ATLANTA -- Soft walls and restrictor plates. Smaller spoilers and engine kill switches. NASCAR keeps treating symptoms without considering the disease -- speed.
Cars are too fast on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
The sanctioning body has gone through a litany of ideas to make their race cars both safe and racy. Last week cars at the New Hampshire International Speedway were handicapped with restrictor plates -- a device that reduces air and gas into the engine to reduce speeds by about 25 mph for safety. At next month's race at Talladega, Ala., cars will be equipped with restrictor plates and fewer aerodynamic accessories to keep them glued to the racetrack.
Why not take the more direct route by legislating smaller engines?
The rear spoiler at Talladega will be raised from a 45-degree angle to 70 degrees. Also, each car is to have a one-inch flange perpendicular at the top of the spoiler for an L-shape scoop to create more drag. And if that isn't enough, the ground clearance under the front bumper will be raised from 3' to 4 inches.
What NASCAR is trying to accomplish is to retard the amount of available horsepower? Why not reduce horsepower with a smaller engine or smaller carburetor. Better yet, make smaller engines a requirement at every racetrack.
"We're going way too fast at some racetracks," said driver Darrell Waltrip. "It's no fun to be in one of these at some of the speeds we're seeing."
It's not fun to be in the grandstands, either. When the cars are too fast, they aren't racy. When they're too fast, they become aerodynamic nightmares.
Cars were too fast at New Hampshire this year -- so fast that Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr. didn't have enough time to steer clear of problems at the end of the third turn. Their throttles hung at full speed, and that meant both hit the outside wall in the third turn with no warning and no time to make corrections.
Worse yet, both drivers died at the scene.
NASCAR mandates a maximum of 358 cubic inches of displacement in each cylinder. That's enough to create nearly 725 horsepower. In Winston Cup, a four-valve Holley carburetor with a 12-to-1 ratio is required, while in the Busch Series, the same carburetor with a 9'-to-1 ratio is required. The smaller carburetor in the Busch Series represents only a minor reduction in overall speed, but the difference is telling on the racetrack. Busch Series races, where top speeds are generally about 8 mph slower on the superspeedways, usually feature more lead changes and more competitive side-by-side racing.
"We've got to remember how we got here," said track owner Bruton Smith, who is concerned about the lack of competition because it directly affects ticket sales. "We don't have exciting events. We got here with exciting events, a lot of rubbing going on."
Cars are too fast to run in tight packs because the turbulence created in traffic makes the vehicle jump around like a Volkswagen trying to pass a tractor-trailer on the highway.
A 767 jumbo airliner can become airborne at 170 mph. Ten racetracks play host to 17 of the series' 34 events, where qualifying speeds exceed the 170 mph barrier.
"I'd love to see them slow the cars down about 10 mph," said Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark, where the track record in time trials is a staggering 197.478 mph. "If you could go to a smaller engine or a smaller carburetor, I don't think race fans will notice 10 mph, especially if the drivers have more control of their cars, and they put on a better show."
"I want to see some rubbing and some side-by-side racing," Smith said. "I want to see the tire prints of Dale Earnhardt's car burned into the side of Jeff Gordon's car. That's exciting. If your car is handling well, you can do those kinds of things."
To gain control of the cars, NASCAR first must gain control of speed. Right now, cars on the series are teetering too close to the fine line where a car is too fast to be an automobile and too slow to be an airplane.
Take the trick equipment and gadgets off the race cars and put a smaller engine under the hood. That will accomplish everything NASCAR wants while restoring a greater emphasis in a driver's ability to drive than hang on.