Permanently Temporary

Standing in line today for my Powerball tickets (or as I like to refer to them my 401K plan) I grabbed a roll of antacids. I don’t have a bum gut or anything. I only need antacids four weekends a year and those weekends just happen to coincide with Winston Cup race weekends at Daytona and Talladega, the plate tracks.

Ever since 1988 NASCAR has mandated those cursed pileup plates which were originally a temporary measure, an attempt to achieve the laudable goal of keeping race cars out of the grandstands at NASCAR’s two fastest tracks. Well I guess is NASCAR can “modernize tradition” they can “permanize temporaryness”. Never mind the fact that the plates don’t work. Neil Bonnett’s Chevy came as close to flying into the grandstands at ‘Dega back in July of ’93 as Allison’s Buick had in ’88 and that Chevy had a plate properly installed under the hood. The plates do indeed keep the cars under 200 MPH as advertised and since an 8th grade machine shop student could whip up 43 of the things for chump change in an afternoon they don’t cost NASCAR much. It’s the team owners that have paid the huge bills after their cars are destroyed in the Tyrannosaurus Wrecks at the plate tracks. My guess is by now over $100,000,000 dollars in damage to race cars and complete write-offs has occurred since the plates were mandated at these two tracks in 1988. And that doesn’t count the human cost which we all learned back on 02/18/01 can be staggering.

So what’s the solution. Many have been proposed over the years though none have been implemented. Here’s a review of some of the ideas to stop the madness.

Fix The Tracks- This seems the most obvious solution. Simply lowering the banking at Daytona and Talladega would lower the speeds, force drivers to use the brakes entering the corners, and eliminate the need for the plates. If Bruton Smith owned these two tracks NASCAR would have demanded the tracks be fixed back in 1989. But Daytona and Talladega are owned by the International Speedway Corporation, which is to say the France family. They are too busy sweating how to maximize profits on bottled water sold by their Ameri-crown subsidiary during race weekends to pay attention to mundane details like a race track. To expect these folks to surrender a dime in profit is unrealistic so lets move on.

Mandate minimum rear gear- This is a little tricky for folks who aren’t into cars to understand. Lower rear gear ratios (which are numerically higher) increase acceleration but limit top speed. If you’ve ever tried driving a street car with 4.88s out back on the highway you’re painfully aware of this concept. For those not into hot rods imagine your ten speed bike. In first gear you can pedal easily but even if you work your self into a lather pedaling as hard as you can you won’t be going very fast. On the other hand if you’re pedaling at the same rate in tenth gear you’re hauling the mail but expending considerably more effort. Assuming a 1:1 ratio top gear in a Winston Cup car’s transmission deep gears out back are going limit top end speed. The OHV no roller cam engines Winston Cup teams use can only be revved so high, particularly with the minimum weight rules for the reciprocating assembly. Again trying to keep this comprehensible for those of you who keep your “toolkit” in a kitchen drawer if you spin the engines used in NASCAR racing too fast (which is why that tachometer in your car has a redline) it will blow up. Trust me. So given a spec tire of a certain circumference, a 1:1 top gear, etc. its merely a matter of doing the math to calculate what rear gear ratio is necessary to have one of those race cars running at 180 MPH with the engine turning 9000 RPM. The drivers would be able to turn the engine a little higher than that for brief periods to make a pass, but if he did so too often the engine would fail. One possible problem with this idea is as you install steeper rear end gears, heat increases in the rear end, which can cause failure. An alternative on the plate tracks might be to mandate a .7:1 top gear in the transmission as well as a minimum rear gear ratio to improve longevity.

