Wednesday, February 14, 2007

NASCAR issues for newbies: restrictor plate racing

I'm determined to understand NASCAR racing. I've always felt that it's not very "becoming" of a motorsports fan whose interest lies in road-racing, rallying and/or motorycles to also be into NASCAR. These are two entirely different worlds, and never the twain shall meet. However, if top sportscar guru John Hindhaugh can find something redeeming in NASCAR, then it's time I tried to do so too.

As I mentioned on Monday, despite its enormous success, NASCAR is struggling with a number of issues, none of which seem to be impacting its popularity but all of which help offer some insight into how the sport works. So I'm going to look at one such issue today: restrictor plate racing.

Engine air intake restrictors are used in many forms of motorsport. Reasons for usage vary: in Japanese SuperGT it is to retain parity and increase the chances of success for teams that are struggling (conversely, teams that do well are penalized with weight handicaps). In rallying, restrictors are used to limit performance. After the frightening speed of the Group B era, the FIA were determined that such speeds would never again be reached (they failed by the way, since current WRC cars are as quick as Group B was, albeit not as fast as they could be without restrictors).

In NASCAR, restrictors are used at two of the fastest tracks, Daytona and Talladega, to reduce performance. Without the restrictors, it's quiet reasonable that cars could lap at up to 220mph. With them, speeds are in the more reasonable 190mph range. "Sounds like a plan" you say. "What's the problem?"

The problem lies with the fact that the rules set make this a de facto spec championship. Cars are very, very similar and performance is equally similar. Engines tend to be the primary area where opportunities for performance gains lie, but when you plonk a restrictor onto the carbs most of those gains are nullified. Now you have 43 cars with almost identical performance. "That's going to make for exciting, close racing, surely?" you ask. It does. Too close. All 43 cars are now able to travel within inches of each other at 190mph, creating one big train. This train cuts through the air, allowing for speeds that would not otherwise be attainable and forbidding any car to step outside the train without incurring a massive aerodynamic penalty. Now all it takes is for one car to get a little loose, bump another car sideways, and you have the makings of a very, very big accident. This is what has happened numerous times since the restrictor plate was brought in.

Modern day NASCAR stock cars are pretty damn safe. They deform well, tend not to get airborne and drivers all wear HANS devices. But a time will come where that won't be enough, and a stationary car will be hit driver's side by a car travelling at 100mph or more. The driver will die. Case in point: the accident which claimed the life of Mark Porter in Australia last year. He was in a Ford V8 Supercar, a car built equally as strong as anything in NASCAR. Chances of a similar accident are higher when you have a situation like the one so commonplace at Daytona and Talladega.

What's the answer? I'm no expert, but it seems to me that alternate methods for slowing cars down are numerous and varied. In Formula 1 they went to narrower tyres, less aerodynamic aids and smaller engines. Until NASCAR moves on from it's 1950s technology (pushrod engines with carburettor intake) to modern overhead cam, fuel-injected units, options are limited. With fuel injection, a spec ECU would be the obvious answer, just as it is in Grand-Am's Daytona Prototype rules. For now, I'd probably lobby for smaller engines for these extremely high speed tracks. Right now, engines have a 5.9 litre capacity. If teams were required to use a non-restricted 3.5 litre V6 at these super speedways, you'd achieve close to the same speeds as you do with the larger restricted V8, but with greater diversity in performance and a reduced likelihood of these long trains of trouble.

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