Talladega Toss Up
ATLANTA (Oct. 1, 2002) - Of the 36 races on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule, none are more nerve-wracking than the four restrictor plate events in which drivers feel like passengers in their 3,400-pound race cars. It's 43 cars, all bunched together, racing along at speeds just over 190 mph. If the X-Games included rush hour, this would be it.
The situation has been created by NASCAR's use of the restrictor plate - a thin sheet of metal with four 7/8-inch holes that is inserted between a car's carburetor and intake manifold. Mandated for use at Talladega (Ala.) and Daytona (Fla.), the plate constricts the amount of airflow into an engine, thereby limiting an engine's horsepower output.
The restrictor plate came to be as the horsepower created by a stock car's engine began to exceed the stock car's aerodynamic capabilities. Cars that look like the one an average Joe can drive on the street aren't supposed to go around in circles at 212.809 mph, but that's just what Bill Elliott's Ford Thunderbird did in 1987 during a record-setting qualifying lap for the Winston 500 at Talladega. NASCAR knew their cars needed to be slowed down, and the restrictor plate was their answer.
Since 1989 when the restrictor plate was introduced, speeds have indeed been slowed. And whenever engine tuners spun more speed from their pushrod V-8s, NASCAR simply decreased the size of the restrictor plate's holes, further limiting an engine's horsepower. But with that decreased output came decreased throttle response. And with decreased throttle response came huge, freight train-like packs of 43 cars, whose drivers relied more on their car's aerodynamics than their gas pedal to make a move for position. The aero jockeying in such tight confines led to incredible, multi-car calamities that today, drivers practically expect.
The fear of the Big Wreck is on every driver's mind, but perhaps no more than with this Sunday's visit to Talladega for the EA SPORTS 500. One of the closest point battles in memory is currently underway, with the top-nine drivers separated by just 201 points. If any one of those drivers were to be collected in the Big Wreck, the point implications would be big, too.
Tony Stewart, driver of the #20 Home Depot Pontiac, is one of those drivers. Currently third in points, 36 markers behind series leader Jimmie Johnson, Stewart is well aware of the importance of emerging from Talladega unscathed. Six races remain following Talladega, and if he can leave the vast 2.66-mile oval intact, his championship destiny is placed back in his hands. That's a comforting thought, considering that of the remaining six venues, Stewart has won at four of them - Atlanta, Martinsville (Va.), Phoenix and Homestead (Fla.).
Staying focused while remaining calm is perhaps the best way to enter Talladega, and to achieve that, Stewart has planned a relaxing fishing trip with Alabama's own Red Farmer, a veteran racer whose skills behind the wheel are matched by his ability with a rod and reel. For two days, fish stories will supplant race stories - a fine change of pace in light of the pace to be set this weekend at Talladega.
You're heading into Alabama a little bit early to spend almost two days fishing with Alabama native Red Farmer. Talk about that.
"We'll be bass fishing for a couple of days, just getting away from people and civilization, and I'll be spending some time with one of the legends of our sport. I really admire Red for what he's not only done in the past, but what he continues to do. A perfect example of that was when he ran fourth with us at DuQuoin (Ill.) in an ARCA race a couple of weeks ago. It's a lot of fun to race with him. He's a great guy, which means fishing with him is even better."
When you and Farmer are together, what do you talk more about - fishing or racing?
"We don't talk about racing. We do enough racing. When we get together we talk strictly about fishing."
How much of a crapshoot is racing at Talladega?
"That's all it is - a crapshoot. You have no idea what to expect - ever. It's a total toss-up."
Is it frustrating to go into Talladega - especially in the midst of such a tight points battle - knowing that when it comes to a restrictor plate race, you really don't control your own destiny?
"It's very frustrating, because you never know what to expect, and unfortunately a lot of the things that happen are out of your control, and in many cases out of everybody else's control, too. You just pray that you don't end up in one of the big wrecks that inevitably seem to happen."
With that in mind, can you prepare for a restrictor plate race the same way you would for a regular race?
"I don't think so. You just do the best you can to get your car balanced, the motor guys tune the engine as best they can, and the rest of it just has to take care of itself. Unfortunately, that's just the way it is."
Will the smaller fuel cell mandated for Talladega alter your race strategy?
"I hope so. Hopefully it'll get us in a situation where we can string the cars out a little more and everyone won't be so tight on each other, which will give us an opportunity to move around on the race track a little more. The racing will still be good, because by being in smaller packs we can actually feel like we're racing instead of just getting stuck in a line and hoping that the line you're in goes faster than the one next to you."
