Home / Beside the Rising Tide / Beside the Rising Tide: NASCAR’s Blue Plate Special
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beside the Rising Tide: NASCAR’s Blue Plate Special

There’s a place in nearly every small town across America, or at least there still was during those years I was making a somewhat feeble attempt at growing up. In our town, it was the local Wawa, which is sort of like a 7-Eleven for people in the Philly area other than the coffee doesn’t taste like lacquer thinner and they have soft pretzels rather than nachos that look like they’re stuffed with cat-sick.

If you and your buddies were bored and near flat broke, as was usually the case on a Friday or Saturday night, you went to the Wawa or the McDonald’s down the pike a bit and hung out. It was a way to pass the time, run into some folks you knew from school, and perhaps have a brief conversation with that pretty young lady you had your eyes on, though that latter part was normally a dismal failure. You didn’t want to go out with the kind of girl who hung out at Wawa on a Friday night anyway.

It was harmless fun. And like most sort of harmless fun adolescents enjoy, it drove adults bat-shit. My buddies and I would be sitting on the fenders of an old Ford, usually jacked up in the rear end with air shocks to fit the oversize rear tires that stuck out beyond the fenders. Maybe someone had a flask of Mogan David 20/20 (AKA Mad-Dog) in their boot. There might have been a couple six packs in the trunk in a cooler. (Never leave your trunk key on your main ring in case the cops ask to see what’s in there.)

Almost certainly, the windows were all down and ‘MMR was playing on the radio blasting through a pair of six by nine tri-axial Jensens hacked into the rear package tray. Or maybe you’d be listening to an eight-track, in my case usually Springsteen, the Dead or in that era, ELO. And brother, you’ve never heard Boy Blue until you’ve heard it as one of six people stuffed in a car that fit four, the music comfortably volume up too loud to drown out the roar of a big block engine breathing through a pair of Thrush glass-packs. Good times, albeit all too fleeting because on a few light poles in those parking lots invariably there’d be “No Loitering” signs. If you want to know where to hang out in a small town, look for the place with the “No Loitering” signs. They don’t bother posting them where nobody wants to hang out anyway.

Almost invariably a local cop would come idling up in a Plymouth, point out at the highway and tell us to move along with varying degrees of amusement. But our adolescent sense of entitlement was enraged by this unjustified abuse of power. Someone would almost invariably reply something along the lines of, “How come? We ain’t hurting nobody.” (Perhaps not hurting, but surely proving a pain in the neck for customers who actually wanted to patronize the business.)

That’s when the cop would point at the sign and remind us “No Loitering.” “But Mr. Officer, Sir, we ain’t loitering. We’re just hanging out.” If he was in a good mood (not too often) the cop might ask, “What’s the difference?”

“Well, we can’t be loitering. That sign says ‘No loitering.’ But there’s no law you can’t just hang out. That’s our Constitutional right. I think it’s like the 37th amendment or something right there in the Bible in the Book of the Boss.” Surprisingly, this strategy failed to pass muster, though it might have concerned the local constabulary as to just what in hell we were supposed to be learning in high school and why it wasn’t happening. (I believe the motto of my high school was “You can’t fix stupid.” Or, “Vos non potetis figere stultus” like it said on our diplomas.)

Eventually, we’d move on to the next place that also had “No Loitering” signs and a bunch of dark rubber streaks from people lighting up the rear tires leaving those lots. (Another good indication of where to hang out and why we weren’t welcome there.”)

So what on earth does this have to do with NASCAR? You know I always get around to talking about racing eventually, though some weeks I even worry myself. Well, as it turns out last week NASCAR released their 2019 rules package. Remember when they debuted the All-Star rules package in May at Charlotte? A lot of folks didn’t like the new “package” because it included “restrictor plates.” Most fans, most drivers and most team owners don’t think much of plate racing as has been used at Talladega and Daytona since 1988 in an attempt (often wildly unsuccessful) to keep the cars from going airborne.