Crate Engines- Developing an engine for a rear gear limited car as proposed above could get quite expensive as teams searched for ways to be able to run their engines at increased RPM for longer periods. One solution would be a rev-limiting chip handed out by NASCAR to put an absolute limit on top speed. A less costly solution would be to mandate a manufacturer specific crate engine. GM Goodwrench Performance Parts sells the ZZ4 350-345 horse crate engine for around $3500 and its all the rage with hot rodders right now. A fuel injected variant of that engine is used in the ASA series and is still moderately priced compared to a competitive Winston Cup engine, especially a plate engine. Ford offers similar crate fuel injected engines. I’m not aware of such an engine offered by Chrysler, but since their Mercedes overlords were messing with fuel injection back when Detroit was still throwing three two barrel carbs on street engines my guess is they could develop a competitive engine very quickly. But this isn’t a game of one-upmanship. All three manufacturers would submit a dry sump, fuel injected, 350-360 cubic inch engine with aluminum heads, hydraulic lifters, etc rated at or around 400 horsepower at 6000 RPM. Those engines would be “sealed” as in the teams wouldn’t even be allowed to open them up and blueprint them looking for more power. Further NASCAR would hand out chips for the ECM just as they hand out plates. If a team was caught messing with that chip, trying to bypass it, or otherwise altering the engine they’d be suspended for the rest of the season. No questions asked. Let the teams know right up front that’s the deal. Such an engine would be relatively inexpensive for the teams to purchase for the four races a year in question. The reduced horsepower would limit speeds. The modern technology could NASCAR ready for a day down the road they have to adopt such technologies to remain relevant. And the racing program would have a direct and positive effect on the price, reliability and performance of crate engines hot rod consumers use in their street rods and street machines. Imagine that? A factory race program with ties to hot rods. It would be almost like stock car racing.

Add a Chicane- This solution wouldn’t be popular with the fans but it would be temporary. (Yikes, there’s that word again.) Rather than running the full oval at Daytona and Talladega a chicane would be installed towards the end of the back straight. Drivers would be forced to break, turn onto the chicane, take a right hand turn and return to the track towards the middle of turns three and four. Naturally this would greatly reduce speed without the need for plates. The braking zone entering into the chicane would offer a prime passing point and crew chiefs would have a devil of a time setting those cars up for the uncustomary right hand turn separating the men from the boys.

Trucks- The Craftsman Truck series runs races at Daytona and they don’t need restrictor plates because the trucks are so aerodynamically inefficient. So, some have proposed, for the four plate races a year, have the Winston Cup teams run Craftsman trucks. Obviously this is a radical solution, but it’s not all that far out. Building a truck to run those four races would be no more expensive than building plate track only cars. Some scoff at the idea of racing pickups, but Chevrolet builds an SS Silverado, Dodge is about to release a V10 Viper engined Ram shortbed pick up (my requests for a long term test unit to share my impressions of that truck with you my readers have gone to date unanswered) and Ford is ready to counter the Dodge Super-truck with a 500 horsepower Lightning based on the new three valves per cylinder head 5.4 liter engine available in the new F150.
Performance trucks sell. Sales of trucks are what keeps the big three afloat right now. The sticking point here is the Pontiac teams. Pontiac doesn’t make trucks. (Or money one might assume.) Put every GMC dealership I am aware of also sells Pontiacs so those teams can run GMC’s. A GMC is just a Chevy truck assembled with lockwashers anyway. The biggest problem is once fans got a look at drivers drafting and able to slingshot pass one another like in the old days at Daytona and Talladega they’d probably rise up and riot to protest the plate era.

Will any of the above work? Will it come down to the Cup teams running trucks equipped with crate engines and minimum rear gears at Daytona? It doesn’t matter to me as long as the plates are forever consigned to the NASCAR Hall of Shame. The late Dale Earnhardt proposed the simplest solution to the problem. Dale was the master of plate track racing but in a sad irony died during a plate track race. Dale was always adamant that plate racing wasn’t “real” racing and he hated it even though he was successful at it. His solution was simple. “Rope off the first twenty rows of seats, get rid of the plates and let us race.”

Until that point when the cars start piling up in another pig pile of a wreck that enshrouds the straightaway in tire smoke with blooms of flame within the cloud, I’ll be chewing on my antacids and shaking my head. It sure ain’t real racing right now.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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