NASCAR has now been staging large professional level automobile races for over seven decades. Still some weekends a careful observer can’t help but feel the sanctioning body is just winging it while hoping for the best.
Coming into this weekend, there was much discussion that for the first time since 1988 the Cup cars at Talladega Superspeedway wouldn’t be fitted with restrictor plates between the throttle body (which replaced the carburetor a few years ago) and intake manifold to slow them down. (NASCAR started running the plates as a “temporary measure” after Bill Elliott won the pole at Talladega in 1987 at 212.809 mph, a record likely never to be broken.) During that same race, Bobby Allison’s Buick got out from underneath him on lap 21 and went airborne. Allison’s stricken car damn near made it through the catch fence, which would have let it sail into the grandstands doubtless with catastrophic loss of life amongst the spectators.
The plates were added, again in a move said to be temporary at the time, based on the laudable goal of keeping an out of control racecar from landing in the cheap seats. As a side note, it seems sometimes that NASCAR did a better job of eliminating the cheap seats than it did of keeping cars from going airborne with restrictor plates.
Neil Bonnett’s Richard Childress Racing Chevy was properly equipped with a plate when it tore down a bigger section of catch-fence than Allison’s Buick had. Newer fans probably recall better recall Carl Edwards Ford almost entering the grandstands at ‘Dega in 2009 after contact from Brad Keselowski, an incident that did in fact injure several fans though through the Mercy of God none of them fatally.
Perhaps the all-time record for flight time and distance in a Cup car goes to Jimmy Horton who hung on for dear life as his car sailed out of the park in turn one at Talladega and plummeted four stories to the parking lot below (while equipped with a restrictor plate). As Horton put it, “When the first person to reach you after a wreck is carrying a beer you know you’re in trouble.”
NASCAR has tried various measures to keep the racecars from going airborne. We’ve seen the roof flaps, hood flaps, big spoilers, (really, really, really big spoilers like this weekend’s entrants ran) wicker-bills, taxicab strips, and of course good ‘ole restrictor plates with holes of various diameters that were sometimes altered numerous times during a race weekend. Along the way, I think NASCAR has experimented with everything but having the racecars be forced to town a dual axle U-Haul moving trailer behind them, to slow the cars down and keep them grounded to an even greater extent than I was during my Junior Year of high school, emphasis on the first word not the second.
Naturally, NASCAR wasn’t about to just scrap the plates, cross their fingers, cover their eyes with both hands and hope for the best. This year’s Cup cars don’t have “restrictor plates” any more, they now have “tapered spacers.” What’s the difference? It’s sort of like the difference between “sneakers” and “running shoes.” Maybe the running shoes are better suited to triathlons but either are going to feel dandy to someone used to running in lace-up Timberland work boots.
On a practical note, the elimination of the plates in favor of the tapered spacers is a horsepower jump from the 410 neighborhood to around 550 horsepower.
I realize some of you reading this know more about engines than I do, and have probably built your own drag strip warriors, circle track cars or at least a street racer or two. Others of you would probably have to break out the owners’ manual to pop the hood of your Kia Cute Utility Vehicle.
100 horsepower is easy to come by in bench racing sessions in the garage. To actually make 100 more horsepower takes a lot of work, a bunch of money and more than a little frustration. It involves things like changing intake manifolds, the carburetor(s), the cylinder heads, the camshaft, perhaps pistons, and adding headers and tweaking the hell out of the ignition system. 100 horsepower is a huge difference.
Two of my favorite cars that I’ve ever owned were a 1976 Trans Am SE (rated at 215 horsepower) and a 1973 Super Duty 455 Trans Am rated at 310 horsepower. The difference wasn’t winning bragging rights in the garage. It was beating the other car by 10 car lengths down the quarter-mile; the difference between trail-riding a spirited horse and trying to ride the same trail on a rodeo bronco.
So doubtless NASCAR expected that the 550 horsepower cars were going to be faster than the old 410 horsepower models. But how much faster? They didn’t seem to have a clue. Apparently, they were hoping the ridiculously, hell almost comically, big new rear spoilers (nine inches high by 60 inches wide as opposed to five inches high by 53 inches wide last year at this race) would keep speeds in check.
No sense in doing some testing to sort that out or anything I suppose. “We can just wing it. What’s the worst that could happen, right?”
200 mph has always been the magic number that set the alarm bells off ringing with NASCAR officials. Anything higher than that and their heads start spinning like the robot’s on Lost In Space and they flail their arms around hollering, “Warning, warning, extreme danger Will Robinson!” (Or perhaps in this case “Jimmy Horton”)
Several cars running in a pack actually broke the 202 mph (where stock car racers fear to tread) in the first practice session on Friday (April 26). In all, 21 drivers posted laps over 200 mph, with eight of them eclipsing the 202 mph mark.
