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.
Door-to-door racing might be exciting to fans, but at Talladega and Daytona, it's conduciv
This was an idea offered by Chad Knaus, crewchief for Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's car. The theory is that if the tires were smaller, there would be less grip in the corners and the drivers would have to slow down. If they had to slow down in the corners, they could accelerate down the straights and we could see racing again.
In theory it sounded great. There's only one thing wrong, though. Goodyear says it won't work.
The problem is that even at Daytona and Talladega, the cars haven't begun to approach the limit of adhesion of their Goodyears. As race tires get hot, they get softer and softer until their surface feels almost like a gum eraser. The tires offer both grip and rolling resistance as the soft surface grips the track.
"If NASCAR went to a narrower tire, it really wouldn't slow the cars down in the corners," says Rick Campbell, team leader for NASCAR tire development. "Worse yet, the narrower tire would decrease rolling resistance, and the speeds down the straight would probably go up."
In addition to that, the teams would just suck the bodies up closer to accommodate the skinnier tires, and the cars would become narrower and faster.
"The bottom line is that a narrower tire isn't going to slow anything down," says Campbell. "Just the opposite will happen. Speeds will go up."
One way to break up the packs of cars at restrictor-plate tracks might be to use single-fi
Well, this may have potential for all the reasons that narrow tires don't. Imagine a Nextel Cup car that is bigger and wider and rides on steamroller-sized rubber. We'll get to that later.
A few crewchiefs-and even more drivers-have suggested NASCAR get rid of carburetors altogether and go to some form of fuel injection. Carburetors on modern production cars went out with points ignition and chrome bumpers, and the technology to build a race-ready carb is about as viable today as the ability to fix eight-track tape players.
Engine builders feel that a fuel-injected engine would be more efficient and more reliable, because fuel flow and mixture could be more precisely controlled, eliminating things like an over-lean condition that turns expensive pistons into cheap souvenir ashtrays.
One of the greatest advantages of an injected engine is better throttle response. Consider that at Daytona, teams are running a carburetor that looks about as big as an office trash can, but the fuel has to flow through four holes the size of a quarter. It is like asking an Olympic sprinter to compete wearing a painter's mask.
NASCAR, of course, gets the collective shakes at even the thought of adopting such radical new technology. Its tech inspectors can understand carbs; they measure the holes, check the throttle plates, and verify the legality of the intake manifold. By comparison, fuel injection borders on magic, with little electrons running up and down wires, firing injectors at just the right instant for just the right length of time.
In contrast, the restrictor plate is about as complicated as a box-end wrench. NASCAR has boxes of them. They cost about $10 each, but can require an entity such as Dale Earnhardt Inc. to invest $1.5 million or more in developing unique restrictor-plate engines. At the track, plates are issued at random as cars go through the tech line. After qualifying or a race, no one on the team can open the hood until an inspector is there to remove the plate. When a team wins or puts a car on the pole, the plate they used is taken out of service and sent to NASCAR's tech minions so they can find out what, if anything, made it better than the others.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of going to injectors is the possibility of getting rid of the mechanical fuel pump mounted to the side of the engine, and the occasional fuel fire that occurs whenever it gets ripped off in a crash.
Consider that over the past few years, the best racing at Daytona Speedweeks has been in the Craftsman Truck Series. The trucks have the aerodynamic integrity of a family-size freezer, but under the hood of each of those trucks thunders an unrestricted engine that makes more power and torque than any vehicle NASCAR fields at Daytona.
A restrictor plate is placed on a manifold.
"The only way we could create the type of drag we get on the trucks would be to have the cars look like trucks," says Nelson. "We know how much horsepower the engines create and we know the aero numbers. We also recognize that much of the aero drag is because a truck's rear window stands straight up. We could do all that to a Nextel Cup car, but it would end up looking like a Craftsman truck."
Teams already build special bodies for short tracks, intermediate tracks, superspeedways, and road courses. They all have to match NASCAR's templates.
NASCAR insiders figure that with today's sleek bodies, an unrestricted car could hit 225 mph or better at Talladega. Rusty Wallace, in fact, recently hit 228 mph at Talladega while running an unrestricted engine.
