Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side-By-Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!
Today’s Question: Last fall’s race at Talladega was a freight train event, in part due to the drivers’ fears surrounding restrictor-plate racing. Is it just time to take the plates off, or are the plates a necessary evil in order for speeds to stay down and drivers to stay safe?
The Restrictor Plate Should Stay
A necessary evil to slow the cars down, the restrictor plate is being blamed for something that it’s not responsible for. Because unlike the previous time the rules were changed to increase on-track passing (October 2000, when the roof spoilers were introduced), the lack of passing has nothing to do with the current aerodynamic rules… or the cars.
You’re seeing a similar style of racing now at Talladega as you did with the old car. The bad racing last fall at Talladega was a result of the Chase; people were unwilling to take chances because they were afraid of dropping like a stone if no one helped them. With the AMP Energy 500 being the seventh-to-last race of the season, drivers in the Chase do not really care where they finish, as long as they avoid the big wreck (if there is one) and cross the line in the lead pack. Frankly, this type of racing isn’t just epidemic of the fall; it’s plagued Talladega since about the spring race in 2002, as point shave become so important to the fabric of Cup racing. Each event has also been shaped by someone with a great car who gets out front and pulls the field around the track right next to the outside wall; Dale Earnhardt Jr. did it back then, Jimmie Johnson did it last fall, and anyone who has a great car could potentially do it on Sunday. When someone has such a great car that it’s difficult for anyone to come down on the inside groove to challenge them, you’re going to be in for one heck of a snoozefest for portions of the event.
However, if the drivers feel like jockeying for position, Talladega still becomes a veritable free for all on the track; we saw this during the closing laps of the race last fall. The near total lack of bumps on the track today make it easier for drivers to move around, and the risk of cut tires has also been dramatically decreased, leading to drivers taking more risks as the laps wind down.
Those changes – the result of a recent repaving – have left the cars of today mighty fast at Talladega. The pole speed last fall was 189.070 mph, and it’s possible cars could break 190 this time around. Of course, race laps and practice laps were substantially faster than that with the big packs of cars; speeds can reach close to 200, and unlike at a regular oval, that speed will stay consistent at nearly every point of the speedway, including the turns. Because of the high speeds, it is not really an option to take the restrictor plates off. If the plates were actually removed, either one of two things would happen. One scenario (with the plates removed and the current aerodynamic package remaining the same) would have speeds over 200 mph in qualifying and even faster in the race. NASCAR’s insurance policies likely would not cover races where speeds are that high, and as we’ve seen from past experience (i.e. – Bobby Allison‘s horrific 1987 crash) there becomes a certain point where stock car speeds are inherently unsafe for both drivers and fans.
The other scenario is that NASCAR would install an extra tall wicker on the rear wing. The speeds outside of the pack could be as low as the 170s to low 180s, but the wicker would create a closing rate so severe that drivers might not be able to stop themselves from causing large wrecks in the draft. This would be an amplified version of what happened with the roof spoilers that the Sprint Cup cars ran for five races in 2000 and 2001 (and the Nationwide Series has run since 2004). It would be a potential safety hazard and, quite seriously, a terrible wreck just waiting to happen. If anything, an adjustment to the gear rule should be made. Today, the cars are turning nearly 9,000 rpm in the draft. Regardless of whether the plates stay or not, it would not be a terrible idea to require a longer gear (a lower number). Maybe even let the teams pick their own rear-end gear setting again, but try to keep maximum revolutions around 8,300 or so. This is only to help preserve the engines (since they have to last the weekend).
The drivers today have a lot of control over the type of race that they can put on at Talladega – much more so than in the past. If they want to make it so, Sunday’s race can be one of the all-time great Sprint Cup races. If not, it could be a follow-the-leader marathon like the 2002 Aaron’s 499 (which had 26 lead changes, but Earnhardt Jr. led 133 of the 188 laps). But people seem to forget that last fall’s UAW-Ford 500 had the same number of lead changes (42) as the spring race at Talladega did (with the old car); it’s not like it was follow the leader for every single lap. Personally, I expect a thrilling race similar to last fall’s on Sunday. Since it’s only the ninth race of the season, points aren’t as much of a concern as they will be in October – unless you’re in a car around or behind 35th in owner points. As the standings are less of a concern, it will likely lead to drivers being more open to take chances on the track, which the fans obviously love to see. – Phil Allaway
Ditch the Plates
It’s been over 20 years since Allison’s Miller Lite Buick lifted off the ground and nearly planted itself in the front grandstands at Talladega. That, of course, was the defining moment when NASCAR saw fit to equip the superspeedway cars with restrictor plates.
But a lot has changed since then.
The Car of Tomorrow was heralded as a return to old-school racing, with its boxcar aerodynamics and a rear wing that looks like it would make quite the airbrake if the car ever got backwards. Well, if that’s the case, it’s time to put the car through the paces it was intended for. Talladega (originally known as Alabama International Motor Speedway) was built for one reason: so cars could race at over 200 mph. These cars, with all of their safety innovations – including aerodynamic aids such as roof flaps – should once again be allowed to flash back in time, operating as intended on the resurfaced raceway. Seeing 43 cars play follow the leader for three hours is not exactly exciting, and is also probably as unsafe than if they were going 10 mph faster.
Back when the cars were going 200 mph, that seemed to be the magic speed at which the field got strung out at this racetrack, and the teams with the best setups… and drivers… were able to find their way to the front. Instead, in recent years we’ve all waited nervously for one driver to slip and trigger a 30-car pileup, as no one is realistically able to pull away from the dreaded “big pack.” What you get is the resulting junkyard at the apron of turn 3 or turn 1 – and further evidence that something needs to be done. The restrictor plate has been in place for two decades, which simply means this change has been over two decades in the making.
Even if they don’t remove the plates completely, NASCAR needs to open the engines up. At the very least, come back with a tapered spacer, such as the one the Truck Series has used in the past. With this new car’s heinous shape, putting a host of aerodynamic handicaps such as a roof or wing wicker is also an option that would most likely go unnoticed visually.
Last October at Talladega, Jeff Gordon remarked that he actually yawned in the car during the middle stages of the race, due to the sheer boredom that he was suffering. The rest of the field and fans in general were not far behind. Safe to say, things begin to look a little weird when the pace car has as much horsepower as the rest of the field does. Even with restrictor plates, how many times have we seen a car get in the air or tumble down the track? When it comes to safety, you’re just as damned with the plates as you are without them.
Or maybe not. The terminal speed of the vehicle isn’t as nearly unsafe as is the proximity and manner in which they are racing is. The new CoT design has the cars limping around at 190 mph in the draft with little throttle response, and not much choice but to run wide open the entire time. What’s so safe about that? It puts the drivers in a precarious situation of not being able to lift, and that keeping your foot in it is the only way to keep from either losing the draft completely or getting run over from behind by the rest of the field. As Dick Trickle once said while testing IROC cars, “Any monkey can ride around out here all day with the throttle wide open.”
For racing to be like it once was at the big track, the drivers need to have to lift at some point, as well as have piece of mind that if they do need to squeeze out of it, they aren’t going to get turned around in front of the field.
And for that to happen – for the excitement to return to Talladega – the plates need to come off. – Vito Pugliese