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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Talladega Troubles Self-Imposed By NASCAR

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 cartwheeling 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 HO–USE!!!!”

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 1. 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 racecars, 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 racecar 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 Newman’s No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet ground through sheetmetal and roll bars, it went airborne and flopped onto its roof on two separate occasions that were eerily similar to the manner in which JD 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 groundbreaking 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.

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