I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a warm welcome as well to you, our assigned reader of all things NASCAR. Can anyone guess what our topic will be today? The reactions from the final-lap crash last Sunday night… almost Monday morning, are boggling my mind. I can’t begin to tell you how many folks have wanted up-front and immediate reactions from this old lady, as if they felt I held some sort of magic key to how to fix it. For starters, probably not, but I do have what I do best, a few facts that might make things clearer in many minds. I surely hope so and at least I’m going to try.
Let’s start at the most logical place, the beginning, and have a look or three at last week’s Cup race at Daytona. The very first thing that needs to be done is to offer a warm welcome and sincere congratulations for a job well done, to the entire NBC on-air crew. Rick Allen, Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton, Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett… you all did a marvelous and commendable job of professionally handling four extra hours of air time on your first trip out. No one not knowing would ever have guessed that Sunday night was your maiden voyage, as you carried it off like a crew of old sailors doing it for the hundredth time. Thank you so much!
A myriad of questions have been asked about the time at which the race started and ended. Did I like it? Not especially, as I never saw any racing that evening; just heard a lot of talking. However, I’ll tell you all from long experience that had they decided at 11:00 to postpone the race until Monday because of the late hour, there would have been just as many complaints, just from different folks… and probably from some of the same folks. OK that takes care of when the race was run, though I doubt that answer made anyone happier. It’s that old chestnut about how you can please some of the people some of the time, but you’ll never please all of the people, all of the time… or something like that.
Ah, where to start; where to start? From all of the mail, tweets, messages and questions I’ve received since awakening on Monday morning, I know what you all want to discuss, and so does every other motorsports journalist on the planet. That’s always the sort of discussion from which I shy, feeling that with so many talking about the same thing, no one is really listening anyway… but talk about it we shall.
I do regret that after watching hours of prerace, my age and need for a pillow caught up with me and deferred my viewing of the race itself until Monday afternoon. It was either that or wake up with “keyboard face” from having it mashed down onto my laptop where I would have fallen asleep Sunday night. Before retiring, I asked my pal Vivian, a west coaster, to leave a note for me when the race was over, which she did. Therefore, I was aware of the Austin Dillon wreck and knew that both he and the fans were for the most part OK before I even began to read about it… and read about it… and read about it.
Please keep in mind that this journalist/race fan is no fan of restrictor plate racing. Put quite simply, I hate it. So does most every driver out there on the track, but NASCAR puts four plate races per year on the schedule and tells them, race or miss the Chase… unless we decide otherwise… but today is not about the Chase, so we’ll bypass that snide remark.
1. It was a restrictor plate race.
2. A car became airborne; cars have no wings and should not attempt flight.
3. The car went up and into the catch fence.
4. Fans in the stands were injured; fortunately none of them seriously, at least until it goes to court. The law firm of Morgan and Morgan has already been retained by two of those treated and released at the track.
Alright gentle readers, let’s take #2 first. We all know it was a restrictor plate race, but I’d like to examine the phenomenon of cars in flight. Most folks, and that seems to include Brian Z. France as well, feel that cars fly because of restrictor plate racing. Those folks, including you Brian, are wrong. Somewhere along the line, the two have become intermingled, but they are separate problems and need to be seen as such.
The following is a small excerpt from an article I wrote before coming to Race Fans Forever, delineating the “generations” of cars in NASCAR racing, because they wanted it seen that way. These were the first four generations that preceded the COT and the Gen-6 Aero-push Queens we see on track at present.
Gen-1... The "Strictly Stock cars back in the beginning. Cars of the 1950s, with drivers such as Lee Petty, Herb Thomas, Red Byron and a host of others. Cars included many makes and models no longer available today... Hudson, Mercury, and Oldsmobile. Chrysler was there as well.
Gen-2... Moving to the mid-1960s and into the 1970s, these were the big cars, with the big engines, most notably the Hemis. These are the boats we old-school fans love to remember. This was when the car-makers first began to pay attention to aerodynamics, but had a long way to go. Drivers of this era included Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough, again with many, many more.
Gen-3... These were the smaller wheel-based cars of the 1980s... the ones that in the beginning proved over and over that they could fly. Not a good thing, to be sure. Behind their steering wheels were drivers named Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace and the rest of their competition.
