Talladega: NASCAR Needs New Blueprint for Restrictor-Plate Racing

Geoffrey Miller@@geoffreymillerContributor IMay 6, 2013

Restrictor plate racing made it impossible for many drivers to avoid this crash.
Restrictor plate racing made it impossible for many drivers to avoid this crash.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

David Ragan's chances of winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at most tracks in 2013 is probably comparable to that of a donkey in the Kentucky Derby.

He drives for a low budget team without the resources, experience or talented crew that would put them on par with teams like Hendrick Motorsports or Penske Racing. That financial and technological gap is enough to make Ragan, a talented wheelman in NASCAR's top series with former big team experience, finish about 20th or worse nearly every week.

But Ragan—just like the vast majority of drivers in Sunday's race—didn't need that achievement to stay in position to win. Instead, he just needed to stay in the race's draft, out of the big accidents caused by the draft and carry NASCAR's greatest equalizer on his car to stay in contention and ultimately score his second career win.

That equalizer is NASCAR's restrictor plate, and Sunday's race, yet again, showed that the sport is begging for NASCAR to find the next idea in keeping speeds down that also lets drivers actually race. For now, NASCAR's product at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway is just a clumped together pack resembling a Tour de France peloton that inevitably crashes in an always-dangerous way, and then eventually squeezes out a winner who played his or her cards right when the white flag waved.

That's the way it's been for over 25 years in the sport, ever since Bobby Allison blew a tire and spiraled into the catch fence at Talladega. Petrified NASCAR officials, aware of the consequences of the catch fence instead failing when Allison hit it (it didn't), mandated the cars be slowed down by the summer's next race at Daytona.

Originally, officials used smaller carburetors to keep speeds down. In 1988, that changed to the current engine configuration with the implementation of the device now known as the restrictor plate. A restrictor plate fits in a standard NASCAR carburetor and prevents optimal air flow to the engine's combustion process, thus reducing the power of the engine.

There have been various modifications to the engine package in the years since, but the basic premise has remained the same. It creates a situation where the engine's performance is substantially less than the car's ability, keeping drivers sucked together because aerodynamics in the draft are the only recourse to improve overall performance.

So instead of NASCAR worrying exclusively about a car getting into the catch fence and spewing metal pieces at fans like Allison's car did, they get to worry about drivers piling into each other up to 30 at a time. Those drivers take vicious hits and often have no power over being swept into a wreck or not. 

Oh, and their cars are still getting airborne and crashing into the catch fence. You'll remember that more than 30 people went to the hospital in February when a Nationwide Series car did just that at Daytona.

NASCAR made the changes initially because they believed cars would be less likely to get airborne if they were under 200 mph, or just 10-12 mph slower than Allison's speed at the time of his 1988 crash. Hardly a year goes by now without a car getting upside down. Kurt Busch, after getting knocked in his right-rear Sunday, was the latest to roll over during a wild, late-race melee.

Crashes like that have become the norm, not the exception.

There's little doubt that NASCAR has little interest in fixing such incidents for good. Talladega and Daytona are basically the sport's X-Games, where fans tune in for the close racing that deletes most of a driver's skill and typically creates the flipping and flaming multi-car crashes that fill up every highlight reel. A few drivers, like Ryan Newman on Sunday, occasionally speak to the ills of the racing style knowing that it, undoubtedly, will fall on deaf ears.

Just like its hard work in developing new race car generations (three so far since Allison's 1987 crash), NASCAR could solve the restrictor plate problem if it really wanted. On the car, NASCAR could add more engine power while reducing total downforce to make cornering tougher. Tires could be modified to provide less grip. Those modifications would put the feel of the car back in the drivers' hands, slow them down and break up the chess of multi-car packs.

For fans, they could (and should, regardless) move them both farther back and higher away from the racing surface. A replacement of the chain-link metal fencing system could prevent cars shredding if they still went airborne and better protect from flying debris.

It wouldn't be an engineering marvel to make NASCAR racing more about the driver and less about the equalized rules package. But it would take NASCAR pivoting from a form of racing that many fans—and casual fans, perhaps most importantly—find exhilarating to watch.

For now, NASCAR doesn't give the impression that that's a step it wants to take. That's unfortunate because races like Sunday aren't a display of driver skill and have the feeling of being just one step from disaster.

Hopefully, we don't have to get there.


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