DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Welcome to a whole new NASCAR as cars are allowed to race at over 200 mph on a new track surface at Daytona, ushering in a completely different style of racing there than the sport has produced since the advent of the restrictor-plate.
But is NASCAR prepared for the consequences?
That is the major issue officials are concerned with after a weekend in which two-car packs, locked in tight drafting, ran much faster at Daytona than the long freight-train style seen at restrictor-plate races in the past. This phenomenon is a result of a new front nose and rear spoiler along with Daytona's newly paved track. The combination could result in the most unique Daytona 500 in quite some time, and that has already sent teams back to the shops to prepare for Thursday's dual 150-mile qualifying races and Sunday's crown jewel.
NASCAR officials didn't entirely know what to expect at Daytona this year until teams began to run in packs to prepare for last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout. When 10 cars exceeded 200 mph in Friday night's practice session, NASCAR ordered an auxiliary air hose that went to the oil cooler to be disconnected. But the race began and that change did little to slow the cars.
"I thought the Bud Shootout was pretty cool at the beginning. I was medium in the middle part of the race, but when cars hit 206 mph I wasn't even thinking about the race anymore; I was thinking of all the work we needed to do over the next three days," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "To be in the 200 mile an hour range -- that's some pretty cool stuff. We don't mind that. We have to get it back to where we are a little more comfortable."
The last time cars raced at over 200 mph at Daytona was 1987, when Bill Elliott won the pole at 210.364 mph. The pole speed exceeded 212 mph at Talladega a few months later, but when Bobby Allison's car crashed and went airborne and almost flew into a packed grandstand, NASCAR made sure cars would never exceed that mark again.
First, it was the use of a smaller carburetor in 1987, before restrictor-plates were mounted on the carburetors to restrict air flow and reduce horsepower. This year, NASCAR is using a 29/32ths-inch plate, but that didn't keep the cars below 200 mph when they formed two-car packs.
Instead of a smaller restrictor plate to lower the speeds at Daytona, NASCAR officials are taking a different approach by lowering the tolerance level of the pressure relief valve. By taking that approach, the cars will blow water out of the engine at a lower temperature, which will force cars locked in a two-car draft to pull out to get clean air into the inlet on the front grille.
NASCAR is most concerned about the dramatic closing rates some of the two-car packs had approaching slower cars. The closing rate was as much as a 20 mph difference. NASCAR hopes by lowering the tolerance, then the two-car packs cannot make an extended push of up to 30 to 40 laps, instead forcing them to break apart after about 8 to 10 laps.
"These changes will hinder the opportunity to get that big 206 mph number because it took three or four laps to do that of being hooked up," Pemberton said. "This will make it a little more difficult to do that because the goal is not to be hooked up for an extended period of time."
An object can go airborne at much slower speeds than 200 mph. Airplanes take off around 130 mph and race cars at tracks such as the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway can fly in the air if they are hit just right. That happened to Brad Keselowski when he was hit by Carl Edwards last March, nearly sending his car into the catchfence. One year earlier, Keselowski had sent Edwards flying into the fence heading to the checkered flag at Talladega.
"We're not stepping out here blindly," Pemberton said. "There is a portion out there that thought the two-car style of racing was pretty cool and there was a portion that thought it was the worst thing they have ever seen, and some will wait until Thursday when they get to see it again. It's hard to judge those things when you start off with a 24-car field and end up with a 15-car field in a shorter race like on Saturday. You don't know what it will be like on Sunday, but we will get a better feel for it on Thursday. But we needed to be proactive and be prepared to do the right thing.
Looking ahead to Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona 150-mile qualifying races and Sunday's 500, it's obvious that drivers will have to form partnerships to have a two-car tandem for most of the race. Otherwise, they'll be in danger of dropping out of sight of the leaders.
The two-car draft didn't start at Daytona, but at Talladega. And now that the genie is out of the bottle with the speeds at Daytona, NASCAR may be hard-pressed to change it.
"We don't think that will ever go away; it may change to some degree, because you can't unlearn something," Pemberton said. "When these guys learn something and it is effective, they will use it to some degree, whatever their equipment is capable of doing. The speeds are here because everybody has done their homework, from the track to Goodyear to the teams.
"Now, we are trying to reel some of that back in. We have a situation where we have to react and we have the support of some of the race teams. They realize the potential if the wrong moves are made and we are getting ahead of that."
This year's Daytona will either be a case of double vision or a chance for each Cup driver to find a friend on the track.
"I think we all have been to a Saturday-night short track and seen chain races where they put a big I-beam through the cars and they don't put anybody in the middle," said Kurt Busch, who won Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout. "There's a guy up front with a motor and then there's a guy in the back with the brake. This is opposite; this is where the guy in the back has the motor, the guy in the front has the brake. Two cars just hook up and it seems like the air comes off the front car and clears that second car perfectly."
Of all the drivers in the garage who can give a technical explanation of the two-car draft, the best may be Ryan Newman, who studied engineering at Purdue University and finished third in Saturday's Shootout.