Gen-4... These would be the yet smaller cars of the 1990s, which had by then lost much of their stock appearance and were decidedly race cars, not the cars in our driveways. This was the Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett era, though overlapped by drivers from the earlier decade like Earnhardt and Wallace along with newcomers with names like Kenseth, Johnson and Newman.
Did we all get a good look at #3? That gentle readers, is when the cars seemed to develop a propensity for taking off on their own and performing aerobatics of all sorts. A couple of important things can be noted; the cars were markedly smaller than their immediate predecessors and they performed on a shorter wheelbase, which by itself would lessen stability to a point. They were shorter in length, shorter in width and shorter in height. As a result, if drivers could keep them on the ground, they were also faster than those tanks of the 1970s, even though their engines were much smaller and less powerful. Aerodynamics had at last proved itself and NASCAR was listening. Though the changes were due mostly to the gas shortages of the mid-1970s and the public demand for smaller cars with better gas mileage, the result was faster cars with little stability.
Please folks… I’m not saying that before 1981, racecars did not wreck. They did, and many ranged from horrific to fatal… but they did it, for the most part, on the asphalt, not in the air. So, we had cars flying from 1981 until today. They did work on those Gen-3 cars and get them to behave better, because in those days a crew chief could still make adjustments to the aerodynamics of the car and knew how to adjust body and weight to compensate and pin them down to the asphalt. Today, any such adjustment, no matter how correct or reasonable, will draw a P-5 or P-6 penalty, and those are the biggies, reserved for when you’ve been really, really naughty.
By 1987, when Bobby Allison started all the trouble by flying into a catch fence at Talladega and spewing Buick parts throughout the grandstand, pretty much the only places where cars were still flying were at the giant tracks of Daytona and Talladega. NASCAR answered rather quickly and severely by mandating that all cars racing at those tracks use a restrictor plate between carburetor and manifold, controlling and choking down gas flow. It worked, in the sense that the cars were slowed, but crew chiefs soon took care of that and the cars regained their former speed and more… but the restrictor plate stayed and remains today. In essence, it fixed nothing, and certainly not the problem for which it was used in the first place.
We’re still at a point where cars generally only fly at Daytona and Talladega, but seeing the speeds being reached at tracks such as Michigan, Atlanta, Texas and others, it won’t be long before NASCAR “thinks” it can use the plates to “fix” the problem there as well. And so we go… around in circles…
In one sense, those plates are a curse that is not limited to spooky old Talladega, and that is what we now know as “pack racing.” For my younger readers, racing at the big tracks wasn’t always like it is today. Pack racing… 4-wide and 10-deep… is a creation of the restrictor plates. In every race run anywhere, there are fast cars and there are slower cars. Haves and have-nots, shall we say? It used to be that the fast cars could pull away from the slower ones and race between themselves, and that, my Darlings, was a much safer way to race. What we see today isn’t racing; it’s a struggle for survival, and one day will again take its toll. What else could one expect when the speeds are too high and the cars are artificially held too close?
Already I’ve heard many folks describe this as a cheap shot or a cop-out, but I fail to see it that way, and since so many have asked, I will answer and devil take the rest of you. From what I’ve seen, the SAFER barrier did its job, the catch fence put the car back on the asphalt with only very small parts making it through to the grandstand and the car, with carbon molded seats, 7-pt. harness and HANS device kept its precious cargo, the driver wrapped in its inner cocoon and safe from harm. Every safety feature in place functioned as it was supposed to do and Austin Dillon is alive and will race again in a few days at Kentucky.
However… with that said, Houston, we have a problem, and it’s one of major proportion! Fans were injured in this wreck, and that has to be someone’s… everyone’s first priority. This is a still photo, one of a series to be found on FoxSports.com. I’m sure it is from the same video we’ve all seen many times, but they have frozen it in a series that you can access by pressing “auto-play”, then stop and start as you so desire.
Have I lost my senses? Were we not told that moving fans back away from fences was part of the $400 Million “Daytona Rising” project? Call me crazy but I am as sure as I am old that I’ve read that Daytona limited ticket sales this year, as a large portion of the grandstands were not ready for fannies, and only those that had been completed were in use. Charlotte again becomes my shining star. They have seriously moved back their grandstands and the lowest seats on their frontstretch are some 30’ above the ground, with no access to the space below, behind the fence and catch fence. The seating in this picture is what I would describe as “trackside.”