The plates are responsible for “pack racing”, those snarling packs of three and four rows of cars eight to ten deep, nobody able to break away from the pack and actually race for a win based on driver skill, strategy or car preparation. It’s a cross between high stakes gambling and Bread and Circuses gladiator battles to see who gets in the right line at the right time. When they do, they manage to avoid the huge smoking pig piles of wrecks that typically decimate the field at the plate tracks. If you’ve been reading my stuff even a short while, you probably know I refer to plate racing as “The Least Common Denominator” racing and I don’t care much for it. Perhaps eventually I’ll stop using that term. I’ve got to die someday, don’t I?

But NASCAR officialdom knows that a lot of fans and competitors despise plate racing and are willing to say so with varying degrees of brutal honesty. So next year’s rules package won’t include “restrictor plates.” It will involve “tapered spacers.” So what’s the difference? The same as the difference between “loitering” and “hanging out.” Presumably, next year’s Cup cars won’t have a six pack stuffed in the trunk or an eight-track player that looks like it was installed with a chainsaw hanging under the dash.

So what’s the difference between a restrictor plate and a tapered spacer? Well, for one thing, the restrictor plate is an eighth of an inch thick, about the thickness of the can of canned ham (as unappetizing as that image is) you might have tossed in the trash. The tapered spacer, on the other hand, is an inch or so thick. In an irony NASCAR hasn’t commented on, Mark Martin’s Roush Ford once had an inch-thick spacer between the carburetor and intake manifold, which was found to be illegal. Had it been welded in place instead of bolted, that spacer would have been fine. The points penalty he suffered for that infraction cost Martin that year’s title.

I try not to get too technical in my columns because I know there’s a lot of you that know a good deal more than I do about the intricate workings of an internal combustion engine. But others of you only know how to twist the key to start your car, put it in drive, and head off where you need to be. (In some instances, with all sorts of electronic nannies helping you stay in your lane or even keep you from ramming into a stationary object you didn’t see ahead while you sent a text with a picture of what you had for breakfast to a host of people who don’t give a tinker’s damn what you ate.)

So let me help you out a bit. Since I’ve seen the misinformation posted a few places this week, please know that Cup cars no longer run carburetors. (As best I can recall, the last cars with carbs sold in the U.S. were back in 1989. They fell victim to emission and fuel mileage requirements.) Carbs were once both the bane of my existence and an object of constant fascination to me. You could tweak on your carb with a handful of hand tools stuffed in your back pocket, usually trying (and likely failing) to make your car faster.  At which point, you’d get back in the car with that screwdriver still in your back pocket tearing through the vinyl seat covers like a rabid wolverine.

“Well, isn’t this a fine state of affairs,” I’d moan to myself, “I guess a little more loitering and a bit less tinkering is in order here.” But this seemed totally rationale to a subset of adolescent males who’d spend entire weekends and hundreds of dollars trying to make their cars faster. How much faster? At what cost? Didn’t matter. What mattered is when you left the traffic light at Goshen Road and 252 side by side with your buddy, which one of you was looking at the others’ tailights a quarter mile down the road.

No, NASCAR racers now use fuel injection. But they use a style of fuel injection that went out of favor for street cars in the 1980s, throttle body injection rather than multi-port injection, A throttle body does, in fact, look much like a carburetor though the engineers, by and large, left gearheads nothing to tinker with out of an abundance of good sense. I’m told nowadays you hop up a car with a laptop computer. Cool. At least a laptop computer won’t tear your seats.

So whether it be a carb or a throttle body, the purpose of the device is to mix fuel (as in high test gasoline) and air in the proper mixture. Then, it passes that mixture along through the intake manifold and into the cylinder heads where the valves open to allow it into the combustion chamber, there’s a big explosion and the car goes faster. (That, of course, is the Reader’s Digest version of how it all works.)

Here’s a three-penny word to impress your friends that I can’t pronounce: “Stoichiometric.” It’s the ideal fuel/air mixture for an engine, 14.7 parts air to 1 part fuel. Ideally, you’d like a nice homogenous mix of fuel and air, more like a fog than a downpour. Your engine will do everything in its power to keep you from achieving that goal because it hates you.

