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Sitting on my Laz-E-Boy watching the NASCAR race from Talladega Superspeedway, my 12-year old daughter asked, "What are those things on the roof of the cars?" Now, not being a Winston Cup team engineer I try to explain that they help slow the cars down, and that in conjunction with restrictor plates, they are another method that NASCAR is using to keep the speeds down. "What are restrictor plates, dad?" was the next question. Again, I tried in simple terms to explain: "Restrictor plates are thin metal plates with 4 holes about 1" round placed between the intake manifold and carburetor to restrict the flow of fuel and air into the engine, thus decreasing power" I explained. "Does that make the cars go slower?" she asked. "Yes, that's exactly what they do." "Well" she said, "isn't racing about going as fast as you can?"
Now is when things got tricky. Try explaining to a 12-year old what NASCAR has been attempting to convince drivers and fans for years. The best I could muster was that NASCAR thinks racing is safer and the fans get a better show at the superspeedways by using these methods. With slower speeds, there is a lower risk of serious injuries during accidents. And with the car's power restricted, they can't get spread out all over the track. Instead, they stay bunched up, making for exciting racing. "Is this supposed to help the guys usually in the back?" "Yes" I tell her, "It makes the cars more equal." "But if those guys are already slower without the restrictor plates, won't they still be slower by the same margin?" "Yes they will honey," I answered. "I can't figure out why they do it either, I just believe what they tell us fans is what's best for those races." With a confused look she responded, "but still, isn't the idea of racing to do what you can to be faster than the other guys?" At this point I gave up and just agreed with what she said and shrugged my shoulders.
All of this got me thinking. Isn't the idea behind racing cars to go as fast as you possibly can, taking speed and handling to the edge? I know the big multi-car teams have an advantage because of money, information sharing and resources, but should they be penalized for it? Why does NASCAR feel it's necessary to bring the cars of Hendrick Motorsports, RYR, Roush Racing, Penske South, and the like back to the rest of the field? The only other sport that does something similar is the NFL. In football, a salary cap was instituted to help bring parody to the league. For the most part it has worked for them. But NASCAR isn't restricting spending, they're restricting performance. Performance that car owners spend their money on and engine builders spend their life trying to maximize. That's like telling the St. Louis Cardinals that Mark McGuire has to hit with a wiffle ball bat, or Kurt Warner can only throw the ball 10 yards down the field at a time, or Shaq is only allowed to shoot free throws!
The last time I checked, racing was about winning. And if you had more money than the guy next to you, there was a good chance you had better equipment and a better chance of winning then he did. When I go to Williams Grove to watch sprint cars, the guys with the most money, therefore the best equipment are the ones that are winning, and I don't hear anybody crying about it. That's just the way it is. Now, maybe the idea of slowing the cars down is done more for the safety of the drivers than for leveling of the field. Even this doesn't float with me. With all due respect, do you think Adam Petty or Kenny Irwin would not have been killed had they been going 10-15 MPH slower? I don't believe that. From what I've read, their deaths were more in relation to how they contacted the wall, not necessarily with how much speed. Geoffrey Bodine was in a horrendous crash at Daytona this year and survived. He was traveling faster than both Adam and Kenny, by the way. On top of that, many of the Winston Cup stars dread coming to Talladega and waiting for the big crash. Luckily last week's big crash came after the checkered flew, and the cars were not in tight quarters. Personally, 4 IROC races a year are enough; I want to see speed, speed and more speed.
In the 1950's, Chuck Yeager broke the speed of sound. In the 1960's, astronauts were launched a quarter of a million miles to the moon in 3 days. In the 1970's, man traveled over 600 mph in a jet-powered car. At Talladega in 1987, Bill Elliott qualified at 212.8 mph for the Winston 500. Now in the new millennium, they're telling everyone to slow down and smell the roses. To me, all of this begs the question, "Isn't racing about winning and going as fast as you can?"
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