Breaking Down the Debate over Horsepower as NASCAR Heads to Talladega

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2014

Dave Martin/AP Images

Dale Earnhardt Jr. warned fellow Sprint Cup drivers recently that to argue against horsepower reduction mandated by NASCAR would be futile.

"They are going to do it," Earnhardt told  "It's kind of like the No. 3 coming back (to Sprint Cup). A lot of people didn't want it to come back. A lot of people were upset that it came back, but it's coming back. I think the reduction in power is coming whether you like it or not."

Shortly thereafter, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations Steve O’Donnell confirmed that a reduction in horsepower is indeed inevitable as part of a planned overhaul to the racing for 2015 that he told the Des Moines Register would include "engines, downforce, aero and tires." Yet most folks remain fixated on the horsepower reduction, as it appears to go against the manly, macho image that stock-car racing often likes to project because the bottom line is that cars will run at slower speeds.

And on the eve of the Sprint Cup Series’ first visit of the season to Talladega Superspeedway, one of the tracks where high speeds have raised eyebrows and safety concerns in recent years, the debate over whether this is a good idea nonetheless rages on.

“Every driver and team that I have spoken to isn’t up for a horsepower reduction,” said Jimmie Johnson, the six-time Cup champion. “We all feel that having power creates better racing.”

As great as the racing has been this season so far, the real question is: Why mess with it? Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, now a television analyst for Fox Sports, wrote about exactly this in a column for

"...I get aggravated when I hear folks talking about more changes. Why in the world would you even think about making changes when we have the best racing we've ever had? For the life of me I don't understand that."

Johnson pointed out that when horsepower is taken out of a car, as it is in the Nationwide Series, what inevitably happens is that drivers then can run “flat-out at a lot of the tracks,” never taking their foot off the gas pedal all the way around.

The end result is that drivers actually enter the corners at higher speeds than they would with an unrestricted engine running at the current NASCAR Cup level of 850 horsepower, even if their maximum overall speeds would be slower.

And that actually could end up being more dangerous than the way Cup cars are running now, even at a place like Talladega, where for years NASCAR has mulled over ways to keep the cars that often exceed 200 miles per hour down the straightaways from flying off the ground. Slower overall speeds there might make a difference in that regard.

As it is now, the cars often go flying upside down when experiencing even the slightest of contactwhich eventually is inevitable because of the close packs they race in as everyone jostles for position in the late stages of a race.

No one knows more about that than Ryan Newman, who has been been involved in more than his share of bizarre incidents at Talladega and is no fan of racing there. He went airborne in a 2003 wreck and again in 2009, when he flipped upside down, and in 2013, he had the car of fellow competitor Kurt Busch land on the hood of the No. 39 car Newman was driving for Stewart-Haas Racing after Busch went airborne and barrel-rolled.

"There is no such thing as overreaction when it comes to safetynot just for us, but for the fan as well," Newman said after the 2013 incident. "The bottom line is whatever we can do to make it safer for everybody is what we need to do."

No one questions Newman or anyone else who insists that safety must come first.

The careful balance NASCAR must strike is offering competitive racing that is compelling to watch while not compromising safety. And the problem with the reduction is horsepower is that drivers aren’t sure what exactly it will accomplish in those areas, even while O'Donnell and other NASCAR officials insist that it would greatly improve the racing especially on 1.5-mile tracks.

"We are all trying as drivers and members of this sport to say what is best for the racing," Johnson said. "If it’s reduction in power that makes competitive racing, I think we're all more than willing to get on board and to go down that road. But it’s not a guarantee in my opinion and an example was at Michigan (during a recent test session). There was a tire test, and they took the power out of the 21 car (of driver Trevor Bayne), and his center-of-the-corner speed went up almost 10 miles an hour than what an unrestricted engine was running at. 

The fast-paced action at Talladega often is three-wide toward the end of races.
The fast-paced action at Talladega often is three-wide toward the end of races.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

"I’m not sure those eight miles an hour through the center of the corner is going to allow us to run comfortably through the corner side-by-side. Now we’ve picked up a lot of speed through the corners, and are the tires going to hold up? Is the suspension going to hold up? It costs a lot of money to even put a tapered spacer on the car. We’re going to go and work to change all the internals to maximize the role that the engine performs. So I sympathize with NASCAR because there isn’t an easy way to go about things."

Or maybe it is easy. Maybe, for now, they should leave well enough alonealthough it appears that option may have already left the garage, as O'Donnell told the Des Moines Register that an announcement on engines could be forthcoming as soon as later this month, prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

If reducing horsepower would actually lower the speeds and make the racing safer as well as more competitive without creating a domino effect of unintended consequences at the bigger tracks such as Talladega, Daytona, Michigan and Fontana, then it makes sense.

But until those unintended consequences are better known, perhaps leaving things as is and at least seeing how the rest of this season plays out with the current car and the latest new rules package that was implemented only at the beginning of this year would be wiser than instituting wholesale changesagain.

Another argument NASCAR makes is that reducing horsepower would permit owners to run engines in more than a single race and thus save them money in the long run. But first, as with all major changes, it would cost them millions to convert to new pieces and parts.

That could make the gap between the haves and have-nots on the ownership side greater than everanother unintended consequence.

Leave it up to the drivers, Johnson said, and they would add horsepower rather than reduce it.

"No rule change is cheap anymore. Because it’s not just a single piece or component to change; there is a domino effect that changes a lot of things," Johnson said. "I don’t know what to think to be honest with you. I like the power, power has been good for me. If you look at my Nationwide stats versus my Cup stats, I need power. I wish they would add more horsepower to the cars.

"We (as drivers) are listened to, but again the goal that NASCAR has is to do what is best for the sport and not necessarily what is best for the individual group. The drivers wanting to keep the power or add more power, we’re one small group, one small piece of the puzzle. Owners have a say on extending engine life and trying to go to multiple races on an engine. I think the end result is that the ultimate concerns are sponsorship dollars, (television) viewership, the inbound cash flow for our industry to ensure our sport is healthy. The better the competition is on the track, the better chance we have at that....Competitive races keep the sport healthy, but how you get there is to be discussed, argued and debated.”

One thing is certain as Johnson, Earnhardt, Newman and their colleagues prepare to line up and race at NASCAR’s fastest and arguably most dangerous track in Talladega again this weekend: This debate is not yet over.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.

Joe Menzer has covered NASCAR for years and authored two books about it, and now writes about it, college basketball, golf, the NBA and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.