowly fans, see the handwriting on the bleachers and the inflated TV ratings. This isn’t just our economy, this is failure on so many levels of NA$CAR management. They’re thinking the orchestra sounds so good while the water is lapping at their ankles.

07/06/2011 10:16 PM

One of the easiest ways to cut horsepower is to lower the compression ratio. Right now the ratio would probably make a diesel envious and needs airplane fuel. A good way to limit revs is to mandate steel connecting rods.

07/06/2011 11:03 PM

Easiest way to change the flow of traffic in my neighborhood…speed bumps.

07/06/2011 11:50 PM

Well said, sir, well said. Its not often we get a piece here that is well thought, well articulated and well written..without resorting to gratuitous driver or NASCAR bashing. You’ve had two gems back to back. Keep it up.

Don Mei
07/07/2011 12:35 PM

305 cubic inches, less spoiler, end of problem

07/07/2011 07:47 PM

If you want to fix NASCAR, fire Brian France. The Chase sucks. Always has, always will. Bring cars that represent their makes and allow some real work to be done to the cars. Cup is not a SPEC series but that is what it is rapidly becoming. Welcome fuel injection.

07/07/2011 11:16 PM

I honestly believe we are witnessing the end of NASCAR. It’s pretty obvious that the sport in terms of collegium has been on the downturn for the last couple years — and it’s seemingly accelerating. Fact is that they are trying to please a new generation of advertisers who have no real stake in the sport and, ultimately, see it as an expendable means to an end no matter how that affects racing, fan reax and son. One exmple: the cot. Improvd safety? Absolutely… but deliberatly made bigger so advertisers have more space and france can charge more? Absolutely times ten. France fell for it hook line N sinker bc the result has poor racing week after week after week.

Truth is, if the drivers and owners had any…. Any cohones, theyd start a rival real stock series and sell it ti the advertisers. If dale jr and jimmie and harvick and stewart got up tommorow and started a rival real stock muscle car series, itd he death or france-car and the saving of nascar; what it was and still could be all at thensame time. If only.

07/08/2011 10:55 AM

Smaller tires and let them go like HELL!!!

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