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Beside the Rising Tide: NASCAR & the Wall of Death

This week’s column will take a decidedly different tack based not on opinion, but on undeniable fact. However the vast majority of fans, drivers, NASCAR officials, fellow pundits, or team owners feel about it, indisputably the NASCAR Cup series takes next weekend off. Based on all empirical evidence gathered by studying data over the last decade or so, that means I have next weekend off. It’s a circumstance I value in that it only happens three times a year after the circus cranks back to life. From Daytona mid-February through the season finale, its a nine-month slog, after which everyone tries to figure out what the hell went wrong this year and how long NASCAR can hold on in an era of plummeting TV ratings and attendance. (A nine-mile skid on a ten-mile ride.)

Thus, it is imperative that I submit this column so my brief vacation can start.

Other than the weather and an odd triumvirate of Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin and Brad Keselowski all speaking out somewhat forcibly about NASCAR’s new aero/plate package being used in the Cup Series, the big news was, in fact, that package being used in this weekend’s XFINITY Series race.

Again for a moment, we must put passion and prejudice aside (would that we could do the same in the District of Columbia) and look at the evidence presented. Thus, first we must form a hypothesis. (A rather awkward word for my former high school science teacher who had a notable lisp. Thus, my classmates and I were always left wondering why he was rambling on about hippopotamuses again. But I guess he got the last laugh because he ended up marrying the girl I took to the prom… three months after the big dance. Yep, it was a bit of a scandal. As an aside, I must ask the Radnor School Board, how is it I managed to graduate with honors and I still can’t even spell “hypothesis?”)

In this case, our hypothesis is that the new aero and plate package used in Saturday’s rain-delayed, interrupted and shortened NXS race would cause the racing to become better or at the very least to suck less than normal. Michigan seemed a viable track to conduct the experiment considering the two-mile, moderately banked track originally designed to host both stock car and open-wheel events has plenty of room for the field to get strung out. Thus, MIS has hosted some largely forgettable or even outright awful NASCAR races.

After studying the evidence, there were 14 official lead changes in Saturday’s race. That is four more passes for the lead than in last year’s Michigan spring NXS race, three more than in the 2016 event, but just one more than the 2015 edition of the same race and the same amount of passes for the lead as occurred here in 2014. Hmmm. Now, of course I’m going to have to add here for the sake of honesty, those other races were 125 laps in length while Saturday’s edition of the event was rain-shortened to just 91 with 37 of them run under the caution flag. So if you were to actually do the math (or even be capable of doing so, unlike me) the number of passes for the lead per green flag lap would be somewhat higher this year than in years past.

So is our original hypothesis proven? Let’s go to the tapes. (Yes, we’ll fast forward over the Michael Waltrip “Field of Dreams” skit and the singing during the pre-race show because not to do so would simply be cruel.)

If NASCAR is eager to prove it’s “better/sucks less” hypothesis, I, as a contrarian, put forward my own alternate hypothesis. (Unlike “truth” you can, in fact, have an alternate one.) The race Saturday didn’t look all that different to me. Nobody can blame NASCAR for the weather but if the race was better Saturday, it likely had more to do with the weather than the rules package.

Rain at or in the vicinity of a racetrack turns the affair largely into a game of musical chairs. Who will have the lead when the precipitation brings the merriment to a premature conclusion? Teams will employ widely varied pit strategies gambling as to when the rain will resume. Drivers feel more of an urgency to advance their position not knowing at what lap the event will conclude. Things tend to heat up considerably toward the end of the second stage that could define an official race nears.

So let’s take a look at what happened Saturday. Kyle Busch took the pole for the event. No big surprise there, no need to go running through the media center hollering “stop the presses!”

Busch was kind enough to fumble the start of the race which gave the lead to Paul Menard for a lap followed by Elliott Sadler getting the top spot for the next lap. This is still in line with my alternate hypothesis that in today’s NASCAR racing, by and large, most of the dueling for the lead takes place in the first two or three laps after the start of the event or on subsequent restarts.

On lap three, Kyle Busch climbed to the point. He would go on to lead the rest of the first stage. Hard to get happy about that unless you wake up in the morning in No. 18 M&M’s footsie pajamas. You know, cuddling your plush “Pure Talent” stuffed Kyle Busch doll that whines and bitches when you rub its tummy.