You (but not I) could write a scientific treatise the size of an encyclopedia on the research and development that’s gone into getting properly mixed fuel and air into the combustion chamber. In the intake manifold, do you want surfaces polished to a sheen to maximize flow? Or do you want some texture to those surfaces to cause some turbulence to keep the fuel from falling out of suspension and puddling? It’s a black art.

Now, the restrictor plate is that 1/8th-inch thick square plate with four holes punched in it. That plate goes between the throttle body (or carb) and the intake manifold. It does the engine’s efficiency no favors at all. In fact, it’s designed to reduce power. Last I heard, an unrestricted Cup engine can put out about 850 horsepower though my supposition is it’s gone somewhat north of that in the years since I asked. With a plate, that engine is choked down to between 400-450 horsepower. Now, the tapered spacer is a machined block of metal that also has four holes drilled in it. As the name implies, those holes are tapered, a little wider at the top than at the bottom to restrict the amount of fuel/air mixture to the engine.

NASCAR will use two different sized tapered spacers next year depending on the track. The four holes in the larger one will be 1.18 inches in diameter. That will cut horsepower down to a target of about 750 horsepower. The smaller tapered spacer will have holes that are .922 inches in diameter and will “restrict” (there’s that word again) horsepower down to about 550 horsepower. Doesn’t seem like a whole lot of difference in the size of the holes, does it, but that sure is a bundle of lost horsepower.

Again, trying not to get too technical. Imagine trying to run a marathon breathing through a soda straw you found while loitering at McDonald’s. Harrumph. This is awful. Now imagine instead you are allowed to run the marathon breathing through a foot of garden hose. Better but not ideal. The fastest athletes in the best shape will eventually fall back into the group of midpack runners because nobody is getting enough oxygen to perform at their peak.

Because NASCAR is the very antithesis of the “Keep it Simple, Stupid” mantra, it’s tough to remember which tracks will run which tapered spacers. (Oh, did I mention there’s a different aero package for various tracks too?) One of the big headlines people glommed onto in all the confusion this week is the “restrictor plates” are going away at Daytona and Talladega next year. On the surface, that’s wonderful news. I hate those plates. I have since they were made a temporary measure in the late 1980s. NASCAR and the government have a very different working definition of “temporary” than you or I.

But not so fast, Bubba-Louie, The Daytona 500 will still use those pile-up plates this year. It’s when the circuit returns to Daytona in July that they’ll be gone; the plates won’t be making the trip to Talladega at all again after this weekend. As a quick aside, if this is the direction NASCAR is bound and determined to pursue, why didn’t they have a test run at Talladega this week? I am concerned trying an experiment at your biggest race of the season is like announcing the morning of the Super Bowl there’s a new rule the quarterbacks have to play in high heels.

But of course, if their calculations were incorrect and the speeds end up being higher than they are comfortable with at Daytona (or any other track for that matter) NASCAR can still do what they’re famous for doing. Late in the weekend, they can change the rules to include smaller holes in the spacer/plates even though that negates all the testing the teams have done in the days and weeks leading up to the event and any research and development done in the new package back at the shop.

“But hold on. If they take away the restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega, won’t the cars be running over 200 MPH again?” Well, um, no, because the cars will have those tapered spacers, which do the exact same thing as a restrictor plate, just to different degrees depending on what hole sizes you punch into them. You say “to-mot-a,” I say “toe-may-toe,” let’s call the whole thing off.

Now, NASCAR is very up front about one thing with this whole plate/tapered spacer concept. They say, rather emphatically, that they do not, in fact, want pack racing. I guess is if you were to ask someone in charge they’d tell you even Brian France doesn’t want pack racing. Right now, Brian is like Chumlee on Pawn Stars. Despite all the rumors he is not, in fact, dead, just in a bit of a legal bind. But like Jason in those slasher flicks, Brian France always comes back.

No, NASCAR says they don’t want pack racing. It’s just barbaric. What they might actually enjoy some of is huge, smoking, pig piles of wrecks that wipe out half the field. You know, the big wrecks that they show on their promo video commercials trying to entice fans to buy tickets to an upcoming event. The sort of crash video that makes the leap onto shows that rarely discuss racing like SportsCenter. To sum up; pack racing, NO, spectacular wrecks caused by pack racing, YES. No loitering.

