No, it's not rush hour on your local freeway--it's 190 mph bumper tag at Talladega.
They have become known simply as The Big One. They are the signature, car-crushing, field-decimating, bone-shattering accidents that can leave the superspeedways at Daytona or Talladega looking like a wrecking yard.
There are some fans who are perfectly content with that. They see the tight packs of cars on restrictor-plate tracks as something that makes superspeedways unique from other ovals, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
For drivers, the multicar wrecks are the worst aspect of restrictor-plate racing. Every Nextel Cup driver looks at strapping into a car at those two tracks a little like playing Russian Roulette. It isn't a case of if you get caught up in the melee; its only a question of when, and how bad will it be.
The restrictor plate reduces the flow of air/fuel mixture from the carburetor into the intake manifold and the cylinders, cutting about 300 hp, engineers say.
A reduction in horsepower is what NASCAR wants, because it brings a reduction in speeds. But there's a downside.
"I hate the things," says Gary Nelson, who heads NASCAR's research and development center in Concord, North Carolina. "I hated them when I was a crewchief and I hate them now. I really hope that someday I'll find a way to get rid of them. We just haven't figured out how. But we are working on it."
Well, we have a few ideas of our own.
The plates were first used on all cars 16 years ago after Bobby Allison's car became airborne at Talladega, climbed the fence, and almost landed in the first couple of rows of spectators.
NASCAR's response to the frightening incident was to require a smaller carburetor for the next superspeedway race. Then it went back to the big carbs but slapped plates under them to reduce horsepower and cut speeds.
The plates were nothing new. Back in the '70s, when teams were running both big-blocks and small-blocks, NASCAR leveled the field by making the big engines run plates. So, when it needed a quick fix, it opened the NASCAR parts bin and grabbed technology it already knew worked.
The presumption was that as cars went slower, the likelihood of a major crash would be reduced.
That, of course, hasn't happened. Instead of having one or two cars crashing at 210 mph, we now get 10 or 12 cars slamming into one another at 185 mph. But you can't count on a major crash every time the green flag drops at a superspeedway. At the '01 spring race and the '02 fall race at Talladega, the competition went caution free, but those are the exceptions.
In 2002, for example, 24 cars were involved in a wreck on Lap 164 of the first Talladega race of the season. That same year, 18 cars were involved in a single wreck at the Daytona 500, and 14 were damaged there in the July wreck.
During the 2003 April race at the Alabama oval, The Big One damaged 27 cars on Lap 5.
Wrecks have been the biggest problem with plates. By robbing about 300 hp from the engines, every car is capable of the same speed, and soon they are lined up in a 43-car, double- and triple-wide freight train just looking for an opportunity to derail. Because they are running so close together, when something goes wrong with one car, the problem usually ends up having an impact on a dozen others.
Meanwhile, the cars have become safer and the tracks have been fitted with fences and retaining wires that so far have proved to be more than up to the job of keeping cars and fans on opposite sides.
By dropping the plates, increasing speeds, and letting engine builders hone their horsepower-making skills to the state-of-the art, we would again see races won by skilled drivers with a heavy right foot and not by engineers who spend the most productive time in the wind tunnel.
"As a crewchief and engine builder, I just hated spending all that time and money to build a perfect engine, something that was truly developed to its maximum potential, and then have to slap a restrictor plate on it," says Nelson. "I just can't come up with the words to describe how it made me feel."
Well, he probably could. But, then again, we probably couldn't print them here.