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Editorial

Is the Aero Package Really to Blame?

 by Adam Sewell
April 4, 2001

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The new roof flap helps to make a bigger hole in the air.

All across the news media, many people are claiming that the aero package, implemented by NASCAR at Daytona and Talladega, is to blame for the death of Dale Earnhardt and the massive accident on the back stretch during the Daytona 500 in which Tony Stewart took the worst ride of his young Winston Cup career. While Earnhardt's death is still under investigation, in the case of Tony Stewart's accident, the roof flaps did not keep the car on the ground like they were designed to. Some reporters, and fans alike, are making the assumption that the tightly bunched cars caused by the aero package's "dirty air" are resulting in unstable cars, but there is evidence from past seasons that shows that the new aero package is not the culprit it has been made out to be.

Lets briefly review what the aerodynamic package consists of at Daytona and Talladega. The teams are required to run the rear spoiler at 70 degrees and to have a lip across the top of the spoiler that faces forward. They were also required to raise the front valance on the car to 4 inches, from the previous 3 1/2 inches, and to run a spoiler on the roof that was 1 3/8 inches high and 40 inches wide. The concept was to disrupt the air as it flowed over the car to create more drag, thus allowing NASCAR to open the restrictor plates and give the drivers more throttle response. 

For Dale Earnhardt and Tony Stewart, their accidents were the result of contact made between their cars and others. Tony Stewart was unfortunate in that his car went air born and tumbled several times before coming to a stop. Looking at the slow motion replays, it appears to me that it was driver error that caused both accidents. For years, Daytona and Talladega have been known for "The Big One," the large accident that usually claims 15 or more cars. These horrific accidents have been occurring long before the aero package was implemented and originated at the same time the restrictor plates were required. The large packs of cars are caused by the restrictor plates, as the reduced horsepower does not allow cars to get away from one another as easily. The greater the number of cars running together, the greater the odds of having something go terribly wrong.

Did the aero package cause Stewart's car to become a 3400-pound kite? To answer this, I look at two races. First, in a single car accident in the 1996 Winston 500 at Talladega, a driver made contact with Bill Elliott's Ford which shot him across the infield grass along the backstretch and his car went air born. The result was a broken leg and a few months of Elliott having to sit on the sideline while someone else drove his car. Second, during the 2000 NAPA 300 from Daytona, both Michael Waltrip and Jeff Green had their cars become air born in separate accidents. Thankfully, both drivers got out and walked away. For both the 1996 Winston 500 and the 2000 NAPA 300, roof flaps were used on all the cars, yet they still got up in the air. Most of the time the roof flaps have worked as designed in the past, but sometimes when the physics are just so, the cars can still go air born.

Should NASCAR do away with the aero package? The answer would be no, as I don't think there is anything wrong with it. The aero package helps reduce the speeds in combination with the restrictor plates, while allowing the cars to use the draft more effectively. Unfortunately as the saying goes, accidents do happen in racing. There were large accidents before, and there always will be as long as the cars are bunched together. The only way to keep the cars from being bunched together presently is to do away with the restrictor plates, but that would cause added problems in the interest of spectator safety. I would like to encourage every reader who has an opinion on this topic, to email me at AutoRacing1.com to let me know what your opinion is.

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