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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ditch the plates

There are some questions to which I can never seem to find an answer. What exactly is in McDonalds’ chicken McNuggets, how do so many 80s hair metal bands somehow still have enough fans to keep on touring, and, most importantly, how is it possible that NASCAR can not find any better way than restrictor plates to slow down their cars at Daytona and Talladega?

Talladega is upon us, and once again we will play the dangerous dance of waiting for “The Big One”. The plates came to be in the late 1980s, after Bobby Allison had a scary wreck at Talladega. He blew a tire and flew into the catch fence, injuring spectators. After the accident, NASCAR began to use restrictor plates, devices installed at the intake of an engine to limit its power, so cars can’t go as fast.

Don’t get me wrong: The idea behind plate use is good. During a 2004 test without the plate, Rusty Wallace got his car up to 228 mph at Talladega. That is too fast for race conditions, and I understand the cars need to be slowed down, for the safety of drivers and fans.

What I don’t get is why they have to slow the cars down with a device that makes all the cars bunch up, creating massive and potentially high-flying accident (see Tony Stewart in 2001), and make it impossible to pass anyone without a partner behind you.
Dale Earnhardt Sr., who was hugely successful getting to victory lane on the plate tracks during his career, couldn’t stand how the plates bunched up the cars and held back his ability to pass. In typical Earnhardt style, he once said that if drivers couldn‘t handle speeds of the cars without the plates, “they should go home and tie a kerosene-soaked rag around their ankles so that the ants don't crawl up and bite their candy asses.”
He came up in the 1970s era I can only see on Speed Channel reruns … when the competitors could actually race side-by-side at these two great speedways without a gaggle of cars involved. It’s pretty thrilling to watch that stuff, and you almost forget it’s a Daytona race.

My main question is this: With a garage full of hundreds of first-class mechanics who can squeeze every little inch of horsepower out of a racing machine, not one of them can come up with a way that would slow down the cars and make the racing safer without bunching up the field and creating a race where no driver can pull away from the pack. Call me crazy, but I don’t believe that. I can’t offer you a detailed solution, as I’m not a mechanic. But I do know that a company as rich as NASCAR can afford to hire the best people in the world to find that better way, but apparently doesn’t believe it’s that important of an issue.

TV broadcasters often make the whole thing worse, always saying things like, “Is the big one coming?” as if they want people to wreck, not just put on a good race. It’s pretty disgusting sometimes.
Dale Jr. seems to actually like plate racing, but other than him I think most drivers get a little queasy when they go to Daytona and Talladega. So do many fans, who wonder whether their driver will make it through the weekend without getting hurt.
The time has come to ditch the plates and slow the cars in another manner, but I know that’s about as likely as a John Andretti win, so I’m not holding my breath.


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