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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Talladega… That’s Entertainment?

Is there anyone left out there who knows I don’t like plate racing? If there is, I don’t. Never cared for it. Never will. I’ll go to my grave considering plate racing dumbed-down competition for the least common denominator type of fans, those ghouls who really do watch races just for the wrecks. There are two words and four numbers for those who fit in that category: February Eighteenth, 2001.

With that said, some folks were taken aback by my lukewarm reception to Sunday’s Cup event. The race featured lots of passes for the lead, lots of different leaders and a last-lap pass for the win exiting turn 4. That’s what I’m always preaching about, right? I’ll admit I’m a demanding type. That’s why I ride a Harley, not a Royal Star. That’s why your granny could run my 375 horsepower Nova to the grocery store without drama or fear of breakdown. (As long as she didn’t die of embarrassment getting into the yellowest car that has ever existed.) I want it all. I want stuff perfect. Stupidity, banality, and compromise annoy me.

Well, my new buddy Ryan Fox noted in the comments section below in Monday’s article he was so disgusted by my attitude towards plate racing he read two paragraphs and left for another website to read more positive coverage of the race. (Ryan, if you’ve made it this far you’re now three paragraphs in. Time to bail back to the Sunny Side of the Street. You might want to carpool with Randy Goldman, another new buddy of mine. Yes, folks, I do read the comments section. I just don’t respond too often any longer because it tends to get me in trouble with site management.)

Editor’s Note: It’s true! ;O)

Speaking of site management, even they seemed a bit taken aback I wasn’t showering the Talladega race with Hosannas after the fact. Here’s the blurb they inserted under the photo above my article Monday: “88 lead changes, 29 leaders and a green-white-checkered finish that had a pass for the win in the final 500 feet. So why did the racing at ‘Dega leave a little something to be desired for our own Matt McLaughlin?” Talk about a ringing endorsement of what was to follow!

Racing is, after all, just entertainment, right? On paper, if not on asphalt, Sunday’s race statistically speaking was one of the top 10 in the last decade and featured the most lead changes in NASCAR history. (Eclipsing a record set at Talladega, oddly enough, in the days before plate racing.) If your favorite driver didn’t lead at Talladega for at least one lap, he probably sucks.

So, what gives? Here’s the deal, at least from where I sit inside the warm confines of Eyesore Acres tonight as thunderstorms make the great outdoors not so great for any activities other than kayaking or jet-skiing behind the stables on the newly formed Lake Matt.

Racing is not entertainment. Racing is a sport. Racing is a sport that at its best is entertaining. When you blur the line between sports and entertainment, the result is pro wrestling. What goes on at Talladega is entertainment. It isn’t racing. If I want entertainment, I’ll go to the moving pictures or rent a DVD. That way, I know no matter how hairy and violent a situation the protagonist finds himself in, no matter how many times he gets shot, gets in spectacular car wrecks, or how many punches are thrown, when the last reel was shot the actors pick up their big paychecks and go home safely to their loved ones.

Some will argue that death and crippling injury are part and parcel of the racing game. These drivers earn big money, and they owe it to the fans to stick their heads in the lion’s mouth. Death, unfortunately, has always been a specter in auto racing. Fortunately, death has been moved from the center ring to the cheap seats despite occasional aberrations like the 2000-2001 NASCAR seasons. (And I steadfastly maintain that none of the four drivers killed in that era would have died or even been seriously injured had NASCAR adopted the HANS device and SAFER barriers sooner, readily available technologies at the time.)

But if anyone reading this column goes to the races hoping to see a driver, any driver (and I don’t care how much you dislike him) killed or maimed, I hope you get involved in a fatal one-car wreck on the ride home so you can experience death firsthand, and while you lay dying in agony a bunch of people in the breakdown lane stand around gaping, watching, and filming your demise on their cell phones to post on YouTube. The gene pool would be cleaner for the rest of us with you cleaned out of the shallow end.

Not all of you grew up racing out at the trestles and wrenching on cars looking for lower elapsed times and bigger numbers at the big end. I’ve been asked a couple times this week and often over the years what a restrictor plate is and what it does. Here’s the simplified answer: a restrictor plate is a metal plate with four holes in it that fits between the carb and intake manifold on an engine. Engines require a gaseous fuel-air mixture to make power. The more of that mixture you can cram into the combustion chamber (the area above the piston and within the cylinder head with both valves closed) the more horsepower you make, all other things being equal. The more horsepower you make (again, all other things being equal) the faster your car goes.

The four holes in a restrictor plate restrict (thus the name) the amount of fuel-air mixture that can be crammed into the cylinders when that intake valve opens. This lowers horsepower, which in turn limits speed. We could debate the nuances of stoichiometric ratios, valve overlap, ignition timing, combustion efficiency et al until the cows come home, but that’s the gist of it. NASCAR mandates the size of those holes in the plates to govern speed to a zone they are comfortable with.

