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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Complaining Aside, Restrictor-Plate Racing is Here to Stay

Wow, has the anti-NASCAR restrictor plate hating crowd had a heyday this week following more than the usual uneventful laps that were run and the not so unusual spectacular wrecks Sunday during the running of the AMP Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Once again drivers criticized the restrictor-plate form of racing that results in them running in tightly packed groups that inherently increases the likelihood of chain-reaction crashes. Fans likewise chimed in with complaints that they believe would be remedied by either removing the plates or a combination of removing the plates and reducing the banking at the mammoth tracks that host the restrictor plate form of racing… Talladega and Daytona International Speedway.

However, the odds of a end to restrictor-plate racing or a radical modification to the track configurations at either of the two superspeedways in the near future is about the same as Senate Democrats and Republicans finding unanimous common ground on healthcare reform. Thankfully.

The latest chapter in a long history of bellyaching before and after a restrictor-plate race took a new twist when NASCAR issued a last-minute ban on drivers pushing one another through the high-banked turns, complete with a threat of penalty for any driver that did not comply to the on-the-fly rule. A decision the sanctioning body arrived at no doubt ws made in the interest of safety, but one that met with resentment by many drivers who believe that they should not be told how to drive their racecars. A resentment that appears to have manifested in an undetermined amount of protest by drivers in the way of not racing for position and instead marking lap after lap in a single-file formation, unwilling to race side-by-side in hope of improving their position.

Score one for the drivers, as NASCAR should not have told racers how to race. It is solely the responsibility of each individual driver to be competitive and decide how to gain the best possible finish they can muster given their ability and the quality of their equipment. In short, go as fast as they can. That’s what they get paid to do. That’s what the fans pay to see.

Sitting in the grandstands at in April for the Aaron’s 499 in the closing laps I was caught by surprise when Carl Edwards, being pushed by Brad Keselowski seemed to come out of nowhere to take the lead ion the last lap. At the time I did not comprehend that what I was witnessing was the newest wrinkle in restrictor-plate racing – that of hooking-up and pushing the competitor in front all the way around the track. However, that is the newest tactic in superspeedway racing that first brought us the slingshot move and then bump drafting. The maneuver is in its own way every bit as exciting, and certainly requires as much skill as previous versions of plate racing technique.

Let’s not assume though that all drivers were enthused about the newfound tactic. Word in the garage is that an undetermined number of drivers had qualms about the practice and had confronted NASCAR president Mike Helton following the epidemic of pushing in the turns during practice leading up to Sunday’s event. Who the driver(s) might have been is unknown, but judging from comments two days prior to the race made by four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, he very well could have been one that voiced his displeasure.

“That’s what I don’t understand – I thought there were no-bump zones or something like that. The reason why that’s working and happening is because NASCAR is allowing the cars to push one another through the corners. So, until they crack down on that, I think you’re going to see it come down to two guys locking up together like that, pushing one another, and then trying to figure how to decide it among themselves,” Gordon said.

Talladega and Daytona makes drivers nervous. It always has. Since the walkout in the inaugural race in 1969 of the sports biggest stars of the day to today, the mega-fast facility has been fraught with danger. Before the implementation of restrictor-plate racing speeds had increased until in 1987 Bill Elliott ran qualifying laps at Daytona of better than 210 mph and close to 213 mph at Talladega. That, in addition to a horrific crash at the Alabama facility signaled the beginning of plate racing to slow down the cars as speeds were becoming unmanageable.

In 2004, Rusty Wallace tested his famous Miller Lite No.2 Penske Dodge at Talladega without the carburetor restrictor plate and turned a lap with straightaway speeds of 228 mph and an average speed of 221 mph around the 2.66-mile track. Said Wallace, “I bet we could be running speeds of 235 mph if we spent time tweaking.” Left unfettered, one can only imagine what speeds today’s Sprint Cup teams would be capable of producing.

Here is the assessment by Wallace of the prospects of running without restrictor plates after climbing from his ‘Blue Deuce’ that day. “It was a hell of a deal that I will remember for the rest of my life. We’d all been wondering what it would be like to run at Talladega without the plates – and now we know.”

“But I’ll tell you this – there is no way we could be out there racing at those speeds,” Wallace offered. “It was neat to be out there by myself, but it would be insane to think we could have a pack of cars out there doing that.”

Insane probably sums up any thought of allowing NASCAR teams to run at a superspeedway without mechanically governing top speeds. All the safety improvements that NASCAR has undertaken aside, they know that they have very little to offer in protection for drivers wrecking at speeds of 220 mph or more.

Restrictor-plate racing was the only answer that NASCAR was able to come up with to limit speeds. Of course, in limiting those speeds their answer to the problem created the situation that we find ourselves in now… pack racing. However it has worked well for the sport, creating a unique and highly entertaining form of racing.

Fans can scream and holler and feign disgust with plate racing all they want, but it’s still the best show in town. The skilled darting and jockeying for position at close quarters at 195 mph keeps folks at the track on their feet and viewers at home on the edge of their couches. The final 10 laps at the Darlington and Talladega races four times a year are still the most exhilarating 40 laps of auto racing on the NASCAR schedule.

NASCAR will make drastic changes to the racing at Daytona and Talladega when fans no longer show interest in attending and watching the style of racing those two venues produce. Then, and only then will they consider investing the tens of millions of dollars that it would cost to reduce the banking to accommodate non-restrictor plate racing at acceptable speeds.

In the mean time, restrictor-plate racing will continue largely unchanged. Accommodations will be made to address the issue of competitors pushing one another through the turns. Drivers will still complain and proclaim their dislike for the racing. Some fans will continue to holler for wholesale changes in the racing and I will be standing from the beginning of the invocation until drivers sort themselves about ten laps into the race.

Somewhere around the 200-mile mark I will then make my way to the restroom and then the concession stand to purchase a turkey leg and cold beverage to enjoy during the routinely uneventful middle part of the event. For drivers pacing themselves until the closing laps of a race is nothing new.

There is no doubt that drivers, if they had their druthers would prefer not to race at Daytona and Talladega. Fans though are like ‘rubberneckers’ that slow down to see what is going on when passing emergency vehicles on the opposite side of the road. People complain about them, but when they pass those flashing lights, they too, even though they know they shouldn’t, slow down and look.

Why? Well, because it’s interesting and is something out of the ordinary. Just like restrictor-plate racing.

And that’s my view from turn 5.