Regretfully, I have no clue as how one builds a better catch fence, or even a better mouse trap for that matter, but I can see vast gains on the situation by moving those seats away from the track… and UP from the track. When all else fails, let common sense rule!
One more important point and I’ll turn this over to you gentle readers, for your thoughts and comments. That point is this. NASCAR is very proud of saying that because of all their safety initiatives, no one has died in one of their races since Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, February 18, 2001. I won’t even delve today into how many errors lurk in that one simple sentence, but they are correct in saying no NASCAR driver has died in that time. There was however, a very sad and tragic loss 4 years ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon’s car went airborne and into a catch fence there. If you look at the Wheldon crash, which I won’t show here because it was fatal and I don’t deal in death willingly, it will look eerily similar to what we saw at Daytona on Sunday night.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, that car was running on a track where our big ol’ tanks have no problem other than passing, we see that some things about the IndyCar were and still are different from ours.
1. 1. They are much lighter
2. 2. They have excellent aerodynamics
3. 3. They are much faster
Our cars are still heavy, but in the past couple of years, NASCAR has taken down the minimum weight from 3400 lbs. to I believe 3250 lbs., including the driver’s weight. I’d say we’re headed in the wrong direction there. I and a few hundred others have been fighting the battle against perfect aerodynamics for decades. NASCAR does not listen because they do not want to hear. As I type this on Wednesday, the cars are at Kentucky, practicing with a new race package, designed to lessen downforce and whatever else NASCAR thinks will come from it. That remains to be seen, but let’s look for a moment at that third point.
Speed! We’ve all heard from early childhood the phrase, “Speed Kills!” We probably hear it most from our own local law enforcement, advising us to watch our speedometers and above all, “Be careful out there.” Well, in this instance, they are right. Looking back over all we’ve covered, our cars today do not fly on the short tracks or the one-mile flat tracks. They only fly on the giant tracks… so far… but are at the edge of control at several others. So… instead of putting the driver in full control, let’s cut back on downforce and shorten the spoiler on a car that’s dangerously close to taking flight. NASCAR reasoning… the oxymoron of the day. Meanwhile, we hear from the nekkid emperor that “NASCAR will study the situation.” Twenty eight years Brian! That’s how long NASCAR has been studying the situation. The cars still fly and the plates don’t work! How difficult is that to grasp?
Here’s a little bit of Mama reasoning. We know that the big boxy cars of the 1970s did not fly, even with those huge engines to power them. They were anything but aerodynamic, though they were beautiful… most of them. The point here is that they needed no restrictor plates, though Big Bill did try those as an equalizer early in the decade when cars were running different engines and he wanted to give the smaller engines a break. He gave up on the plates because they didn’t work well then either. Surely the blueprints for those bodies still exist somewhere, or we could come very close… much closer than our cars today come to “stock.” That word has become a joke in itself.
Put ‘em out there and let ‘em race at Daytona and Talladega in those cars and they will not fly. They also won’t go 200 MPH and won’t need to be restricted. That simple fix would put the race back in racing and promote safety for the fans. What do you think the chances are of NASCAR ever doing something even close to that? Yep, about the same as that proverbial snowball. The only question I would ask then of Brian Z. France would be “Why?” Or more to the point, “Why not?”
What a pity that common sense is not as common as it used to be!
Time now for our Classic Country Closeout and today I’m going to sentence you to some “attitude music”, but don’t worry, they’re all great songs by great artists. Everybody gets in a “mood” at times, and today is my day.
Here’s a real oldie by Hank Williams, the original, to get us started. This one is called, “You’re Just in Time to Be Too Late.”
Now here’s one from my favorite female singer, Jean Shepard. This was one of her really big hits back in the “day.” (That day would be the 1950s) This one is entitled “Act Like a Married Man.”
Now here’s one from the Singing Ranger, Hank Snow, doing this song as only he could. “It Don’t Hurt Anymore.”
Next in queue is one from the Wondering Boy, Webb Pierce. This was one of his biggest hits, and it’s called, “More and More.”
Just one more, for good luck. This one is by Tanya Tucker, who makes her message ever so clear when she sings, “I Don’t Believe My Heart Can Stand Another You.”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!