Why NASCAR Should Keep Restrictor Plates Intact at Talladega, Daytona

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2014

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When several NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers eclipsed 200 mph during Friday's early practice session and then again during Saturday's qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway, it got folks talking.

And, of course, the topic was one that has been argued now for more than a quarter-century: Why can't NASCAR remove restrictor plates from Cup cars at Talladega and Daytona?

Ironically enough, just a few hours before Martin Truex Jr. (200.721 mph), Justin Allgaier (200.666), 2013 'Dega spring race winner David Ragan (200.599), Marcos Ambrose (200.540) and super rookie Kyle Larson (200.372) all exceeded 200 mph, a major news story broke 500 miles away in Daytona Beach.

The International Speedway Corporation, parent company of NASCAR, had reached an undisclosed (but likely very large) monetary settlement with nine victims that had been injured from flying debris—including a tire—following a horrific crash in the Feb. 23, 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series at Daytona International Speedway.

A total of 28 people were injured in the aftermath when a multi-car wreck all but obliterated Kyle Larson's car, sending hundreds of parts and other debris flying over a catch fence that was supposed to protect fans in the stands.

It could have been worse: The actual motor in Larson's car wound up almost going completely through a crossover gate in the catch fencing before it thankfully was stopped from causing further carnage and potential death.

No matter how much NASCAR fans want to see the fastest speeds possible, no matter how much they want "pure" racing unadulterated by horsepower- and speed-robbing restrictor plates, haven't those same fans realized that NASCAR has kept plates on cars at 'Dega and Daytona for more than 25 years for a reason?

They ultimately save lives.

Think of when Carl Edwards' car almost went into the stands a few years ago at Talladega. While a few fans were injured from flying debris in that wreck as well, what if there had been no plates on the cars in that race and Edwards and the rest of the pack were running 10 or more mph faster at the time?

It's likely the devastation would have been significantly worse—if not outright deadly.

NASCAR officials realize the Catch 22 situation they're in. They want to appease the fans with the best and fastest show possible, but they also want to be prudent so that some of those same fans aren't seriously hurt or killed by the same product.

When it comes down to speed versus safety and physics, safety and physics are always going to win out—as they should.

Sure, there's a certain sense of hold-your-breath drama—both in the grandstands at the racetrack, as well as at home in front of TV sets—when large multi-car packs go flying around Talladega's 2.66-mile layout, particularly in the closing laps of a race.

In over two decades, fans have become so used to—I hesitate to use the word "conditioned"—huge wrecks, especially at Talladega. They wait for and expect the so-called "big one" multi-car crash, sometimes more than two or three in the same race.

But at the same time, there's also a sense of security and maybe even complacency that no matter how fast the cars are going, even if there is a wreck, they won't wind up in someone's lap in the grandstands.

And the reason is restrictor plates may allow cars to push the speed envelope, but don't let them push through that same envelope.

However, what happens if NASCAR suddenly decides to pull the restrictor plates off race cars and allows unhindered and unhampered true speed—arguably at least a 10 to 15 mph increase, if not more?

That's what NASCAR is afraid to find out, and rightly so. I'm not a physicist, but with every additional mile per hour gained by removing a restrictor plate, I'd venture to guess the risk factor probably goes up at least 10 percent per each mph gained.

If 10 mph more enhances the risk factor by 100 percent, is it really worth it if it puts fans—let alone drivers—at greater risk of something terrible happening?

When it comes to restrictor plates, NASCAR has adhered to the same policy for over 25 years: When in doubt, don't. That kind of philosophy has worked near-flawlessly at Daytona and Talladega, and there's no reason that it should cease to exist just because some people want to see what the cars will do without restrictor plates and potentially at unlimited speeds.

Are you willing to take that risk, knowing that it could be a family member or friend in the stands that ultimately pays the price just so a curiosity factor could be satisfied?

I know I wouldn't do it. And I'm glad NASCAR has resisted—and hopefully will continue to resist—efforts to "take the plates off and let 'em race" for many more years to come.

Otherwise, scenes like Feb. 23, 2013, as well as the end result of the legal process this past Friday, will become significantly commonplace. And that's something no one needs just for a few more mph.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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