ANDY CAGLE: Restrictor Plate Racing Complicates NASCAR
On May 3, 1987, Bobby Allison's Buick LeSabre blew a tire, careened and went tumbling down the front-stretch fencing at Talladega ripping apart the protective barrier between the 200-plus mile per hour race cars and the thousands of people in attendance in one of the most horrific crashes in NASCAR history.
The crash, coupled with the fact that Bill Elliott won the pole for the race, the Winston 500, with an average speed of over 212 miles per hour, coerced NASCAR into making one of the biggest competitive changes in its history -- the use of restrictor-plates at its two largest ovals, Talladega and Daytona.
The plate, which restricts the amount of air that can mix with fuel in the engine's carburetor, brings the horsepower numbers way down, making them slower. In theory, the restrictor plate was supposed to make the racing safer and make for a better show for fans since unrestricted racing at the tracks was leading to one or two car breakaways and non-competitive racing.
If only it were that simple.
Over the last 22 years, the restrictor-plate has become one of the more controversial topics in racing. Sure it limits speeds -- Rusty Wallace tested an unrestricted car at 'Dega in 2004 and reached a top speed of 228 mph and deemed the experience "out of control" -- but the second part of the equation, the bunching of cars together and making them so reliant on drafting with other cars inevitably leads to "the big one," the multi-car pile-up that we saw twice last Sunday at Talladega before the wreck that everyone is talking about this week.
I have been reading pieces all week from some very well-respected and knowledgeable racing writers about all the changes that NASCAR needs to make to Talladega and restrictor-plate racing in the wake of Carl Edwards' last lap venture into the front-stretch catch fence. Many of these pieces were fueled by the comments made by Edwards post-race.
Of plate racing, Edwards said, "it's something we'll do...until somebody gets killed, and then we'll change it.
"NASCAR puts us in a box. ...I don't know how I'd change this racing. I know it's a spectacle for everybody and that's great and all, but it's not right to ask all these guys to come out and do this.
"What if the car goes up in the grandstands and kills 25 people? At some point, they've got to say, 'Look, we've got to change this around a little bit.'"
I've read all kinds of stuff this week. Stuff like the banking at 'Dega needs to be knocked down. Jack Roush called the place an anachronism, saying that the place was designed in the 1950s for cars with 1950s tires and technology. That leads to talk of reconfiguring the track.
I will say they are all wrong. The only way to make Talladega safe is to stop racing there. No different from any racetrack. All you can do is manage the risk and I think International Speedway Corporation, who owns the track, and NASCAR have done a good job of managing the risk.
While you hate to see anyone get hurt at a race, as the seven people did as debris flew off Edwards' car (and what looked like a track public address speaker) into the stands, the fence did its' job. Edwards' car was thrown back onto the track. The roof flaps, which deploy to keep the cars grounded, did their jobs. It was only when Edwards' Ford was clipped by Ryan Newman's car that he got into the fence. The restrictor-plate in Carl's engine kept him from going 230-plus miles per hour and really taking flight. Not to make a joke about it, but if that wreck would have happened unrestricted, the fans in the stands wouldn't have had anything to worry about, Edwards' car would have hit the press box.
Am I saying there isn't anything that can be done to make the race experience safer for NASCAR fans and competitors? Of course not. I hope they look at installing a taller catch fence, like the 21-foot one at Lowe's. It may not be a bad idea to move the first row of seats back about 10 feet. But all this talk about tearing down the banking or abandoning Talladega is a bit much.
It's a little bit ironic and very sad for me to be writing this column arguing this point right now. Right behind my word processing program is a web browser open to David Poole's latest blog entry and column. And, as has been more often the case, I am arguing the complete opposite point that Poole has made.
Sadly, it'll be the last time I get to to do that.
Poole died suddenly earlier this week of a heart attack at the age of 50. He spent the last 13 years as the NASCAR reporter for The Charlotte Observer. Poole was as passionate about the sport as anyone I have ever met. His passion for his beat was only equalled by his knowledge of racing. The man was a walking encyclopedia of racing lore.
His commanding presence in the media center will be greatly missed.
I like to think I am a better writer because of the way David Poole practiced his craft.
Andy Cagle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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