What NASCAR is very open about wanting and hoping the new rules package will facilitate is more OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to sign on, joining Ford, GM (Chevy) and Toyota.

It would be great to have Dodge back. Currently, they build some smoking hot high performance cars and aren’t shy about advertising in ways that give the DOT, AARP, EPA, PTA, the NHSTA and a whole alphabet soup’s worth of “no loitering” types. It would be a good fit especially given Chrysler’s decades long and very successful forays in NASCAR’s past. But Chrysler is currently owned by Fiat who probably feel they waste quite enough money in fielding a Formula One team, thank you. They are quite adamant in saying they have no plans for the foreseeable future to run off and join the NASCAR circus again.

So what other carmakers might NASCAR be hoping will take a stab at stock car racing? Hmmm. As of late, Hyundai has been poking about a bit at the fringes of automobile racing to support their new upscale Genesis brand. I’m just not sure that stock car racing would be a good fit or that NASCAR fandom would be a good fit with Hyundai’s target customers. Honda is, when it chooses to be, a technological giant that has gotten involved with racing, sometimes with spectacularly poor results. But it is Honda and Toyota that are ramming horns to be the big Kahuna in auto making right now, presumably among actors, not real people.

I’m more concerned about whether the big three already racing in the sport are going to stick around. Ford recently sent shockwaves through the pool announcing they will stop building all sedans other than the Mustang. Everything else will be crossovers or SUVs, mainly with increasingly smaller displacement four and six cylinder engines boosted by turbocharging to help meet corporate average fuel economy standards that may or may not be in affect any longer. Even the venerable F150 is usually powered by a turbo-six these days. I’m fearful that, within my lifetime, Ford will trot out something that looks like the bastard love child of a minivan and an SUV, yet another crossover that they’ll call a Mustang.

With V8 engines and throttle body fuel injection at their roots, current NASCAR racing is a poor fit with the way those OEMs are heading. But NASCAR is hoping someone will dive into the deep end unexpectedly. When the carmakers get involved with stock car racing, they tend to spend freely, and NASCAR hopes that manufacturer funding will help make up for corporate sponsorship that is in such short supply right now for team owners. But of course, that means NASCAR and the teams are forced to hope and pray the carmakers don’t turn off the money tap the way Chrysler and Ford did back in 1970-72, a move that almost killed stock car racing all together. Hopefully, if new manufacturers sign on, they’ll choose to loiter for a while.

But the tapered spacer changeover was only part of NASCAR’s announcement about the new rules package for 2019. The other parts had to do with aero changes being made to the car, perhaps most notably an eight-inch high rear spoiler. Rear spoiler heights in stock car racing tend to go up and down just like the hemlines of ladies’ dresses for no apparent reason at all. But my coffee’s cold, so I’ll save the aero parts of the rule package for next week (or one week soon depending on what other news breaks in the days ahead.)

Let me sum up: the new aero package isn’t likely to work at all when it comes to improving the quality of NASCAR racing and there’s historical precedent to back that opinion. But then, you’ll always have your “glass half full” and “glass half empty” types. I tend to be “the glass is empty, shattered and laying at the bottom of the dishwasher which is in flames and about to burn down not only the house but likely the entire neighborhood and the surrounding forest” type. And I ain’t even got a dishwasher. No loitering, nothing to see here folks.

Bike Racing

Here’s one more quick note for those of you still loitering around you can file under “only in NASCAR.” At the Charlotte ROVAL race in the waning laps, Jimmie Johnson’s Chevy got into severe wheel hop under breaking and ended both his chances and those of Martin Truex Jr.’s in the chicane. In an attempt to appease the aggrieved members of the No. 78 team, it was suggested Jimmie could buy “road bikes” for members of the team. But Johnson went ahead and bought a slew of pink child-sized bicycles instead, delivering them to Truex’s team hauler prior to the Dover race. The No. 78 bunch then gave the bikes to kids in the garage area. Yep, a real, “Aw shucks, Andy” moment there.