"The front car gets the clean air, the motor and the back car takes the air front off the front car's spoiler," Newman explained. "Even though he gets the air taken out of his motor, he's still pushing the car in front of him and he's getting that help. If there was that third car, he doesn't have the air in the cowl to help propel him forward, so the front car has got the biggest motor, the second car is just helping push along, and the way the drag works out, even going through the corners you can just barely feel the car behind you kind of tap you sometimes.
"We saw it at Talladega where guys would push and they finally figured out how to swap and do some of that stuff at the end of last year, and I think people caught on and did some homework and figured out coming to Daytona this is what we're going to have to get prepared for, and the majority of the teams were prepared for it."
While this new style of racing was often exciting to watch and drew high praise from drivers, the big question is did the fans like it?
"It was nice to see it work the way it did, nice to see guys slingshot somebody, but it's hard to make a judgment on it -- I've been around too long with the old rules," Pemberton said. "I've come out of the control tower before thinking that race was a pooch. Then I will get text messages or e-mails telling me that was a great race. I'll go home and watch it on TV and think that Darrell Waltrip saved me by making it a great race on TV. Then there have been times I've watched a race and thought it was the greatest race ever. When I come down from the tower, people tell me, 'I hope you can get out of here alive because that race was a dog.'
"It's not the same for everybody."
Only time will tell if the fans appreciate this new form of racing, especially over 500 miles. But one thing is certain -- no driver will be able to win the race unless he finds a friend who can help push him to victory.
For 60 years, Tom Carnegie's voice was the soundtrack of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His booming voice was first heard during the 1946 Indianapolis 500. Since that time, he provided the narration for some of the greatest moments in auto-racing history.
Carnegie died Friday at 91 after a lengthy illness.
It was that voice that bellowed from all corners of the 2.5-mile oval that is as much a part of the Indy 500 as the Yard of Bricks and the bottle of milk that goes to the winning driver in Victory Lane.
One of Carnegie's most famous lines was directed at Mario Andretti, who had an odd history in the Indy 500, eventually ending with his car breaking down while leading the race. That is when the 400,000 fans in attendance heard Carnegie say, "And Mario is slowing down ..." That line became as much a part of the Indianapolis 500 as "Gentlemen, start your engines."
"It's good that I couldn't hear it in the car," Andretti said. "It almost seems like a joke, but it's not. I'm sure he wasn't happy delivering that line. He was able to create a line that would be there forever -- good, bad or indifferent."
Carnegie admitted that although he admired Andretti, he did embellish the line a few times.
"Mario Andretti had a series of disappointments in the 500 and there were times that Mario was slowing down on the backstretch, when really he wasn't always on the backstretch," Carnegie told me in 2004. "But I just put him there. It was just convenient to put him in the backstretch.
"A couple of years ago, Mario came back to do his 'lap of honor' in one of his legendary race cars. Wouldn't you know it, his car broke down on the lap and I saw him slowing down in the fourth turn. I got on the microphone and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, race fans, Mario Andretti coming out of turn number two and Mario is slowing down on the backstretch.' Of course, there was a big roar from the crowd."
Originally from Missouri, Carnegie was one of the legendary voices of the Hoosier State. He was a baseball and football star in high school before he was hospitalized for six months with polio. After his recovery, he went to William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., and was a member of the top-ranked debate team in the country. He credits that training with giving him a dramatic voice and helping him to understand the art of inflection.
After college, Carnegie boarded a train and headed to Fort Wayne, Ind., where he got a job at 50,000-watt stations WOWO and WGL. Carnegie was a pioneer in Indiana television and was asked to be part of the public-address team at the Indianapolis 500 in 1946.
"I had only seen one race that was at the state fairgrounds in Illinois prior to that time," Carnegie said. "At the Speedway, the previous announcer turned it over to me after the very first lap. He never came back and I was on the microphone for the next four and a half hours. Evidently, I pleased Tony Hulman sufficiently to have me named the chief announcer after the race and that's where I've been ever since."
Carnegie created some of the most famous phrases in the Indy 500. On qualification attempts, when a driver was about to take the green flag to begin his attempt, Carnegie would say, "Heeeeeeeee's on it!" In the days when speed records were part of qualifications, the words Indy 500 fans all loved to hear were "And it's a new track record!"
But the most thrilling words of all came when the pace car pulled off the track coming out of the fourth turn on race day and Carnegie announced to a crowd of more than 350,000 fans, "Here they come, the field of 33 ... waiting for the green flag ... And, there it is!"
Carnegie's voice is also prominent in perhaps the greatest sports movie ever made --
Carnegie's voice was a legendary part of a legendary sporting event.
"No question about it, Tom, over a lifetime, has helped as much the making of the Indianapolis 500 as anyone," Mario Andretti said. "Tom Carnegie will never be replaced. He goes hand in hand about what is great about this event. You wish you could inject him and keep him around forever. He is one of those rare individuals. I'm glad I was there to be part of it."