As NASCAR heads to Talladega this Sunday, the Cup Series will conclude its 22nd consecutive year of "restrictor plate racing." Designed to slow speeds on the circuit's two fastest tracks, Daytona and Talladega, restrictor plate racing is a temporary solution to an age old question: how can NASCAR keep drivers safe while leaving competition and innovation intact?
Looking back, it's easy to understand why plates are in use. Speeds at these tracks are a problem, and plates are designed to keep cars from crossing the 200 mph threshold -- one that tends to turn stock car racing from dangerous to deadly. After
The first time NASCAR applied the rule, the plates slowed the pole speed from 212.809 mph in the spring of 1987 (a series record) to 198.969 one year later. This fall, that number is expected to drop to between 185 and 190 mph, with holes 59/64ths of an inch, small enough to limit the strongest engine from reaching its full potential.
Yet, as we saw this spring, when
"It's tough to race here," said points leader
As it currently stands, the powerplants reach their limit without much effort, and 43 drivers roll around the 2.66-mile oval with perfect handling that keeps virtually everyone bunched together in unison. Since restrictor plates keep the driver from achieving maximum horsepower, the only way a car can pull out and pass is with the help of somebody else, leading to a snarling 43-man draft that changes only when drivers choose to work together.
"So damn frustrating," says
Despite the racers objections, the unpopular plates have gained traction amongst a crucial subset: the fans. 'Dega's Fall race has been the number two rated race on ABC/ESPN for the last two years, trailing only the Brickyard 400. With the track setting a season high number of lead changes for eight years running, it's no wonder why most are riveted to the television. Most fans claim they don't like it, but it's the only time they're guaranteed a battle to the finish without seeing the winner automatically pull away. In a touch of irony, a sport preoccupied with safety puts its best foot forward at a track that leaves its drivers exposed to serious danger.
"You want to get mad, but it's just Talladega,"
Would the cash stop flowing if fans truly understood the risk they take? Turns out 190 mph is plenty fast enough to do damage, as Edwards learned the hard way. His move to block
This weekend, Edwards will take the time to visit with the fan most seriously hurt from his accident,
"That's a feeling I've never had before and I never want to have again," Edwards said. "It was a real eye-opener as to how serious this can be. We race cars, and we all wreck and we know we can get hurt ... that's something we all accept. But I don't think part of my job is people in the grandstands getting hurt."
As for the other 100,000+ in attendance while all that went on? Most of them cheered. But that's Talladega in a nutshell, isn't it? Tragedy and triumph all rolled into one.
"I guess we'll do this until somebody gets killed and then we'll change it," he claimed. "But that's the way it is."
As long as you fans pay to see it.
- With Joe Gibbs' replacement of
While a quick listen to the radio could tell you that the relationship between driver and crew chief had soured, the bigger question is whether
-- A full field without a single start-and-parker? Looks like we'll have it at Talladega, as each of the 44 teams entered (except the No. 66 PRISM Motorsports team and perhaps the No. 37 Front Row car) intend to go the distance if they qualify.
Why 'Dega as opposed to anywhere else? It's not a bigger purse or bigger market attracting these guys but simple, pure racing competition. With the plates, it's one of the few tracks on the circuit where teams like the No. 87 and No. 36 can actually compete for a top-10 if they play their cards right. And since purse money only pays off if you finish that high, it makes financial sense for them to run all 500 miles. Makes you wonder what would happen if their equipment gave them a chance at other tracks on the circuit...