Entering stage two, Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard used contrary pit strategy to take over the top two spots. The race restarted on lap 36 while Menard went ahead and led the race until lap 38. That’s when the “caution for contact” (as opposed to a stage break caution) flew. Menard pitted, surrendering the lead to Alex Bowman. The caution flew again on lap 46 and Bowman led the next three laps.

The race restarted on lap 50 and Harvick took the lead. (Again, if passing is going to happen at most tracks it will happen within the first three laps after a restart, irrespective of what rules package is in place.) The caution flew again on lap 57 and Harvick surrendered the lead to Sadler, who led until the end of stage two. That also signaled the race was “official” even if the weather threw an Ozark in the cesspool after that point.

Kaz Grala got his turn at the front but the caution flew quickly once again. For the first time in the race, eventual winner Austin Dillon found himself at the front of the pack. The race ran under caution for laps 74 and 75. You’ve got to do something heinously stupid to lose the lead under yellow before pit road opens and Dillon did not.

The race went back to green on lap 76 and Ryan Reed was credited as leading the race for a single circuit. Dillon retook the lead and something unexpected happened… the race stayed green for five whole laps. A four-car wreck on lap 81 drew a caution flag and under that yellow it began drizzling at the track. Dillon had one green flag lap of racing to pass teammate Daniel Hemric and he did so. On lap 90, rain bought the race to its conclusion.

So in the end, you can count the number of genuine passes for the lead that didn’t occur because of pit sequences or on the first three laps after a restart on the fingers of one hand with several left over, depending on how you call balls and strikes. Yet I have already heard NASCAR types and their media minions cracking open the champagne and labeling Saturday’s race successful, a complete validation of their hypothesis. Oddly enough, the facts themselves seem to bear out my hypothesis as well.

Whether the racing at Michigan was better on Saturday is debatable. If you choose to say it was, you also have to figure out how much of that improvement was due to the weather and other extenuating circumstances. I learned very early in my education working on cars, you’re going to need a bunch of wrenches, patience and cash because there are very few magic wands out there to fix things. The plate and aero package NASCAR swore was going to fix what ails it is no magic wand either.

As an aside, while trying to come up with a title for this week’s column I came up with another hypothesis. Though most people (other than the English and there’s no accounting for them) prefer sunshine to rain, there are far more classic rock songs about rain than sunshine. On the rain side you have the Grateful Dead (too many tunes to list them,) Credence Clearwater Revival, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen et al. On the sunshine you have….well, Katrina and the Waves….er, John Denver….OK, enough.

Anyway…

With Justify’s big win at Belmont over the weekend the horse clinched the sport’s storied “Triple Crown.” NBC trumpeted that Triple Crown as the hardest prize in sports to win. Maybe. Let’s take a look at NASCAR’s Triple Crown. As I define it, a NASCAR Triple Crown winner is someone who wins the Daytona 500 (the sport’s biggest race, analogous to the Kentucky Derby), the World 600 (the sport’s longest race) and the Southern 500 (the sport’s oldest superspeedway race dating back to 1949). How many drivers ever claimed those three races in a single season? Fittingly enough, three: LeeRoy Yarbrough in 1969, David Pearson in 1976 and Jeff Gordon in 1997. So which prize is actually harder to win? (For the record, there have been 13 Triple Crown winners in horse racing.)

The Wall of Death

Growing up, to the extent I ever have, county, state and church fairs have been a delightful part of my summertime adventures. The carnival rides, the (incredibly unhealthy and likely unhygienic) snacks, the house of mirrors and other attractions drew me and my friends like moths to a flame. That’s especially since I grew up in areas where there usually wasn’t a whole hell of a lot going on, at least until you got your driver’s license and could spread your wings.

As an avid motorcycle enthusiast for as long as I can remember, the biggest thrill at the fairs and carnivals for me was “The Wall Of Death.” If you’ve never seen one, you’re really missing out on old-time carnival thrills at their best. At least until you peer behind the curtain, that is.

The Wall of Death is a round wooden structure, usually between 20 and 30 feet across and somewhere in the range of 12 to 16 feet deep. Imagine an oversized stave barrel and you get the idea. At the bottom of the barrel are wood planks angled at about 45 degrees. The carnie stuntmen would fire up their bikes and accelerate around the banked section of the barrel gaining speed. Once he had reached sufficient velocity, the rider would roar up onto the upright sections of the barrel in what seemed to be a complete defiance of the laws of gravity and some sort of miracle. That is, at least in the eyes of an amazed four- or five-year-old who still somewhat believed in Santa Claus, too.