NASCAR already controls speed by legislating spoiler heights and angles, air dam clearance, and enough body templates to make a fabricator dizzy. So, why not demand a snub-nosed body for the big tracks? At Daytona and Talledega, how about requiring a body configuration closer to those of current street cars? By changing the body profile, the cars would generate more aerodynamic drag and automatically go slower down the long straightaways.
One aerodynamic expert who has worked with NASCAR, Trans-Am, NHRA, and Indy Car teams has suggested mandating larger, more upright rear spoilers to create the aero drag needed to slow cars. It will require a completely different approach to shocks, springs, and swaybars, but he feels that speeds can be reduced and traction increased at the same time.
Maybe then NASCAR can give them back a bit of horsepower.
Notice the difference in the size of the holes on the gasket being put in place and the si
Top speeds at Atlanta, California, and Texas are essentially the same as what Nextel Cup cars run at Daytona and Talladega. What about concerns with speeds at those tracks?
"In spite of what the media says, we've never really had a target speed for our Cup cars," Nelson says. "It isn't a raw number we are looking at, and whatever the speed we are comfortable at is different for each track."
That said, the one thing that gets NASCAR excited is a car approaching 200 mph. Anytime a driver nears that double century mark, the rule books come out for a revision.
"I don't know that there's a definition of what's too fast," says NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter. "But we sort of feel like 200 mph is uncharted territory."
Talladega was designed for cars averaging about 175 mph. But in 1987, the year Allison's car became airborne and the year before the plates were required, Bill Elliott set a Talladega qualifying record of 212.809 mph. Nelson was crewchief for Geoffrey Bodine.
"I left there thinking that next year we could come back and maybe hit 215," Nelson says. But next year NASCAR handed him a restrictor plate and the speeds dropped. Is it any wonder he hates them?
Nelson says that at Daytona and Talladega, the cars reach their top speeds while still going down the front straight. At tracks such as Texas, drivers hit their terminal velocity just as the cars enter the banked corners, where the forces of running on the banking propel the cars down onto the track, which increases the loads on the tires and pushes the cars down onto the pavement. "The cars are just more stable there," he says.
The other thing to consider is the radius of the corners. Daytona and Talledega have long radius corners where drivers simply don't have to lift to get around them. "At Atlanta, the corners are tight enough that you couldn't take them flat out," Nelson says.
One of the changes-though it will be subtle-is the addition of the SAFER soft walls at both superspeedways. "The barriers will narrow the tracks," he says. "It won't be a big difference, but it will mean the outside radius has changed. It is narrower now. Those drivers used to running right up against the wall will realize it is a lot closer now and will have to change how they go trough the corners."
The faster the car, the more the effect the change will have. Tracks change all the time. The surface is ground smooth or repaved. The front straight becomes the back straight. The configuration at Miami/Homestead has been radically changed over and over again to make the racing better, until the owners finally came up with last year's design du jour with steep banking.
What would it take to change Daytona or Talladega? Money and desire. NASCAR has plenty of one, but perhaps little of the other.
As this photo sequence shows, restrictor-plate racing can quicky create chaos.
Eliminate double-line restarts and go to single-file restarts at all plate races. It's recognized that caution flags generate caution flags. When you bunch up 30 or 40 cars in two rows, it takes only a tiny mistake to make a big wreck.
So at NASCAR's plate tracks, line 'em up one after another and let the drivers battle for position right where they were when the caution flag came out or in the order they exited the pits.
The fast cars will still pass the slow cars, but it will take a bit longer. And what you won't have is a lapped car becoming sideways and taking out some of the leaders. The leaders can fight for position among themselves, without having to worry about cars they wouldn't normally have to contend with until they were ready to lap 'em.
Nelson doesn't like this idea at all. It just isn't the way NASCAR does things. Exactly our point.
Here's the real answer: a new generation of race car that will be fatter and taller. It will push more air, which will create more aerodynamic drag. Don't be surprised to see them riding on tires much wider than those used on today's Cup cars.
Nelson and the researchers at Concord have been working on this design for about two years. From the outside this new car will be more evolutionary than revolutionary. It will still look as little like a street car as today's Cup cars, but they will be larger all around.
NASCAR wants to make them bigger to make them safer. That means they'll be easier for drivers to get in and out of and still contain all the safety gear they use today. Expect to see the driver sitting closer to the center of the car, which will create more "crush room" on the sides for increased safety. "Whatever we come up with will be much less aero dependent," Nelson says.
