At least partially due to the severity of Ryan Newman’s last-lap wreck in this year’s Daytona 500, NASCAR made several tweaks to the rules package run at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend.
I’m an old guy. I still call Talladega and Daytona International Speedway the plate tracks. And over the years, I’ve developed a decidedly poor opinion of the plate tracks. Truth be told, there are no restrictor plates anymore unless some deviant NASCAR official tossed a few of them into a crate for display at NASCAR’s Hall of Shame. Nowadays, the teams are forced to run what are called tapered spacers to lower the horsepower and thus, the speed of their race cars. I suppose I’ll eventually have to start calling these places the tapered spacer tracks.
Plates and tapered spacers do the same thing. They limit the amount of the hopefully homogenous fuel/air mixture that can reach the cylinder heads and, eventually, the combustion chamber where it hopefully combusts to produce large amounts of forward thrust. It limits the speeds of the race cars and produces parity across the board, slower speeds and a draft that keeps the entire 40-car field superglued together.
That happens while, hopefully, none of the fans at the race have a 3,600-pound racecar land in their laps carrying a couple hundred miles per hour of momentum upon contact. It’s a near-miss that’s almost happened numerous times at Talladega.
Satan is a busy guy. He’s got far too much on his plate luring the cursed to eternal damnation through his wiles to take a shot at designing racetracks. But if Satan had ever designed a racetrack, it would have been Talladega. Having the track built on ancient Native American burial grounds was the first clue.
Restrictor plate or tapered spacer? As I see it, they perform the same function. If you want to suddenly start calling a lawn sprinkler a backyard irrigation device, so be it. It’s still going to delight the kids and confound the dog.
The changes for this weekend’s race were tough to detect with the naked eye. Amongst them were reducing the diameter of the tapered spacers by 2/64th of an inch. Almost immediately, I heard the enraged screech of my old crone of a fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Giblin, screaming, “Least common denominator!” (Which, in fact, might have been my nickname for a few years. If the Devil did, in fact, design Talladega, my guess is Mrs. Giblin was his secretary during the project.) Yes, that’s 1/32nd of an inch. It’s a minute amount of real estate smaller but even that tiny change is said to cost the race cars somewhere between 40 and 50 horsepower.
If you’ve been following NASCAR racing a while, changes to the package raced at on the tapered spacer tracks should have come as no surprise. NASCAR pretty much plays it by ear on plate track (my bad) weekends. They’ll wait and see how fast everyone is in practice or even qualifying, then unilaterally change the size of the plates/spacers. Or the height of the spoilers. Or the aero package. Or any damn thing they feel like other than where the numbers are painted on the cars. Starting a race at the spacer tracks with no practice is the new norm but it’s been routine at Daytona and Talladega for years.
And, of course, it’s completely insane.
Perhaps Talladega was born under a Bad Sign. (I mean, given its architect, are you surprised?) The track joined the NASCAR circuit way back in 1969, the asphalt wet dream of Bill France Sr. He wanted the biggest, baddest, fastest racetrack in the world.
But maybe he should have given Goodyear and Firestone a ring first?
Neither company was able to provide rubber up to the speed, challenge and loads of the new track for more than a handful of laps. Eventually, the newly formed Professional Race Drivers Association went to France to urge him to postpone the event. Ever the diplomat France told the protesters if they weren’t going to race as scheduled, then to get their trucks, trailers and race cars out of his garage area so he could bring in other drivers and teams who would compete. France’s theory was simple. If the tires wouldn’t last at 185 miles an hour, then they should drive at 175.
Drivers, including Richard Petty and other top teams, called France’s bluff and left the track. The morning of the race, Bill France announced to fans it was free to attend. If fans already had tickets, those could be used for the next year’s Talladega race or could be traded toward tickets to any future NASCAR event.
Richard Brickhouse won that initial Talladega Cup race, his one and only Cup win. There were a few other drivers you might have heard of in the event including Curtis Turner, Coo-Coo Marlin (Sterling’s daddy), Bobby Isaac and Richard Childress. (Childress did, in fact, drive race cars before he began owning race teams.)
Some of the cars that raced that day at Talladega were amongst the infamous “aero warriors.” That included Brickhouse’s Dodge Daytona with a nearly three-foot wing on the back of it and an oddly-shaped triangular nose. (Plymouth’s answer to the Daytona, the Superbird was still a year off in 1969.) But the Ford Torino Talladega (what are the odds?) and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler were a lot more subtle than the Daytona Dodges but still cut a very svelte hole in the air. That allowed them to go insanely fast… until the tires blew out, of course. Recall in that era, we’re talking about treaded, bias-ply tires, sometimes turned backward to hide the whitewalls. A big trick of the era was to run six-ply truck tires.
At nearly 200 miles an hour? Better you than me, my friend.
My guess is that NASCAR will change the rules package again when the circuit returns to Daytona for what used to be called the Firecracker 400. But this year, it will be run in late August at the height of Atlantic Hurricane Season, the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. Then, those rules will most likely be changed again when the circuit returns to Talladega this fall, albeit with Talladega Boulevard shorn of its Confederate flags.