As if my young heart could take any more excitement and amazement, a second and sometimes even third rider would fire up his bike and join the first rider on the Wall of Death. The riders on the wall would then start racing one another, ducking high or low to make a pass. At times, they neared the very top of the barrel where if you chose to, you could reach out and touch them. At least if you were a very stupid kid.

I was, in fact, a very stupid kid but not that dumb. Standing there shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the crowd that had paid their buck (back when a buck was real money) to watch the thrill show, it eventually occurred to me if one of those bikes sailed out of the barrel mayhem, grievous injury was likely to result. That combination of fear, excitement and disbelief was an intoxicating mix. Between the speed, the noise (and Wall of Death motorcycles never have mufflers) the magic and lungfuls of carbon monoxide, I was utterly transfixed by the miracle I was witnessing.

I recall the first time I saw the Wall of Death I was about four or five years old. The riders were on big Harleys or Indians back then. Somewhere around here I still have a picture of little Matt standing beside one of those hand-shift Indians V-twins taken by my aunt (had mom known I intended to see the show, she’d have likely shot down the notion right quick.) I remember one of the riders had a naked woman tattooed on his forearm, poorly done in what looked like prison or wartime ink but it was my first glimpse at the anatomy of a naked woman. I probably liked the motorcycles better at the time.

Over the years, the Wall of Death remained a summertime staple of the carnivals. The riders tended to get younger each year and eventually they switched over to motocross style bikes, not big V-Twins. I recall Husqvarna’s, Bultacos, Hodakas and other racing bikes I lusted over and hung pictures of on my bedroom walls. I do recall one barrel bike that looked like it had a chrome gas tank and frame until after the show you got up close enough to it and saw that the “Chrome” was actually Kentucky Chrome spray paint applied none too well.

You risk peeking behind the curtain at your own risk if you believe in magic. I even came to learn that the “Motorcycle Stunt Rider Relief Fund” the riders asked us to toss our pocket change into the barrel after the show probably didn’t exist. They probably just used the money to buy beer and dope while laughing at the rubes. They didn’t even wear shirts or helmets so they had probably figured out falling off the Wall of Death, while likely uncomfortable (unless the bike landed on you) would not be fatal. As Humpy Wheeler once said, fans want to see the lion tamer put his head in the lion’s mouth. They don’t want to see the lion chomp it off.

In the mid-1970s I began racing motorcycles myself, though naturally not on the Wall of Death. Instead I raced motocross, first on an XR75 followed by a series of 125 and 250 Elsinores. Motocross is pretty complicated. With the mud, ruts, rocks, jumps and berms you had to be constantly focused, especially when you were trying to set up another rider for a pass even while a rider behind you tried to pass you as well. And this jostling was all taking place with 25 to 30 other riders sharing the track, not one or two.

One Sunday afternoon at the track, I was talking to an older rider about the Wall of Death. He told me the stunt was no big deal. It was just a matter of centrifugal force and any halfass who knew how to ride a motorcycle could do it. But of course, there were no local Walls of Death for me to try out at the time. (And my guess is if OSHA ever heard about the Wall they ended the stunt show very quickly.)

I was probably 14 and emboldened by being in the presence of my buddies and the resultant peer pressure when I thought I had my shot at the wall. After the show, I found one of the riders outside the attraction, stripped to the waist, drinking a bottle of beer in the shade and trying to pick up a local chick. I told him I was in on his secret. The Wall of Death wasn’t that tough. He got snarky and asked if I even knew how to ride a motorcycle. I told him not only could I ride a bike I raced motocross which actually took a good deal of skill.

