Rolling Dem Laughing Bones

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Later this week my buddies and I are heading for the Fall Carlisle automotive swap meet to check out old cars and young women. It’ll be good for me too, because ever since the checkered flag fell at Kansas, I’ve been a nervous wreck with an upset stomach and a decidedly gloomy attitude. Yep, this weekend the Winston Cup circuit returns to Talladega, yet again. And yet again the ISC hasn’t fixed their race track and NASCAR hasn’t found a way to ditch those damned pile up plates.

Thankfully there’s no Busch series race Saturday at Talladega. Those of you who saw the spring Talladega Busch race might recall an early accident eliminated or sidelined most of the field. Through the grace of God no one was badly hurt despite several cars flipping, though Jay Sauter would later have to sit out a race because of lingering effects from a head injury he suffered that day. You might also recall the following day’s Winston Cup event looked like it might be one of those rare plate races without “the Big One”® (A legally licensed trademark of NASCAR, no doubt, since they use those wrecks to sell tickets). The drivers made it all the way to lap 164 before Tony Stewart and Mike Wallace collided triggering the typical 24 car pig-pile. Conservatively speaking somewhere around two million dollars worth of damage was done to race cars counting wind tunnel time in a race that paid roughly $185,000 to win.

You might also recall that on the white flag lap of this race last year there was another huge wreck that sent Bobby Labonte up and over. Afterwards the normally taciturn Labonte let NASCAR have it with both barrels, mincing no words, saying the madness had to be stopped. Even NASCAR’s Jim Hunter seemed to agree. As I recall after that race he said "So far, we have not been able to come up with a solution, but we're going to figure this out, and we'll figure it out before Daytona next year I can assure you we will figure this out so that we're not faced with this type racing in Daytona." Well, um, thanks for saying so anyway. I seem to recall a Big One on lap 149 of this year’s 500.

Truthfully I doubt I’d even be able to watch restrictor plate races anymore were it not for the mandate that now requires a head restraint device in NASCAR racing. My guess is history will show those devices to be the most important safety advance in our sport since the fuel cell back in 1965. And to give credit where credit is due, the SAFER energy absorbing (not soft) wall will be in place at least on the inner walls at Talladega this weekend. That could spare somebody’s life. Why not the outside walls too? Because of the wall’s developer says he hasn’t found a way to make the system work on a high banked track like Talladega. He says he’s working on it though. Work real hard dude. Send me the invoice for all the midnight oil you need to burn. Seems to me I recall watching a black car with the number 3 on the side of it hitting the outside wall on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 ending an era in our sport. Had an energy-absorbing wall been in place might Earnhardt have been spared? Sadly we’ll never know.

But another change that NASCAR is making for this weekend’s event makes no sense to me. The cars will be required to run half-sized (13 gallon to be exact) fuel cells so they’ll have to pit more often. The stated logic behind the concept is the cars having to pit more often will break up the huge packs of cars on the track. To borrow a phrase from my nephew, “No way, dude!” Cars will still pit in big packs to ensure drafting partners as without them they can’t compete in a plate race. What’s more at Talladega and Daytona the teams run severely undersized brakes (less mass to accelerate and until it all goes bad the drivers don’t use brakes during a lap at Talladega.) So now these cars are going to come screaming into the pits slowing from a speed in the 190 MPH range to the pit road speed limit twice as often with dinky little brakes that look like they belong on a Hyundai diesel minivan? I hope those guys in the first few pit stalls keep their wits about them all day and never turn their back to the pit road entrance. While we’re at it, why are those undersized brakes allowed? Can’t a minimum rotor size and pad surface area be mandated? It would seem when things do go wrong, a fully effective set of brakes capable of slowing a 3600 pound car from dizzying speeds with some authority would come in handy. Like when you’re heading head on at the outside wall on the last lap of the Daytona 500 for instance.

Adding to the merriment is the fact the fuel tanks the gasman will be using to fill the cars will hold significantly more fuel than will be required for a full fuel load stop. That increases the likelihood of fuel spilling in the pit box and igniting. There’s nothing like a good fire on pit road to liven up a race, huh? Thank goodness NASCAR requires anyone going over the wall to wear a firesuit. Oh, wait a second, that’s right, they don’t. Never mind. I think they’re studying a rule that will forbid crew guys to smoke cigarettes during a stop but they’re afraid Winston would object.

The stated logic is so transparent one has to wonder whether NASCAR has just resigned itself to the inevitably of huge multi-car wrecks during every plate race and the real thinking is by lessening the amount of fuel on board the cars there’s less likelihood of fire during a wreck. The last plate race at Daytona featured Brett Bodine’s Ford burning to the ground, you’ll recall, with nary a piece of fire equipment in sight. And that was while Dale Jarrett was walking back to the pits because no ambulance was available. Hmm. I guess NASCAR doesn’t believe there’s always going to be big wrecks at the plate tracks judging by the lack of emergency equipment and personnel sufficient to handle such an incident.

The padded inner-wall is a nice start, but the last three racers killed at plate tracks all hit the outside wall. And even once that outside wall is padded there’s still those frightening wrecks where one car gets sideways across the track and another driver drills him directly into the side of the car. Remember Earnhardt’s wild ride at Talladega in 1997 when Kenny Schrader hit him in the roof?

After this weekend NASCAR will have run 62 plate races since the restrictor plates were introduced as a temporary measure to slow the speeds at Daytona and Talladega in the aftermath of Bobby Allison’s terrifying crash at Talladega in May of 1987. Allison’s car had almost landed in the grandstands. Are the plates effective? Neil Bonnett’s car almost wound up in the grandstands at Talladega with a restrictor plate installed in July of 1993. Jimmy Horton’s car flew out of the track and landed in the parking lot also carrying a restrictor plate during that same race. Stanley Smith suffered critical head injuries which have ended his Winston Cup career during the same wreck, though his car was also equipped with a restrictor plate. That race led Jack Roush to develop the air flaps in the roof. But Tony Stewart almost ended up in the grandstands at Daytona despite the roof flaps. And one has to wonder if NASCAR retired the restrictor plate that had been on Earnhardt’s car that fatal day in February or whether it’s still in the deck and will be handed out to some lucky team this weekend. (NASCAR issues the plates prior to practice and collects them after the race.)

So what’s the solution? If I had a dime for every time I’ve said the banking needs to be lowered at Daytona and Talladega, I’d fund the conversion myself. Others have proposed various theories to dirty up the aerodynamics of the cars, mandate a minimum gear ratio, use smaller engines etc. What is the solution to this problem? It ain’t restrictor plates and you’d think after the carnage, chaos, catastrophes and casualties of the last fourteen years even NASCAR would have figured that much out. But I’m guessing it’s a lot safer to watch those races from the control tower than it from the driver’s seat. Wednesday I leave for Carlisle. I’ll drop my black suit off at the dry cleaners along the way.

Editor’s Note: Before anyone jumps on me for the title, “Roll them laughing bones” is slang for a player to shoot the dice (bones) in a game of craps. See “Candyman” by the Grateful Dead for proper usage.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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