Nelson knows what he wants to do. The challenge has been to incorporate as many existing components as possible in the new chassis.
"Our team owners have a huge inventory of parts," he says. "What we don't want to do is make those parts obsolete." That means trying to retain the current engines, suspension components, steering gear, and rear end assemblies while melding them into a wider, taller chassis. It will create a nightmare for engineers who will ultimately have to throw away their notebooks and begin anew with a car that has totally different aerodynamic numbers, a different roll center, spring requirements, and more.
And NASCAR will try to retain as many common templates as possible to ensure competitive parity among manufacturers. Nelson defends the look-alike cars, saying they reflect what's seen on the streets today.
"I grew up in an era when you could look down the street and recognize one brand from another, [because] they all looked so different," he says. "And the style changed almost every year. That doesn't happen anymore."
Simply keeping the restrictor plates isn't an option. Since the death of Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR has embraced the long-ignored concept of making the sport safer. It has improved the cars and the tracks, and drivers are now "encouraged" to use the best safety gear available.
Restrictor-plate racing simply runs contrary to those efforts. Just like major wrecks the plates often contribute to, solving the problem is no longer a question of if NASCAR car will do it, but when.
There is an urgency to find a solution. NASCAR has been very public about its efforts to develop and adopt ways to make competition safer. Yet, the problem with racing on superspeedways is one it has been, so far, unable to come to grips with. It hasn't been for lack of trying.
NASCAR recognizes that the next major superspeedway wreck that ruins a career or takes the life of a driver will show every race fan and critic alike that finding that fix has simply taken too long.
A NASCAR inspector checks a restrictor plate.
The difference is probably not as profound as you might think
0-cautions at fall 2002 Talladega race
0-cars crashed out of competition at spring 2004 Atlanta race
11-cars crashed out of competition at summer 2002 Daytona race
11-cautions at spring 2004 Talladega race
14-cautions at 2002 New Hampshire race
42-caution laps at 2003 Texas race
47-caution laps at spring 2004 Talladega race
54-caution laps at fall 2003 Atlanta race
66-caution laps at 2002 Loudon race
183.665-average speed at fall 2002 Talladega race
Jeff Green: I understand the need for the plate, and safety should be the number one priority in our sport, but the restrictor plate really takes the racing out of the driver's hands . . . to pass and draft, you need help from other guys. That's tough when everyone is trying to win.
It's more [like] riding around and trying to survive. If you get out of the [race] without a wrecked car, you have done a pretty decent job.
Are larger, more upright spoilers the answer to NASCAR's restrictor-plate dilemma? Some th
Kyle Petty: Pick the fastest line and be patient-two things that aren't always easy to do at the same time. Everything you do is predicated, not just on what the car behind you and in front of you is doing, but what cars 10 lengths back are doing.
Two thoughts are constantly running through my head-do I hold what I have or do I try to get more? You have to decide if the risk of losing a lot of spots is worth the reward of picking up two or three spots. If you make it, you're a hero, for another lap, anyway. If you don't make it, well, you probably shouldn't radio the pits for a lap or two.
Ken Schrader: Plate racing is not that refreshing; it's frustrating . . . it's like driving down the interstate in heavy traffic. So, eventually you just pick a lane, stay in it, and hope it's moving faster than the other one when you cross the start-finish line.
You really just try to take care of your car and have a chance to be up in the pack at the end. That's about all you can do. Stay out of trouble, keep the nose in 'mint' condition, and try and put yourself in position to win with 10 laps to go. Here lately it seems like everyone is ready to mix it up on every lap . . . There has to be a lot of giving, especially early on, or we're going to end up with a lot of torn-up race cars.
Jeremy Mayfield: At Daytona it's hard to tell how it's going to go. Half the time you're a sitting duck there, waiting for something to happen.
Jamie McMurray: We seem to always run well at Daytona, but have been caught up in other people's wrecks each time that have ended our chances at victory.
Ricky Rudd: I'm not a huge fan of superspeedways, and I think it's because of the restrictor-plate thing. I liked them a lot more when they were unrestricted.
I don't know the logistics of [using smaller engines]. It sounds simple, so why not? Maybe the real issue right now is the cost-design and development for just Daytona and Talladega. You look at Formula 1. They continue to downsize. But, they get new engines every year. As we change tires, they change engines, it seems like.