By admin | July 7, 2013
By Richard Allen
The same questions seem to arise leading up to and after every race held at the Daytona International Speedway and the Talladega Super Speedway. Is restrictor plate racing too dangerous? And, do the restrictor plates provide real racing?
It sounds strange listening to pre-race talk leading up to events such as the Subway Firecracker 250 Nationwide Series race and the Coke Zero 400 Sprint Cup Series event held this past weekend in Daytona. Announcers and competitors alike speak of “when” the so-called “big one” will occur rather than “if” there will be a major accident at some point during the course of the race. It seems somewhat blasphemous to go into a race almost knowing that there will be a major wreck at speeds approaching 200mph.
So why does NASCAR sanction such a certain mangling of equipment?
The obvious answer is that restrictor plates, along with their crashes, provide tight competition. Packs, or lines, of 20 and 30 cars circulate around the massive tracks for virtually the entire race distance. These races, more than the ‘cookie cutter’ tracks, actually place cars in close proximity to each other and feature passing rather parading around with gaps of one or two seconds between each.
NASCAR is virtually assured of a finish in which several cars flash under the checkered flag within the blink of an eye. Even in a case like Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race where Jimmie Johnson had a dominate car, the finish was still in doubt right to the very end. One minor slip by the 48 car could have resulted in a change of position on the last lap. That is not often the case on the much criticized 1.5-2 mile tracks that make up such a big part of the schedule.
Such a ‘SportsCenter’ highlight finish is much coveted in today’s short attention span society. And although few in high positions would admit it, so are the big wrecks. Those incidents, replayed over and over again, garner even more attention for the sport among a younger audience that the sanctioning body very much wants to reach.
Of course, this leads to the second question often asked about plate racing. That is in regard to the less-than-genuine nature of the racing. Yes, the plates artificially keep the competition close. But there is likely not very much anguish in NASCAR’s Daytona Beach offices over that. This is something that concerns fans much more than it concerns the out of touch leadership of the sport.
Even the large empty spaces in the grandstands of the two tracks in question are apparently not a major worry for a sport that has become more and more TV dominated in recent years.
But there is obvious danger in pack racing and the impending ’Big One’. The finish of February’s Nationwide race in Daytona showed that when the car of Kyle Larson was thrown into the catch fence and literally cut in two. Pieces and parts from that car made it into the fan seating area and caused several injuries. NASCAR and the track were extremely lucky in that instance.
The Sprint Cup race last fall in Talladega also demonstrated the dangers of plate racing. On the last lap, cars were being bounced around like children’s toys, and in the end, the sport’s most recognizable star(Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) received a concussion that kept him out of the next two races.
NASCAR wants close racing. Restrictor plates provide that. NASCAR probably doesn’t mind a melee or two either. Restrictor plates provide that. But, NASCAR doesn’t want the possibility of lawsuits stemming from fans being injured and they don’t want their big stars injured. Restrictor plates also provide that.
Restrictor plates aren’t going anywhere. Bobby Allison’s now infamous crash in Talladega back in 1987 in which his car, without being hit by another, flew into the catch fence assured that. And to remove them would create bigger and faster versions of ‘cookie cutters’. That isn’t going to happen.
At the same time, Daytona and Talladega aren’t going off the schedule.
It is a conundrum for NASCAR, but one they appear to be willing to live with.
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