Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On fixing the racing at Daytona and Talladega with a history lesson

It's now mid-week, four days since the checkered flag waved over the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Internet message boards are still buzzing with armchair analysis of "what went wrong" on Sunday and paid journalists and bloggers alike are offering up their opinions on how to fix the racing at Talladega.

One writer for a major national media outlet said NASCAR promoting 58 lead changes among 26 drivers is like a used car salesman spit-shining a jalopy. Others have said they would rather have watched traffic on the nearest interstate for a few hours. The fans on the message boards are wondering where the excitement went, since they have been lulled into thinking that every race at Talladega is going to feature 14 rows of three running inches away from each other for 188 laps.

Was there anything wrong with Sunday's race? Or are we in an era where our expectations outweigh reality?

Maybe the people writing about our sport need to have some historical perspective.

Not every race at Daytona or Talladega has featured the pack racing we've seen since many of them discovered the sport in the days following Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona in 2001. In fact, in the 1980s these events were usually run single file with several groups of cars spread out around the track running in drafting packs. According to many of our prominent journalists today, the 1983 Daytona 500 would have been a boring race. Never mind that Cale Yarbourough passed on the final lap for the win and there was a three-wide photo finish for second.

That's exactly the kind of racing we need to get back to now.

NASCAR has made today's cars and trucks so stable on the superspeedways that it's almost impossible to lose the draft. Huge spoilers and wings punch an artificially large hole in the air to ensure that everyone stays in one large group. Keeping your car handling well isn't an issue either because the setup you're running is mandated by NASCAR too - they give your your shocks and mandate the springs you run. Of course the horsepower is limited and no one has an advantage there. So it's no wonder everyone is running in one big group. It was only a matter of time until the drivers figured out that it makes sense to ride around patiently for 450 miles and then race hard for the final 50.

If NASCAR wants to truly fix the events at its biggest speedways, it needs to allow the teams to step outside of the box and run setups of their choosing. It needs to take all of the downforce out of the cars and allow the teams to lay their spoilers or wings as flat as their driver can bear it.

In 1984, Dale Earnhardt won at Talladega in a race that featured nearly 70 lead changes. The cars were boxy, the small spoilers on the back were laid nearly flat and the speeds were right at 200 miles per hour. The drivers could slingshot past one another because they didn't have to run flat-out to stay in the draft - they had some throttle in reserve. The driver running in second could get a run on the leader, put the pedal to the metal and go blasting past to take the lead. But that then put him in position to be a sitting duck because the guy now running in second could do the same thing.

NASCAR replicated this style of racing when the Truck Series raced at Daytona for the first time in 2000. The slingshot was back and the race was spectacular. But the Geoff Bodine flip - not caused by aerodynamics, by the way - put a damper on that real quick. When the series returned the next year NASCAR started tinkering with the rules for that series and eventually made the racing identical to what we see in the Cup Series.

What you didn't want to do back then - at all - was touch anyone else. The cars were loose. Very loose. Even down the straightaways they were on the edge of control. Drivers would routinely lose control by themselves at Daytona and Talladega, something that hasn't happened in nearly a decade since NASCAR mandated huge spoilers standing up nearly vertically to plant the back of the cars to the track.

Was it boring watching six cars run together a third of a lap ahead of the next pack of ten cars? No way. Why? Because at any instant, someone could slingshot and they often did. Or, someone could lose it. And they often did. It was unpredictable. And it was being done in cars that looked exactly like you would find in your driveway.

NASCAR's current philosophy that racecars should all look alike and be the same under their skin goes against everything that the sanctioning body stood for during it's first 50 years of existence. (It's also the cause for a large portion of the audience tuning out, but that's an entirely different subject.) You don't need 43 identical cars to put on a great show for the fans.

One only needs to look at the results from the very first restrictor plate race at Daytona in 1988.

Bobby Allison won by a car length in a Buick over his son Davey Allison in a Ford. Third was Phil Parsons in an Oldsmobile, Neil Bonnett was fourth in a Pontiac, and Terry Labonte was fifth in a Chevrolet. Five makes of cars running five distinctively different body styles - all of which looked identical to their street versions with the exception of air dams dropped from the front bumper and spoilers on the decklid - finishing in the top five in the biggest race of the year, all within a second of each other at the end. Imagine that!

Bobby Allison's race-winning Buick at the 1988 Daytona 500Second-place finisher in the 1988 Daytona 500 Davey Allison in his 1988 Ford Thunderbird at Riverside International Raceway

Third-place finisher in the 1988 Daytona 500 Phil Parsons enroute to victory at Talladega in his 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass

Neil Bonnett's 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix at Riverside

Terry Labonte's 1988 Chevrolet Monte Carlo at Riverside

Here's how to fix Daytona and Talladega (and much of the rest of the races on the schedule too):

- Get back to stock appearing bodies. The common body is a failure on the racetrack. The safety features of the CoT can stay, but put the chassis underneath bodies that match the Chevrolet Impala, Ford Fusion, Dodge Charger, and Toyota Camry that we can go and buy. Do what the teams in the 1980s did - add an air dam to the front and a spoiler to the back and go race. No widening the front fenders or twisting up the bodies to maximize aerodynamics in yaw. Downforce is the enemy of good racing.

- Develop smaller engines. Every manufacturer has come out with a brand new 358 cubic inch V-8 within the last four years, despite speeds getting out of control at many racetracks. Why not spend that money developing a smaller engine that would allow teams to run unrestricted at Daytona and Talladega at 180-190 miles per hour. Robert Yates has been a proponent of this since NASCAR announced restrictor plates were going to be used way back in 1988. How much money would it cost to develop a new engine? It's probably a lot, but it's probably a very small fraction of what the industry has spent researching, developing and building restrictor plate engines for four races a year. That's not to mention the cost of throwing away the hundreds (if not thousands) of destroyed racecars in the restrictor plate era.

- Allow the teams to lay the spoiler as flat as the driver's rear end can stand it.

- Allow the teams to run their own setup. Shocks, springs, spoiler angles, rear end gears, transmission ratios - everything.

You'd see single file racing, but it would be white-knuckle, all-out racing. When there was double-file racing (or even three-wide racing) it would mean something. It would be hair-raising. It would be exciting. It would be exactly what NASCAR's fans are begging for.

1 comment:

  1. They don't need restrictor plates or smaller engines to slow the cars down. Just make them run the same pump gas we can buy at gas stations.