Speed, Safety and Earnhardt

Part 1 - Speed
by Pete McCole
February 15, 2002

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If you've ever talked to anyone at Daytona International Speedway during a race, at least one of those three words was bound to come up. Speed was always first on everyone's agenda, and safety was on the back of everyone's mind, and Earnhardt was there battling for the win. But this year it's different, it's all changed, and those three words which were once separate issues, have now become synonymous. Now, you find it hard to speak of one without bringing up the other two.

Speed, of course, is always a major issue at Daytona - not only because of safety, but because speed is what everyone is looking for. The drivers want speed, you need it to win; the fans want speed, that's what the sport is about; NASCAR wants speed, for all the same reasons. 

One issue that has received much attention this season is the new aerodynamics package being used on the cars at Daytona. Hoping to improve on the package from last season, which used air deflectors mounted on the roof of the cars and flanges placed on the top of the spoilers, NASCAR has introduced a package similar to the one used during the 2000 season. With this new package, NASCAR hopes to ease the criticism they received about last year's rules, while at the same time improve safety. For the drivers, it's a noticeable but familiar change.

"It's kind of the same thing we had in 2000." Rusty Wallace said, "The whole reason for changing it (from last season) is because the cars were too dangerous, they were too close. If one guy made one mistake he was going to take the entire field out. I'm not going to say that won't happen again, but it should have a less of a chance of it."

"It's a lot like the Busch cars, it's really hard to pass," said Harvick. "It's not going to anything like it was with the roof fins and the spoiler lips. It'll be a lot like the Busch Grand National race. But we can't go out and run three and four wide for 500 miles and not expect to have a 20-car pileup. We had to change something, and this is what they came up with. 

"It's going to be a lot safer than the other rules package." Mark Martin said, "Obviously what make the other package unsafer is you can pass when you shouldn't be passing. This package takes that away. I think we can put 30 cars in a draft and they'll be plenty of opportunity to pass, but it will be more of a strategy race. It will be different this time. 

Using a similar aero package, the Ford teams dominated in the 2000 Daytona 500, but are struggling in 2002. Of the 17 Fords that made qualifying runs last Saturday, 14 of them qualified 26th or worse. Only the Ford's of Dale Jarrett, 13th, and teammate Ricky Rudd, 15th, were able to crack the top 20. The Ford teams have been up in arms since testing at Daytona in January.

"Collectively, as a Ford group, I'm not sitting here complaining, whining or however you're going to print it, but that's not what it is." Dale Jarrett said, "It's a fact."

"Hopefully NASCAR will look at all the data and make a wise decision," said Ricky Rudd. " I know they're capable of that. We'll just kind of hope for that if you're driving a Ford. We have to wait and see. It's pretty back and white that Ford needs some help, so it's kind of hard to get excited about going to the Daytona 500 unless we hear the rules are going to be evened up a little bit."

"We don't know why the Fords are slow right now. We don't have a clue." Rusty Wallace said. "We did a lot of testing down there with NASCAR by cutting the spoiler off a quarter inch and then another quarter inch, and we got to the speed where it's close. We need a half-an-inch off the rear spoiler to be competitive like we're think we we're going to be and we still think we're going to be a little bit behind."

Not everyone agreed the new rules were a hindrance to the Ford teams, there has even been talk of the Ford teams sandbagging to get a rule change that would be an advantage to them.

"In 2000 I believe we had the same rules, and in 2002 those Fords waxed us big time," said Rick Hendrick, owner of Jeff Gordon's Dupont Chevrolet. "It's the same body style from 2000, I don't know what the difference is. But I guarantee you those Fords will be running when it counts."

Brett Bodine, a Ford team owner and driver, says the Ford teams are not holding anything back.

"The fastest teams are always going to say the other group is sandbagging and the slower group is going to say they need some help," said Bodine. "I just know what my car is doing and that's all we've got. I don't know if that's all they've got, but they're still faster than I am. I don't have anything to gain by sandbagging."

The performance of the Ford teams last week at Daytona seemed to validate the Fords complaints. With only two Fords finished in the top ten in last Sunday's Bud Shootout, coupled with the disappointing results from the weekends qualifying, NASCAR is allowing the Fords to take an additional 1/4 inch off their spoilers for the Daytona 500.

An ironic twist to issues of speed and safety is the fact that safety concerns about how fast the cars were going lead directly to the introduction of the restrictor plate. In 1987, Bobby Allison got airborne during a crash in the tri-oval at Talladega, slamming into the front grandstand fence at over 210 mph and injuring several spectators. Only the catchfence prevented the car from going into the stands. 

NASCAR decided something must be done to slow down the cars to improve the safety of the fans and drivers. Their answer was the restrictor plate. Introduced in 1988, the restrictor plate has been the subject of criticism from drivers who say the restrictor plate makes the unsafe race conditions on the track.

One of the drawbacks of restrictor plate racing is the fact that the restrictor plates reduce the amount of horsepower the engine can generate. This slows the cars down, but resulting side effect is that it makes all the cars generate almost equal horsepower, making it difficult for one car to break free from the pack. Instead of the field being spread out from the best performing car to the worst, the field is bunched together in tight packs that lead to heart pounding racing action and terrifying crashes. This made the racing more competitive and exciting for the fans, but a white-knuckle experience for the drivers.

The question NASCAR has faced is how to spread out the field without compromising safety. Oddly enough, one answer to the problem may sound illogical, but it seems to be the simplest solution - let the cars go faster. Allowing the cars to go faster would help separate the field, thus making for safer conditions on the racetrack. It does seem strange that letting the cars go faster could lead to safer racing, but to some drivers, it seems to be the simplest way to increase safety on the racetrack

"I'd like to see them run 195." Sterling Marlin said, "To me that will make it safer, the cars will separate even more. The faster you go, the more difficult the car is to drive, when you have that, the cars will separate more."

"I think what NASCAR needs to do is a least give us a little bit more speed back, give us a bigger restrictor plate," said Jerry Nadeau. "Anybody can go drive wide open at 185 mph at Daytona."

"You're on top of each other, you can't get away from each other, and when you have a five-car wide racetrack and you're running four-wide, there's not a lot of places for people to go." Jeff Green said, "Especially when it gets toward the end of the race, you tend to hold the gas pedal down a little harder, instead of letting off, that's why you see wrecks later on in the race, not just Daytona but everywhere."

"But, when those restrictor plates come about, it's a tough situation."

For now, it seems the new aerodynamics rules are more to everyone's liking, and although the cars still are going any faster, they are somewhat safer. It's the best solution anyone has come up with, since it the restrictor plate appears to not be going away anytime soon.

"The issue of restrictor plate topic has pluses and minuses. But at the end, it's the only component we've found that can keep the speeds in check," said NASCAR President Mike Helton. "Many teams and crew members have worked with us, but we haven't found anything else. We'll continue to look, but it's all we've got."

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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Other Editorials

Speed, Safety, Earnhardt Part 3  2/17/02

Speed, Safety, Earnhardt Part 2  2/16/02

Speed, Safety, Earnhardt Part 1  2/15/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 5  1/19/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 4  1/18/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 3  1/17/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 2  1/16/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 1  1/15/02

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