But only in NASCAR. One cute little girl who received a free pink bike immediately took it to the Off Track Betting kiosk and took the long odds, wagering her new bike on Denny Hamlin winning against a Harley Davidson Nightster with the juice. No, to be honest, that last part didn’t really happen to the best of my knowledge. But you could say the same thing about 1979 as well.

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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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21 comments

  1. Avatar

    As soon as you said Brian France was coming back, I lost all ability to try and follow what you were saying about tapered spacers and mini-mustang-vans. What a horrible way to ruin a perfectly good column.

    When Brian France got locked up in the Hamptons, I was actually on Long Island visiting some in-laws and swapping SC peaches for NY bagels. No, Brian didn’t call me for bail money, and it’s a good thing because I think I had just enough money left to pay the toll to cross the Verrazano and hightail it back to Lindsey Graham country. But I digress. I hate to agree with you, but yeah…. I think Brian will be back. Why? Because we haven’t heard a peep out of Jim France or anyone else in Daytona. No words of reassurance or even a shameless plug about how the sport needs Brian. Nothing, nada, nil. They’re all way too quiet because they have nothing to say; they’re just riding this out. They can’t wait until Brian finally does return to take his shrink-wrapped turd called Nascar back off their hands. I wish it weren’t so, but I’m afraid he’s gonna pop in with the old DLR “Heard you missed me; I’m back” shtick, only it will be delivered in his usual incoherent, mush-mouth style. And Nascar will continue to circle in the toilet.

    PS.. We don’t have Wawa’s in the south, but the K-Mart parking lots here have seen an awful lot fine hot-rods.

    • Avatar

      You may be right but there is also a high probability that they are just waiting for the season to end before making any announcement so they don’t take the spot light off of their baby… the playoffs/chase.

  2. Avatar

    I suspect the underlying meaning of the reduced horsepower and other OEM’s joining NASCAR is the elimination of the V8 altogether within 5 years. It happened in Indy Car, it happened in F1 and it will probably happen in NASCAR. In the realm of OEM’s the V8 is increasingly on the way out; it’ll be a sad day when/if it happens. Nothing sounds like a V8, but time and tech marches on.

    • Avatar

      Maybe its that increasingly what the manufacturers build has no relationship to Nascar. Which I guess is in a way what you were saying. But it goes far beyond engines.

      • Avatar

        True. The original concept of NASCAR doesn’t really have any relevance to production vehicles other than a manufacturer badge and hasn’t for many years. The only reason for OEM’s to be involved in any racing series these days is tech development and bragging rights.

  3. Avatar

    Funny column. Those of us in the older generation that follow (or used to follow) NASCAR are slowly fading away. The current generation did not grow up modifying street cars for street racing so their interest in racing is not great.
    Now, the new generation are only interesting in getting from point a to b perhaps in a lyft car or some other rental auto. NO INTEREST in automobile racing . So, NASCAR is coming up with a new scheme to get their interest called HIGH DOLLAR DESTRUCTION DERBYS . Come to the races(?) to see crashes.
    The crashes have to occur within a short time after the start because of short attention span of the new generation. There you have it, tapered spacers low hp engines bunched up racers lots of wrecks.

  4. Avatar

    I actually followed the article quite well (googled “MMR music” based on the context of the sentence).

    As for nascar? Who knows. For that matter who knows what future holds for cars? The federal government is unconstitutionally making demands of car manufacturers yielding ugly & homogenous cars (under the guise of safety and efficiency fiats); crappy fuel (a payoff to the midwestern corn lobby); and a push for unsuitable electric cars (which the free market says very few people want).

    Perhaps nascar/google can develop a self-driving all-electric racing series. Trucks would become ‘Stompers’. Busch would become ‘Rough Riders’. Cup would become the Aurora slot car series.

  5. Avatar

    A really good read Matt, as usual!!!

