By admin | June 29, 2009
By Richard Allen
Cars racing in NASCAR go too fast.
I know it sounds a bit strange to say that race cars are going too fast. But just going fast is not all there is to racing. If that were so, qualifying is all that would ever be needed. Great racing comes from both speed and competition.
So, here’s a question. When sitting in the grandstand of your favorite track, can you tell the difference between a 31 second lap and a 32 second lap?
Without a stopwatch it’s not likely the difference in speed is noticeable. Fast is fast, whether it’s 175mph or 160mph. What is noticeable is the closeness, or lack of closeness, of the competition.
The closest racing on the NASCAR circuit occurs at two tracks, Daytona and Talladega. The reason for this is that the horsepower of the cars is reduced artificially by restrictor plates. These plates, as the name implies, restrict the air and fuel flow into the engine and thus rob the engine of its ability to make power.
Restrictor plates became necessary when in 1987 Bobby Allison’s car very nearly sailed into the grandstand at Talladega. Fearing the consequences of such a thing happening NASCAR began placing the plates on cars for all races at Daytona and Talladega.
Restrictor plates had also been used during the 1970s in the time of an engine downsize effort to encourage teams to use a smaller, unrestricted engine.
This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make its traditional mid-summer trip to Daytona Beach for the Coke Zero 400. As is always the case when a race is held on one the two high speed tracks, restrictor plates will be thoroughly discussed.
Restrictor plates could be done away with and racing could be improved on all tracks if engine displacements were reduced. And when I say reduced, I mean significantly reduced.
NASCAR had an opportunity to downsize engines when they introduced the Car of Tomorrow in 2007. Perhaps they thought it would be too much to change both the engine and the body at the same time. However, by waiting they have allowed each of the four manufacturers to submit new engine designs which cost millions of dollars in research. Now, the sanctioning body is stuck with an engine that produces far too much horsepower and very little competitive racing.
Restrictor plates in use at every track would reduce horsepower, but that is definitely not the answer. A good example of why not can be seen from an event held on the same track NASCAR just competed on, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
After the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, NASCAR feared the cars were carrying too much speed into the turns on that track. So, they mandated the use of plates for one race there in 2000. That race was one of the worst events every sanctioned by NASCAR. With no throttle response, the cars could not get the necessary jump off the turns and thus could not gain the needed momentum to pass. Jeff Burton led every single lap of that race.
With restrictor plates out of the question, the best alternative is to reduce the cubic inch displacement.
I am not a mechanical engineer so I am not going to throw out a number that the cubic inch displacement should be reduced to. However, it is widely speculated that the current 358ci creates approximately 800-850 horsepower. Whatever cubic inch displacement that would bring those numbers down to the 600-650 horsepower range would seem to fit the need.
As was stated before, a fan sitting in the stands cannot see the difference between a car going 175mph or a car going 160mph as they go around by themselves. What the fan can see is that right now the cars are going so fast that drivers are simply doing their best to hang on rather than pass the guy in front of them.
Granted, it would not take long for the teams to have those horsepower numbers back up to old levels even with cubic inch reductions. At which time, other adjustments would have to be made.
The problem with making such a move is that of cost. For NASCAR to mandate a drastic reduction in engine size would cost teams a fortune at a time when they can least afford it.
Such a change would have to be announced at least one year ahead of time, and probably phased in gradually. This should have been done 5-7 years ago, but that is not worth debating now.
To be proactive, NASCAR could designate an engine builder, not already associated with any team, to build so called ‘spec’ or ‘crate’ motors for any team who did not want to take on the task of making the change. Unlike dirt racing, however, teams could be allowed to make their own modifications to these motors upon receipt.
Teams who wanted to build their own engines could go ahead and do so.
Cars in NASCAR are going much too fast and are making far too much horsepower. They are using an engine that was brought in during the 1970s and has had few adaptations made in over thirty years. It is past time for a change, but the problem is the change may not be feasible at this time.
As is so often the case, NASCAR needs a time machine to go back and make corrections that should have already been made.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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