Sunday’s version of NASCAR insanity could drive anyone to drink. But, as it turns out, alcohol is the best way to shed light on one of stock car racing’s largest, lingering problems.
Pennsylvania residents and visitors to the Keystone State are forced to pay an 18% tax on liquor by the bottle because of a natural disaster. Fortunately enough, that tax is said to be only “temporary”. So what disaster befell our fine state? Well, it wasn’t Superstorm Sandy and it wasn’t last year’s Democratic National Convention. The tax was enacted in the wake of the Johnstown Flood (also called the Saint Patrick’s Day flood because back then, they blamed everything on the Irish). That catastrophe, for the record occurred on March 17, 1936.
Yes, that was 80 some-odd years ago. Since then, the tax has been raised twice, first from 10 to 15% in 1963 and again to 18% in 1968. In addition to the tragic loss of 25 souls (an unknown number of them Irish) the great flood caused $41 million worth of property damage. That’s back when $41 million was a lot of money, not the amount of pork spending added to a national bill honoring Groundhog Day.
By 1942, the tax had raised $42 million. With the damages paid and a million bucks left over the tax should have been scrapped, right? No, sir. In fact, the Johnstown Tax has collected over $15.4 billion (and counting) tax dollars since it was enacted… temporarily. And here’s the beauty of the system. Nowhere on your receipt or on the price tags in state stores (in Pennsylvania, only state-owned liquor stores can sell booze) does it break down what you’re paying in Flood Tax. Not only that, but the state’s 6% sales tax is also collected on whatever amount you did pay in Flood Tax. It means that our friends at the state capitol in Harrisburg are taxing a tax.
No wonder the liquor stores in Delaware and New Jersey are chock full of cars with Pennsylvania plates around the holidays.
Perhaps I’m only aware of this bizarre tax because Pennsylvania is my home base. I am certain that around the country there are other zombie taxes, ones meant to be temporary that just won’t go away. Once legislators find a tax they can collect without too much of an uproar, they are as loathe to let go of it as they are unable to generally find a way to spend those tax dollars wisely. (As an aside, the Pennsylvania legislature had spent the two years previous to the Johnstown Flood studying how to prevent flood damage in the area.)
So what in blazes does this story have to do with stock car racing, some of you may be wondering. On May 3, 1987 tragedy was narrowly averted at Talladega Superspeedway. Bobby Allison’s Buick blew a tire and went airborne. His car struck the catchfence and tore down a long section of it. Fortunately, perhaps even miraculously, no one in the stands suffered life-threatening injuries.
Had Allison’s car made it into the grandstands, the results would have been catastrophic. It would have perhaps even led to the demise of NASCAR and stock car racing in the United States of Litigation.
Shocked and frightened by the close call, NASCAR management (Brian France was 15 at the time and probably spent that day torturing ants with a magnifying glass) decided on a new rule to make the cars all run restrictor plates… wait for it… temporarily until a better solution could be found. Yes, if my math is correct, that “temporary” rule change is now 30 years old. And as far as the rule’s future, well, to quote Elvis Costello: “Don’t bury me, ’cause I ain’t dead yet.”
To be accurate, restrictor plates were not new to the sport in the late 1980s. They were originally used to lower speeds at the brand spanking new (and about to go bankrupt) Michigan Speedway in an era when Chrysler was running Hemis and Ford the Boss 429s. In later years, they were used to try to equalize the speeds between Wedge and Hemi engines or big blocks and small blocks. But those attempts were not well received and not entirely successful so they were, in fact, temporary. Yep, back in the good old days “temporary” tended to go away a lot more quickly. But I suppose that was temporary as well.
The plates did do what NASCAR hoped for in the ’80s. They got speeds back down below 200 mph, which was thought to be the speed at which an out-of-control stock car achieved liftoff. More importantly, the change didn’t cost NASCAR itself one thin dime. (Unless you want to count the wages of someone who cranked away at the mimeograph machine to add a new page to the ever-nebulous rulebook.) The fact no cars have since entered the grandstands is more serendipity than engineering.
Longtime fans might recall the July 1993 race at Talladega during which Neil Bonnett’s car went airborne much like that Buick of his good friend Bobby Allison in 1987. If anything, Bonnett’s car tore down a longer section of catchfence and came even closer to making it into the crowd.
During his car’s epic flight, there was a NASCAR-approved restrictor plate in place and properly installed. In the same event, Jimmy Horton not only crashed out of the race but he cleared the wall and flew his Chevy up and out of the stadium three floors above the ground before it landed in the parking lot. Horton wasn’t injured and even joked about how when the first person to reach you after a wreck is holding an open beer, you know you’re in trouble. Sadly, Stanley Smith received career-ending injuries in that race as well.
