Monday, October 8, 2012

Preventing the "Big One"

My youngest daughter was sick this weekend so there we sat in the living room yesterday watching the tube. We alternated who got to watch what. She'd watch one of her shows on Nick Jr. and then I'd watch thirty minutes of the NASCAR race from Talladega.

As the race drew to a close the leader spun out and the yellow flag came out. There was going to be a frantic pack finish at NASCAR's longest and fastest track. Sure enough, the cars all moved in one giant amoeba-like mass as the next-to-last lap began. Due to safety concerns (allegedly), NASCAR mandates the use of restrictor plates which reduce the amount of air flowing into the engines. This keeps everyone at roughly the same horsepower and ensures that cars will run in a pack since a car running by itself is a sitting duck due to the aerodynamics of running nose-to-tail.

As the cars came through turn three on the final lap they started to jockey for position for the dash to the finish. Tony Stewart was on the bottom and in the lead. Matt Kenseth was running high and was in second. Then Stewart went low to try to block a driver and that's when all hell broke loose. As Matt Kenseth drove through turn four a massive 25 car wreck took out more than half the field less than a mile from the finish line.

NASCAR claims it restricts the speed of the cars to promote safety at a track where cars once reached speeds in excess of 210 mph. But the real effect of the restrictor plates is to create massive wrecks like the one that happened yesterday. TV audiences want wrecks and NASCAR delivers. It's a miracle that no one has died on the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway.

If NASCAR is really concerned about safety it's time to do away with the restrictor plates. If NASCAR is really concerned about safety, it's time to keep the cars from running in massive packs where one little wiggle can cause "the big one."

If NASCAR really wanted to make Talladega (and Daytona) safer they would reduce the size of the engines from 357 cubic inches (5.7 L) to 302 cubic inches (5.0 L). Next they would reduced the compression ratios in the engines. Reducing the engine size would reduce the horsepower which would reduce the speed. Lowering the compression ratios would also reduce the horsepower and speed of the cars. More importantly, however, is that these changes would affect the cars differently. Instead of everyone having a car with the same maximum horsepower, these changes would reward those teams who can find ways to go faster.

The end result would be no more pack racing. The racing at the track would be closer to what you see at other large racetracks. With more space between the cars there would be less chance of 15- and 20-car pileups.

Of course NASCAR won't do anything unless they are forced to do it. It will be up to the drivers to get together and make a stand. If anything is going to happen, it will happen because the drivers tell NASCAR that they won't race at Talladega until something is done to make it safer. Back when the track first opened in the 60's, the drivers went on strike and refused to race because they didn't feel it was safe. NASCAR sent in a bunch of replacement drivers and that quelled any dissent from the drivers. That ended dissent in the ranks.

With drivers today adorned in corporate logos from head-to-toe it's doubtful that anyone would be willing to stand up and make a stink. But, unless someone has the courage to speak their mind nothing will change.

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