If the above is too technical, let me offer this analogy. Imagine if the Boston Marathon were run with all competitors forced to breathe through a soda straw the entire route. They’d run slower due to lack of oxygen. The difference in speed between the fastest and slowest runners would be greatly diminished. You’d likely have a lot of passing (and passing out) but a really crappy marathon.

Restrictor plates are used at just two NASCAR tracks, Talladega and Daytona. Why? Given the lengths of the courses and the banking, unrestricted cars would probably be circulating these joints at over 230 mph, greatly increasing the likelihood of cars going airborne and perhaps entering the crowd with devastating results. The current generation of plates were added at Talladega and Daytona after Bobby Allison’s savage ‘87 wreck at Talladega that nearly put his car into the crowd. (I’d argue that Carl Edwards and Neil Bonnett’s cars came equally close to entering the stands, albeit at reduced speeds with plates secured firmly in place in ’93 and ’09, respectively.)

When installed, plates were not a new idea at the time. They’d been used at earlier Michigan events to lower speeds and increase passing. In the ’70s, plates were used to achieve parity between the big and small block engines of various manufacturers. About from Jump Street, drivers and car builders hated the plates. When the plates were added after Allison’s frightening 1987 crash, NASCAR said they were a “temporary measure” to be used only until a better solution could be found. 23 years later, we’re still waiting. And my guess is that absent a general uproar from the fans and more vocal uproar from the drivers, we’re stuck with the plates.

Why? Look at the sort of racing the plates have produced, as evidenced by Sunday’s race. You have most of the field running nose-to-tail in a huge group three- and sometimes four-wide, causing the resulting spectacular wrecks that have earned the name the Big One. One can only imagine the amount of passes that might have occurred had not some of the drivers in the strongest cars (as evidenced later in the race) chosen to cruise around behind the lead pack trying to stay out of trouble until the final 50 laps. Yeah, a lot of drivers led the race. They’d get up there to lead their one lap and collect five bonus points, then fade away like Bobby Weir’s voice at the end of… er… Not Fadeaway. Naturally, with the new side-by-side restarts (which I endorse) it was easier to get up there and lead that one golden lap on a plate track. But just let’s overlook that rule change and label this “The Best Gul-Dern Race Ever in The History of Mankind” because liking the nuances of the sport and understanding how it all works might make some folks’ brains hurt. Now, if they put a plate on the cars at Bristol and added a jump on the back straight, that would really be sumpin’ now wouldn’t it, Cuz Billy-Bob?

With the cars restricted down to the least common denominator by the plates, the best drivers in the best cars can’t get away from the worst drivers in less adequate equipment. Usually, a better driver can’t make a legitimate pass by pulling out of line on his own and passing the driver in front of him. If he tries two or three (or sometimes 16-20) drivers line up behind the lead driver, then the pack blows by the fellow who stepped out of line and that fellow drops through the field like a rock. If there is a skill to driving the plate tracks, it is deciding to get in the line of traffic that is moving forward at the time, not the one falling back. That leads to moves like Jamie McMurray’s last-lap decision in Sunday’s Twilight Nationwide race to try to jam his car into a hole that wasn’t big enough to fit in in the inside lane – a move that triggered the terrible crash that saw Dennis Setzer‘s car up into the fence and on fire. In the blink of an eye, millions of dollars worth of equipment and man hours paid were reduced to rubbish yet again by the expediency and entertainment of plate racing.

Look at the facts. Daytona opened in 1959. Talladega came along in 1969. Racecar technology has moved forward by leaps and bounds since that era, and yet no effort has been made to update either track to more modern racing. Even with the much ballyhooed plan to repave Daytona this year, I have not read a single word about using the opportunity to lower the banking at the track to control speeds of the current generation of racecars without the plates. C’mon, they’ve got the track dug up anyway. Why not fix a basic design flaw?

I’m not alone in my dislike of plate racing. Most of the drivers hate it. And we’re not just talking about guys who are sore because they wiped out their car, had to be cut out of the carnage, and finished 32nd. Any reasonable person would agree with what the late (as a result of the plates) Dale Earnhardt consistently said from victory lane, “I don’t care what they say, this ain’t real racing.”

Another timel Earnhardt famously fumed, “If Mr. Bill France could see the sorry mess they’ve made out of racing here at Daytona, he’d been turning in his grave.”

And that’s coming from a guy who won 10 times at Talladega.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won at Talladega five times and Daytona twice. Those seven wins easily exceed more than one-third of his total Cup victories. Yet here was his take on Sunday’s race:

“It’s not really about someone’s car handling better or somebody’s motor being better. Cars might as well all be kit cars for these two races. It was fun, but it was kind of like a carnival ride. After two or three of ‘em, you’re kind of like, ‘All right, I’m burned out on this.’”

Edwards said after one of last year’s savage Talladega wrecks, “I guess we’ll just keep racing like this until we kill somebody….”

So no, despite the stats Sunday’s Talladega race wasn’t the greatest ever. What was great was no fans or drivers left the track in a pine box. And as long as little miracles like that keep occurring, I guess we’ll just keep racing like this until we kill somebody… again.