Newer fans (dare I say “temporary fans”) will likely recall a final-lap incident when Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards got to arguing about the same piece of real estate at Talladega. Edwards tried to push Keselowski out of bounds and Keselowski shoved back. Edwards’ Roush Fenway Ford went airborne and crashed into catchfence as a result. A young lady in the stands was injured when a PA speaker hit her in the jaw. And yes, they checked the No. 99 car after the wreck and the required restrictor plate was still in place.
The above is by no means a complete list of close calls; they happen every couple of years. (You may remember Austin Dillon’s near miss two years ago.) Various engines, hoods, tires, wheels, and other heavy hot greasy parts shorn from race cars have cleared the protective fencing at Talladega and Daytona, all while the temporary plate rule has been in effect.
As I’ve said before (numerous times) it ain’t that it ain’t going to happen, it just ain’t happened yet. While we don’t agree on much, I’m hopeful that NASCAR officials and I share one opinion in common. A fan attending a stock car race at Daytona or Talladega should be able to leave on his or her own two feet, not in a pine box. But my corollary to that sentiment is “even if it costs NASCAR a lot of money” while theirs is “unless it’s going to cost us a bunch of money.”
Yes, oddly enough, in the face of the once temporary measure mandating plates the onus of paying to help keep the cars on the ground has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the team owners. Whether it be the Roush-developed roof flaps (which have probably done more to keep cars from flying than the plates), the special rear shocks and springs, the roof hatches, taxi strips, plates of varying sizes, special body modifications and limits, all of it had to be done by team owners. And let’s pause for a moment to recall who has paid for tens of millions of dollars of carefully tweaked plate track cars that were reduced to smoking piles of scrap or target practice since 1987… the owners, not NASCAR.
Then, there’s been a plethora of rule changes which have affected the drivers and decided the outcomes of some races. Drivers were told they could not bump or that they could… or that they could only in certain areas, or that they could bumpdraft but not latch onto the back of another car, like a terrier onto a rat. Sometimes, the rules have been different between the Cup and XFINITY Series. Occasionally, NASCAR told the drivers to police themselves. Other times, they strictly enforced rules that no one, NASCAR included seemed to fully understand. Strategies that weren’t allowed in the early stages of the race have been allowed in the closing laps when NASCAR swallowed their whistles.
But the fact remains is nothing they’ve tried to date seems to have had the desired outcome. These plate races, particularly at Talladega, are almost always interrupted by huge smoking pig piles of wrecks that decimate the fields and sometimes put the fans in danger. And you needn’t be overly cynical to think perhaps NASCAR has decided these huge, violent wrecks with cars flying and drivers cussing a blue streak in their aftermath are putting butts in the seats of these two racetracks and helping staunch the bleeding of hemorrhaging TV ratings. It’s stock car racing appealing to the least common denominator, that small subset of fans who do, in fact, watch the races for the wrecks despite what happened on Feb. 18, 2001.
The long-term solution, which has been discussed for over two decades now, is to substantially lower the banking at Daytona and Talladega to allow the cars and drivers to run without the need for plates. But both tracks are owned by the International Speedway Corporation. A popular fairy tale states that NASCAR and the ISC are two separate entities. Yes, two separate entities that just so happen to share a corporate headquarters in Daytona Beach and are both run by our buddies, the France family.
One could make a plausible argument that the future of NASCAR racing is decided more at the France family Thanksgiving dinner table than in all the meetings with the drivers and team owners. And let no one think for a moment that the France family is taking their holiday meal at a soup kitchen just yet. Oddly enough, they weren’t hesitant to fund the “Daytona Rising” project. Had they spent the same sum on “Daytona Lowering” this problem would be halfway fixed.
Plate racing brings out the gallows humor in some drivers. Without having a ride lined up for next year, Matt Kenseth was asked how he felt about what could possibly be his last race at Talladega. Kenseth replied that any time a driver starts at Talladega, he knows that it might be his last start at the track.
With all the hype concerning Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final (presumably) race at Talladega, a track where he’s won six times, Junior gave the race a less-than-ringing endorsement noting he was just well pleased to have left the track uninjured. “You have to block,” he admitted. “Just go out there, take the risks, and hope that it’s just not your day to get in one of those accidents.”
Of course, one driver won’t be voicing an opinion on Sunday’s race. The late Dale Earnhardt won ten points races at Talladega. (Let me add that eight of those wins were scored in plate races. Earnhardt won the other two before the plates were mandated.) His last career Cup win came at Talladega in the fall of 2000. While a Daytona 500 win eluded him for years, Earnhardt also had an enviable record at Daytona… right up until the Daytona 500 wreck that cost him his life.
You’d have thought with so much success, Earnhardt the Original would have been a big fan of plate racing. In fact, he was not. After a savage wreck with Bill Elliott at Talladega, Earnhardt expressed his feeling on plate racing rather succinctly: “That ain’t real racing. I don’t care what anybody says.”
But on a brighter note, plate racing is only a “temporary fix” until NASCAR can come up with something better. Until that fix is found and funded, in the infamous words of the late Jim Murray: “Gentleman, start your coffins.”