  6. Avatar

    I’m looking forward to the tapered spacer as much as I looked forward to the COT or Chase. To me it’s just another step down that long road to me not investing any passion in following the “sport”. Why is it things (not just NASCAR but everything) seems to get worse as time goes by? Is it just an age thing?

    OK, I usually get 99% of your rock and roll references because I am probably more into music and classic rock in particular than you (maybe not but I doubt it), but for the life of me I can not figure out what “MMR” refers to. BTW, googling MMR returns measles, mumps and rubella …LOL.

    • Matt Mclaughlin

      MMR is WMMR, Fil-a-DULF-ya. In the 70s and 80s they were a big player in FM progressive rock. Some of the DJs were instrumental in getting Bruce on the air. Ed Sciake in particular. John Debellas morning drivetime show led the ratings for a decade. San Fran refugee Pierre Robert kept the Dead in heavy rotation when not complaining about how the Philly Parking Authority had towed his V dub Bus Minerva and wouldn’t give it back. Over the years you’ve probably heard songs from live shows at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr that were broadcast on MMR originally from Bruce ( the Fever and Santa Claus is coming to Town. ) or Jackson Briwne, Warren Zezon, Bonnie Raitt, and George Thoroughgood. MMR ruled the roost in Philly while I was in high school and college. If you cruised the Pike or 30 just about every car had their radio tuned to 93.3 WMMR, Fil-a-DULF-ya.

      • Avatar

        Ahhh, thank you for the education Matt. That explains why I had no clue, it’s a Philly thing. I am sure every major city had their version of MMR. Here in Baltimore, ours was WIYY and there was another on AM but I can’t remember the call letters for that one as it is long gone.

      • Avatar

        Let’s not forget “Anita in the Morning”…….me, I preferred Fox and Leonard.

    • Avatar

      i was lost with the mmr talk. but it’s been one of those days here in my life.

      • Avatar

        bill b – i grew up in baltimore. wiyy – 98 rock! we use to hang at the varsity drive in and pappy’s pizza on rt. 40 and ingleside avenue.

        • Avatar

          Janice,
          I know exactly where Rt 40 and Ingleside is as I had friends that lived right around the corner. We had a Pappys in Glen Burnie too.

  7. Avatar

    What an incredibly incoherent column, Matt. Looks like you did it on a plane next to talkative person. I grew up in New Jersey, have a Wawa in my hometown, listened to Bruce, and still don’t know what the heck it has to do with the topic….sorry, but every writer needs some feedback.
    I agree that the biggest risk is the car manufacturers no longer finding value in the sport. There ~12 million a year per car number on their key partner teams is what separates those that can afford research and development and those that can’t. The more this becomes a ‘spec series’, the less likely they are to continue to find value. Fuel injection and changing the appearance of the CoT came from a threat by the manufacturers to leave unless the cars became more relevent to the product on the road.
    As for new manufacturers, Toyota had no push rod V8 and had to create one just for racing. Who else would be willing to do that? Nascar is attractive to manufacturers only because the demographic of Nascar is nearly identical to the truck demographic. Unless there is a Mercedes pick up in the future, I doubt there will be any real interest.
    I enjoy your writing (95% of the time).

    • Matt

      Well my apologies this one wasn’t to your liking. If you like 95 percent of them A) I’m doing OK B) You must grade on a curve and I appreciate it.
      Off topic but back when Mercedes owned Chrysler I remember seeing some prototype pickups based on the Ram 1500 series but with seriously upgraded interiors and that big circular Benz emblem in the grille. I believe in other markets Mercedes either does or soon will offer a Nissan based pickup badged as a Benz. No plans to import to US because of pricing and competition. Their last experiment with a a mini-van type thing didn’t go over too well.
      But I digress. Again. It’s a really long season. Snow was flying when I wrote about some early races. Now it’s 80 something out and the leaves are changing again. I’ve been doing this long enough to realize (after 20 plus years) this time of year you struggle to come up with your A game material. I love NASCAR racing and it’s been a huge part of my life but one of the things that I an Thankful for that last Thursday in November is the season is finally over and I have a few moments to check in on casual friends I haven’t heard from to see if they’re still alive.