'Competition' really isn't
(April 20, 2000)
of The Sentinel Staff
Dale Earnhardt couldn`t have put it more concisely after
crapshooting to a third-place finish in last Sunday`s DieHard 500 at Talladega, Ala.:
"This definitely isn`t racing."
Running two and three abreast, through most of the
pack, most of the afternoon? How real was that?
How real was it when you, as a kid, got into one of those
little amusement-park motor boats that actually was guided by steel bars around big tubs
of water while you played with a useless steering wheel?
Under the current set of rules, restrictor-plate racing is
the most artificially close form of motor racing ever nationally telecast live. Those guys
aren`t racing; they`re stuck together, with cars that can`t get out of one another`s way.
The competition only looks close.
Widening the cars to stir up more air at the next plate race,
the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July, won`t be enough. "They need to take the restrictor
plates off," says Earnhardt, quite correctly.
But to remove the plates, keep speeds below 200 mph at
Daytona and Talladega and bring back throttle response, what NASCAR really needs is
smaller engines that would be the same for all tracks.
It`s hard for NASCAR officials to imagine abandoning the
current formula -- 351 cubic-inch V-8s with tolerance of up to 358 - because these engines
have evolved into such reliability since they were mandated in 1974.
Blown engines are rare now - though one did knock Mike
Skinner out of almost-certain victory at Atlanta in March, and another took Rusty Wallace
out of the lead last week at Talladega.
But such failures used to be an accepted part of the game on
a weekly basis. They could become a calculated risk of real racing again.
In 1989, NASCAR considered dropping engine displacement to
250 cubic inches. But Ford and General Motors howled that they couldn`t come up with such
a package. And there was fear that German and Japanese manufacturers might enter the fray
because their U.S. plants qualified their models as American-made cars. So the notion was
Now, the smaller engines, wound to higher RPM, would bring
back throttle response at the giant tracks, and bring down speeds at intermediate tracks
that are now too fast -- cars enter the corners at both Atlanta and Texas at 200 mph-plus.
And while NASCAR technical specialists are at it, they could
drop specification of the archaic pushrod engine in favor of the overhead-cam power plants
that are universally used even in today`s street cars.
For 26 years, NASCAR has maintained that the pushrod 351
provided excellent competition. It did.
But now it`s broken. Fix it.
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
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