We bantered back and forth using increasingly hostile tones until he finally bet me 20 bucks I couldn’t ride the wall. I quickly agreed to the challenge and in fact had thrown a leg over his Honda preparing to start it. That’s when he asked me to post the 20 bucks I’d wagered. Between three friends and I we probably had less than 10 bucks. While we were still debating the terms of payment, one of the carnival honchos came along and asked what was going on. He quickly nixed the idea of a loudmouth teenage kid taking his first run at the wall. Maybe he was afraid I’d get hurt and a lawsuit might result. More likely, he didn’t want me to prove there was no magic involved, just basic physics. Whatever the case, I never got to take a turn on the Wall of Death.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, by now you are doubtlessly wondering what the Wall of Death has to do with NASCAR racing. Just as racing motocross takes a lot of practice, sacrifice and a degree of skill so does contemporary Cup racing. Only the best drivers get their shot as a result, and the teams expend tons of money, time and effort to prepare the best cars they possibly can to give their driver a legitimate shot at winning.

That’s until you throw the restrictor plates that are part of NASCAR’s proposed new rules package into the mix. The engines the various teams prepare are all reduced to the least common denominator. No driver, no matter how talented, can get away from lesser talented ones. Rather than skill and experience, a driver’s fate becomes by and large based on luck and circumstances out of his control. Many cars and drivers will end up in huge smoking pig piles of wrecks they had no hand in starting and those DNFs are often what determines the fellow who is crowned “champion” at the end of the year.

If I am hearing them correctly this is what Keselowski, Martin and Labonte were saying this week. (Though they were a bit more succinct than me in their comments). Whatever solution NASCAR comes up with to try to add excitement to the racing that “solution” should not diminish the importance of a talented driver at the wheel of a well-prepared (and legal) race car.

To simply mess with the aerodynamic package and add restrictor plates means the end of real racing in NASCAR. What we’re left with is the Wall of Death and seeing how many rubes the sanctioning body can con into thinking otherwise.

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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10 comments

  1. By the way, there are several wall of deaths still touring the Country, showing up primarily at various motorcycle shows, and meets.

  2. Put a 1:1 rear end for tracks bigger than Darlington. Gives full control to drivers at the risk of blowing up. Or get rid of tracks > 1 mile altogether, except the 1.33 mile Darlington (see Matt can teach an old dog lol).

  3. I always wondered, what would you do vs. having restrictor plates. I hate them too. It isn’t real racing and takes no skill. The facts you have to work with are you have to race Daytona and Talledega but for the the safety of all the cars cannot average more than 200 mph. V6 engines? Different software?
    The other tracks should never have plates, period. When the current track agreements end, they should make difficult choices about tracks, law suits my occur, but that would is cost of doing business. Maybe new owners will have balls.
    I always agree with what you write just because I feel the same (probably not a good thing). I have spent my own brain power thinking of a solution, I can’t solve it. Can you?q

    • Matt

      I’ve always championed reducing the banking at Daytona and Talladega. Alternatively add a dog leg to the back straight like Trenton used to have. After exiting turn 2 have another left turn, followed by a slight right and another left to get back onto the back straight near the entrance to turn 3. That way the drivers couldn’t run wide open for an entire lap. I’m open to any solution right down to forcing the cars to tow a 12 foot U-haul trailer behind their cars if it means ditching the plates. Hmmm. An eight tire pit stop would be fun to watch…….
      BTW I do not endorse any one brand of Cola over another.

      • Sounds like you want a bus stop like Watkins Glen only going in the other direction.

      • That’s not a dogleg, it’s a chicane, and it’s what this old lady has advised and championed for years as a cure to restrictor plate fever. Two or even three of those completely erase the need for choking down horsepower… and it’s a cheap fix compared to changing the banking. I wish they would at least look at that, but instead, they want to add MORE restrictor plates. In 5 years, we’ll be obsolete if that happens.

      • Now there is a good idea. That works for me.

  4. Matt – you have a wonderful and witty writing style and have certainly picked up a follower. I’m recalling a simpler time when Cale, Bobby, Buddy, or Darrell led a high proportion of laps, and Richard or David hung around to steal it in the end. Benny, Donnie and Bobby I added to the intrigue. Grand National/Winston Cup was such a treat during that era……

  5. The word you neglected to throw out there Matt is “crapshoot”. Restrictor plates increase the crapshoot factor with regards to who finishes where. Look back at the last 10 years of Daytona a Talladega results. Check out the top 10 and bottom 10 and then compare that to the finishes at all the other tracks and you will see a trend (with perhaps the road courses being an exception). More times than not the finishing order at RP tracks when compared to other tracks look more random, hence the crapshoot.
    Personally, I don’t want to spend my Sunday afternoons watching a lottery that’s thinly veiled as a race.