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Beyond The Grandstand


Restrictor Plates


By Steve Samples

It all started in 1964. That was the year that NASCAR stars Joe Weatherly and Jimmy Pardue, and superstar Fireball Roberts died of racing injuries. Some believed those injuries occurred because the cars were going too fast. Drivers began to complain that if NASCAR didn't slow the cars, they would retire. NASCAR didn't respond. Within three years legends Fred Lorenzen, and Junior Johnson, and small track ace Ned Jarrett quit. Careers over. Better to take your winnings and go skiing, than to die in your 30's and never see the fruits of your labor. Well, Lorenzen went skiing. Junior became a master car builder, and Ned became a broadcaster.

But soon after their retirement the boo birds came out. Lee Petty, a great driver in his own right, and a very bright man, made one of his less meaningful statements. "Records are meant to be broken," Petty said. And Herb Nab, Lorenzen's former chief mechanic suggested privately that "it was a shame to see a man lose his nerve." It appeared the man he was referring to was Lorenzen. That would be the same Fred Lorenzen that won a 250 mile race at Martinsville with Jack Sullivan as his chief mechanic, the race after the "true genius" behind Fearless Freddie, Herb Nab was fired. Jarrett was a mild mannered man who was rarely a threat on the superspeedways, so his retirement met with less criticism.

The true age of speed was now at NASCAR's doorstep. On the horizon was the Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird. Ford and others would soon follow with winged warriors of their own. Two-hundred mile per hour speeds would be the norm at Daytona, and later Talledega. Other drivers would die, but everyone would simply surmise that racing is dangerous and people die. It's a fair price to pay for weekend entertainment. That position remained prevalent in NASCAR for years. Oh they made great strides in safety, but there is limited safety at 200 miles per hour.

Fast forward a few years. Well a lot of years, and enter Bobby Allison. Bobby was a brilliant driver, easily one of the 12 greatest in NASCAR history. But even Bobby Allison had trouble controlling a car which became an airplane while competing in a series event at Talladega. The panic button had been detonated, and NASCAR was listening. Not only were drivers at risk, it now appeared an airborne vehicle could wipe out a hundred or so fans in a heartbeat. Liability and the integrity of the sport were at issue.

The answer to the problem was simple. Restrict engine size to 290 CID, or better yet make V-8's illegal. Only V-6's with a 260 CID limit. It would slows speeds by 10-15 miles per hour in the first case. By 20-25 miles per hour in the second. But what about records? You know those records that are meant to be broken? After all racing is about speed, isn't it? Wouldn't fans reject six cylinder cars? Wouldn't attendance suffer? The answer is no. Racing in not about speed, its about competition. If a fan attended a race at Daytona in 1962 when the pole speed was 162 miles per hour, I propose he would enjoy the race just as much as when the speed is 192 miles per hour. In fact if all the cars are going approximately the same speed, no one can tell the difference! It's competition, not speed that fans adore. The illustration of speed is exactly the same at 162 miles per hour as it is at 192 miles per hour. The difference is, the level of reaction time that drivers have is increased, and racing is invariably safer at slightly slower speeds. Much safer.

So why doesn't NASCAR make this simple change? Who knows. Instead they implement the most bizarre set of rules in auto racing history. We now restrict speeds by putting metal carburetor plates on intake barrels, and we place spoilers on trunk decks to stabilize cars and prevent them from becoming airplanes. This serves to reduce speeds and improve the handling characteristics of cars. But smaller engines reduce speeds, and better handling isn't needed at slower speed. Today's rules make all the cars run the same speed. It takes the engine builders and chief mechanics out of the game. To a large extent it even takes drivers out of the game. We now run in a 20 car draft. Not a bad idea if NASCAR had 20 professional drivers. Unfortunately they don't. But fear not, neither does the Indy circuit or Formula 1. The truth is there are at any given time about 15 pros on the circuit. Oh sure they are all pros. So are the Class A Columbia Bombers, but they are a long way from their major league counterparts, and there is a big difference between the driving ability of Jeff Gordon and Brett Bodine. In a 20 car draft there are at least five drivers that should still be driving short tracks. Problem is, a 15 car race is not too exciting, so 40 or so cars are allowed to "make the field." Twenty five can't win, but they all get a shot, and frankly wrecks are part of the reason people go to stock car races. More cars, more wrecks, more ticket sales. It's the American way.

But why increase the danger to drivers by running them on top of each other? Why not let manufacturers, mechanics, and engine builders compete to see who can produce the most horsepower from a 260 CID engine? The results would be stupendous. There would be fast cars that don't finish the race. Specific makes of cars would run well at certain tracks, and pit strategy would be reintroduced as a legitimate factor in winning races. You go faster, you pay at the pump. Sure 20 car drafts would become six car drafts, and there would be races when two cars would hook up and leave the field. But there would be races within races. And most of all there would be a higher level of safety for drivers.

On-track tragedy cannot be eliminated entirely. It's the nature of auto racing. But why not reduce the number of tragedies as much as possible? Fans come to see competition, and if NASCAR racing is competitive they'll have no problem filling the grandstands.




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