Yes, when dealing with speeds this high, cars run a good deal differently and a whole lot faster making any testing done in a wind tunnel or single-car testing irrelevant. Prior to the second practice session, NASCAR mandated the teams add a wicker-bill or Gurney-Flap to their rear spoilers. Basically those two terms (which mean the same thing) were an additional inch high strip of metal to the top of the already huge rear spoilers with a 90 degree bend in the middle with the bent piece pointed towards the nose of the car.
Like the expression goes, “Some assembly required.” The teams were given a straight piece of metal to bend into compliance. It was hoped that the additional drag caused by those wicker-bills would slow speeds down to an acceptable level. But Ryan Newman led the second practice session at over 204 mph, an increase in speed over the first session and he wasn’t the only driver who broke the 204 mph mark. A total of six drivers ran faster than 204 mph while 24 drivers posted speeds over 200 mph.
Qualifying was single car this weekend (hooray) and Austin Dillon’s pole speed was a slightly more reasonable at 192 mph. Let me re-emphasis, that was with a single car on the track at the time, thus no drafting. With the big spoiler and the wicker-bill, many drivers said they felt like their cars were dragging parachutes behind them just as the faster class cars do in the shutdown area at NHRA events.
But Saturday night that left open the question of just how fast the cars were going to be Sunday in the race itself and how the presumed higher speeds would affect the quality and the safety of the event. The drivers didn’t seem to know. The crew chiefs didn’t have a clue. NASCAR seemed to have their fingers crossed as they hoped for the best. My guess is the flagman was wishing for a parachute of his own just in case the field wrecked on lap one and an errant race car headed for his (or is it a her these days?) crows’ nest. Even esteemed members of the media such as myself were basically clueless, though I did do what I do the morning before every plate race. I hit the local 7-11 for a roll of Tums Ultra, which I’ll chew down like a fat kid laying waste to a bag of M&M’s during the race itself.
After all, that intense speculation and some predictions that Sunday’s race was going to be a wreck-fest as per usual the sizzle didn’t equal the steak. What I saw Sunday was very much a typical Talladega race as they’ve become over the last decade. The 40 best drivers in the world (can we finally agree that it’s actually the best 25 drivers in the world and 15 guys you probably need to Google to find out who they are unless you’re a fanatic?) could barely run 10 laps before having an entirely avoidable accident.
For most of the race the inside line seemed to have an advantage, though when the outside line got organized the drivers in the upper lane could make a charge at them. Having drivers run out of gas at the end of the first stage was in fact surprising, but my guess is the drag caused by those huge rear spoilers did horrendous things to fuel mileage. The three manufacturers insisted that the drivers of their brand work together but then that’s always been the case with teammates over the years anyway.
What was new and troubling was some decision making NASCAR made in the final laps of the race. When Erik Jones spun into the wall with four laps to go, under almost any other circumstances the caution would have flown immediately. But Chase Elliott, already one of the sport’s most popular drivers was going for the lead and Chevrolet had been locked out of Victory Lane in the Cup Series not only this season but dating back to last October.
I’m pleased Elliott won, but who is leading and other such considerations should have no bearing on whether an incident warrants a caution. Certainly on almost any other Sunday Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s wreck would have drawn the yellow flag. Elliott already had the lead so it wouldn’t have changed the outcome, but it might have spared Kyle Larson and Jeffery Earnhardt one wild ride. Had NASCAR made the same call sealing the win for Kyle Busch rather than Elliott, I fear there might have been rioting in the grandstands.
I get it. Fans like Elliott. A lot of stock car fans have Chevy Bowties tattooed somewhere on them. But to get back to my original premise, NASCAR is supposed to be a professional sports organization. I’ve read where the stick and ball fans would like to see more touchdowns or extra base hits rather than strikeouts. But the NFL doesn’t decide on a whim that they’re going to shorten the field to 75 yards and allow the offense an extra 12th man wide receiver one weekend to see how it works out. Nor does MLB suddenly experiment with aluminum bats or allowing batters four strikes before they are out.
In the end, if NASCAR won’t get any bonus points for execution or consistency after this weekend but perhaps all is well that ends well. Despite some hard hits and Larson’s terrifying series of tumbles at the end of the day (when according to Mike Helton “it is what it is”), everyone went home safely to their loved ones, the show did indeed go on and a popular up and coming driver took the win (though not his first “plate race” victory in that there were no restrictor plates on the cars yesterday). So now do we start keeping score of “wicker-bill” race wins? Hey, Son, you wanna see the Big Top? All aboard, Dover, Delaware is our next stop.