(Will the return of pack racing at Talladega increase the danger level this weekend?)
One of the first things IZOD Indy Car Series officials will look at in the wake of the Las Vegas tragedy Sunday is to try and find a way to break up pack racing.
The 15-car accident that took the life of Dan Wheldon in Sunday’s series season finale broke out when one car wiggled and the oncoming group of tightly packed cars could do nothing but run into one another.
However this week in Talladega, new NASCAR rules will be in place to hopefully encourage drivers to race more in packs.
There is a bit of irony in the two directions to say the least.
The two car tandem racing that has exploded at Daytona and Talladega has not exactly caught the fancy of either fans or many drivers for that matter.
“I don’t like this type of racing, and you know it,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after last April’s Talladega race. “It was just a foolish race.”
Saturday night’s Charlotte winner Matt Kenseth also takes a dim view of the new restrictor plate racing phenomenon.
"From the driver's seat, I'm not a big fan of it," Kenseth said. "There's just not a lot we can do about it, unless the cars or the rules or something changes. There's not really anything you're going to do about it because it's so much faster."
An even louder voice on the subject has come from the fans that have weighed in loud and clear that the “love bug” racing is not what they want to watch either in person or on television.
Daytona International Speedway distributed a survey following last July’s Coke Zero 400 asking fans to comment on a variety of subjects. The survey showed the number of fans who were dissatisfied with the race itself grew from 3 percent last year to 10 percent this year.
Daytona president Joie Chitwood believes the new style of racing is the culprit.
"The two-by-two racing was a novelty that has worn off," Chitwood told The Daytona Beach News-Journal.
So in an effort to return plate racing back to the “norm” of bigger groups of cars running side-by-side rather than the bumper-to-bumper tandem competition, NASCAR has mandated two rule changes for the season’s last plate race Sunday at Talladega.
A larger restrictor plate will give drivers an opportunity for more throttle response as well as a chance to pull away from one another. And a recalibrated pressure relief valve on the engine’s cooling system will force drivers to run more in clean air rather than tucked directly behind the rear bumper of another car or risk overheating their power plants.
While the impact won’t be completely known until Friday’s first practice session, the expectation is less nose to tail racing with drivers needing to swap positions more often or perhaps return to the bigger and more spaced out packs.
But what will that do to the safety aspect of the racing and the possibility of ramping up the potential of the infamous Talladega “Big One,” the multi-car wreck that has marred plate racing since its inception in the late 1980s?
At least at this point drivers don’t see it that way.
While all understand the risky nature of their business and the prospects of a big wreck happening at Talladega under any conditions, few correlate what happened in the Indy Car race at Vegas to what they’ll deal with this weekend.
“I wouldn't compare an IndyCar at Las Vegas to Talladega with a stock car, they're completely different, polar opposites,” Jeff Gordon said. “Looking at the aerodynamics, the weight of our cars, the fact that there are full fenders, NASCAR has implemented some incredible safety features for our cars over the years to allow us to go to Talladega.”
Gordon believes no matter what kind of racing develops this weekend, he’s comfortable being strapped in behind the wheel.
“While the drivers might not always be thrilled and sometimes the fans aren't always thrilled about the type of racing going on out there, I do feel very safe inside the cars,” Gordon said.
Kurt Busch’s team owner Roger Penske fields cars in both NASCAR as well as the Indy Car Series. He feels the comparisons between what happened in Las Vegas and racing at Talladega aren’t fair and has complete confidence in stock car racing’s safety initiatives.
“Well, I feel very safe, especially in a stockcar with the roll cage,” Busch said. “The speeds we run aren't as great as the IndyCars. Talladega is Talladega. Everybody knows it going in. There's much more comfort when you've done it year after year after year and you trust the 43 guys that are out there.
“It was tough what happened out in Las Vegas. A lot of new guys were racing in a pack that they weren't necessarily familiar with. So when you throw so many new variables in, that's the risk that happens.”
But while most see the difference in racing a 3,400 pound, full-fendered NASCAR stock car versus the much lighter and ultra fast Indy Car on high speed ovals, drivers do still consider the risk involved should pack racing return to Talladega this weekend.
However whether or not NASCAR’s rule changes actually will bring that back this weekend is still unclear.
"We'll have to wait and see what effect the new rule changes will have on restrictor-plate racing," said Ryan Newman. "We all have our theories but won't know for sure until we actually get on the track this weekend. Personally, I think there will be less tandem drafting than in the past because of the rule changes.”
Even if tandem racing remains in place, all bets will be off once the checkered flag is in sight.
"We all know what usually happens in the closing laps of a restrictor-plate race," Newman said.
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