Talladega actually hosted a lot of very competitive and exciting races after the tire companies (well, company, Firestone up and left) developed slick tires capable of handling the loads and high speeds. But the party almost came to a screeching halt on May 3, 1987. That’s when hometown hero Bobby Allison suffered a fearsome crash (allegedly after running over hot oily bits of his own engine which had just expired). His Miller-sponsored Buick went airborne and crashed into the catchfence separating the cars, by then routinely running 210 miles an hour, from the spectators. A large section of that catchfence was shorn away, a testament to how close a call it was. By the grace of God, only five spectators were hurt badly enough to require medical attention. I recall hearing back in the day one of them lost an eye. But it was too close a call.
So NASCAR decided on the idea of having cars at Talladega and Daytona run restrictor plates. It’s a device they had used previously to lower speeds at Michigan International Speedway, equalizing the horsepower outputs of the big block engines that were run in the late 1960s and early 1970s. How much did it lower speeds? Allison’s son Davey took the pole for that 1987 race during which his dad wrecked at over 212 mph. Bill Elliott took the pole for the 1990 edition of that race at just over 199 mph. 200 mph has generally been considered a liftoff point where a stock car getting sideways will take off.
Of note at the time, NASCAR termed the plates a “temporary measure” until they devised a better plan. It should be noted that Bobby Allison’s close friend Neil Bonnett had an almost identical wreck to Allison’s at Talladega in 1993 with a restrictor plate between his carb and intake manifold. Bonnett’s wreck also tore down a long section of catchfence, injured a handful of fans and required an hours-long delay to have the track crew repair the fence.
In that same 1993 race, Jimmy Horton not only wrecked so hard that he got into the catchfencing, he actually made it through outside the track. Fortunately, there were no grandstands where Horton jumped over the fence. Unfortunately for Horton, there was a three-story drop into the parking lot to deal with instead.
As Horton put it, “You know you’re in trouble when the first fellow to reach you after a wreck is holding an open beer.” Tragically, Stanley Smith suffered career-ending and life-altering head injuries in the same crash.
Newer fans will recall Carl Edwards’ wreck at Talladega in 2009 after he and Brad Keselowski got into an argument over the Yellow Line rule. Edwards got up unto the fence and sent a loudspeaker and other debris into the grandstands, badly hurting a young fan.
What’s interesting is, despite the plates supposedly being a temporary measure, the changes that NASCAR has continuously come up with are to the cars. Thus, these adjustments are consistently paid for not by them but the team owners. Or, NASCAR will change the rules of engagement between the drivers at Talladega and Daytona (limiting bump-drafting, for instance). That doesn’t cost NASCAR one thin dime other than the paper to print the new rules on and occasionally the scorn of drivers and fans alike.
Daytona’s reputation isn’t half as fearsome as that track in Alabama. However, it’s been the scene of many wrecks over the years, including the one in February 2001 that claimed the life of Dale Earnhardt. That race, in many fan’s minds, is “The Day the Music Died.”
Compared to the rough start in Talladega, the first Daytona 500 run in 1959 was caution free. (It also featured a memorable two-wide finish too close to even call the day of the race.) But it only took five laps for a wreck to occur in the 1960 Daytona 500. That event was won by Junior Johnson, who may have been the first driver to figure out drafting and the slingshot pass. Of course, Johnson termed the aerodynamic principle “breaking wind” which wouldn’t do in polite society. So many race cars were damaged in the 1960 edition of Speedweeks in Daytona NASCAR had to postpone their next Cup race two weeks to give drivers and team owners (who were often one and the same back then) time to repair their cars or build new ones.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that a massive project to overhaul the badly dated Daytona International Speedway was entitled “Daytona Rising.” Daytona didn’t need no rising. Daytona needed some substantial lowering, particularly in its banked corners. Talladega could use a whole bunch of the same and could use it in the near future. It’s time for NASCAR to stop passing the buck to the drivers and team owners. Fix the damned racetracks instead.
It seems counterintuitive but lower speeds actually make for better racing anywhere outside of Bonneville. When drivers are running right on the ragged edge of their abilities and those of their mounts, they can’t plan and execute a winning (or at least advancing) move. As a side benefit, removing the specter of a race car crashing into the grandstands at a NASCAR race would be a huge relief for those of us who have seen it almost happen.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy in the history of automobile racing took place during the 1955 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Many of you will never have heard of that wreck, but a series of errors by a few drivers trying to get to pit road let a car still traveling at full speed hit a car that had practically come to a stop trying to enter the pits. The slower car served as a launching ramp to the faster one, sending Pierre LeVegh’s car (or at least major parts of it) into the grandstands across from the pits.
LeVegh was tossed from the wreckage like a rag doll. His badly burnt body laid out there on the track for hours before a police officer covered it. There was a catastrophic amount of deaths and severe injuries in the grandstands. The generally agreed on death count was 84 with some contemporary sources claiming there were multiple times that amount killed. Those with serious injuries were said to number around 300. The catastrophe caused Mercedes Benz to withdraw from racing for many decades and led some countries to impose an outright ban on auto racing. (Several states or municipalities within these United States did the same.)
A thorough investigation was conducted over the following year. While the investigators cleared any of the drivers from primary responsibility for the wreck, it cited the track at Le Mans as being too outdated and poorly designed for the speeds race cars of that era were capable of reaching. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?