What's your biggest complaint about restrictor plate racing?
"You have to block, and it seems to be a necessary evil now with the way the rules are and the way the cars drive. The cars drive so well now that your only saving grace to keep your position is to turn down and block somebody. I'd like to see NASCAR do something about it because I hate having to do it. But I do it because everybody else does it."
Is there an alternative to the restrictor plate to slow cars down on the superspeedways?
"I think if there was NASCAR would've found it by now. They're a pretty smart group of people, and if an option to the restrictor plate was available they would've already found it for us by now."
You seemed frustrated during your freshman and sophomore years on the circuit whenever the series competed at a restrictor plate race. How do you feel now?
"I feel like I'm a lot further along, but I don't ever feel like I'll ever know everything there is to know. Things are constantly changing, so you have to keep changing with them. But knowing that you've got good drafting partners out there helps. And every time we go back to a restrictor plate track I feel like I return a little smarter. Whether or not I finish better doesn't necessarily show how much I've learned, but I do feel that with each restrictor plate race I get more confidence as a restrictor plate driver."
Drivers at Talladega will complain of an "aero push" while racing in traffic. What exactly is an aero push?
"You have two types of balance on your race car. You have mechanical balance and aero balance. Your mechanical balance is comprised of springs, shocks, sway bars and suspension pieces. Your aero balance relates to the total aerodynamics of the car - how the air flows over the top of the race car and how it creates downforce in different areas. If you're running with a car right in front of you, you don't have the air hitting the front of your car as you would if you were running in clean air, where there's no one in front of you. When someone is in front of you and you're not getting that air pushing down on the front of the nose, the car isn't getting the downforce it needs to stick to the race track. That creates an understeer condition, which makes the car push out toward the wall. That's what's happening when you hear drivers complain of an aero push."
Do certain makes of cars, or more specifically, do certain team cars affect your car differently in relation to aerodynamics?
"Sometimes it does. It depends on what little things are done by each team to their car's bodies. Sometimes it makes it more difficult. Sometimes it makes it easier. You just have to go out there and run with guys during practice and find out which cars makes your car draft better."
Next year every car on the race track, whether it's a Chevy, Pontiac, Ford or Dodge, will have been built under a common template. That's something you've wanted for awhile. Now that you're getting it, what are your thoughts?
"I'm happy. Now we all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have the same opportunity to have the same things that everyone else has. Each particular brand of car will still maintain their own identification, but at the same time it gives us as drivers the knowledge that if we beat a guy we beat him because we did a better job than they did. That's something we haven't had for a long time, and I'm excited that we're getting it."
What's the difference between racing at Talladega and Daytona?
"You can run two and three-wide all day at Daytona. At Talladega you can run three-wide all day easily and sometimes four-wide. Essentially, Talladega just has an extra lane compared to Daytona because its track is a little easier to get a hold of mechanically. Handling isn't near as big of an issue as it is at Daytona."
Patience is an obvious virtue on the short tracks, but how important is it at a restrictor plate track?
"It's the gospel, basically. There are a lot of times when you think you can pull out and pass, but if you do, once you get there you realize that you can't pass. It makes it real critical that you take your time and that you don't get caught up in trying to make a move too fast. Just stay in line, and sometimes you'll have more patience than 20 other guys."
You've performed drafting in Winston Cup and in the Indy Racing League (IRL). Are the drafting principles that you apply in both series the same or are they different?
"It's a lot more technical with the Cup cars because of how close you can run with each other. With the IRL cars, you would just line up straight behind a guy, get a run on him and go by. With the Cup cars it's a lot harder because you have to be real precise with your movements, and you always have to be aware that there are other cars around you all the time. It's not just one car versus another. It's one car versus 42 cars, typically all in a big group. With that many cars around you, it just makes it that much harder."
GREG ZIPADELLI, crew chief on the #20 Home Depot Pontiac:
Will the smaller fuel cell mandated for Talladega alter your race strategy?
"It'll make for a longer Talladega race, as we'll obviously be pitting more - spending more time on pit road. We'll probably end up changing right side tires one stop then left side tires the next, keeping that rotation throughout the race. The time it takes to put on two tires is what it'll take to fill The Home Depot Pontiac full of fuel, so the less time we spend on pit road the better. Probably around lap 37-38 is when you'll see us start coming to pit road."
How much has the smaller fuel cell affected the car's weight distribution?
"We'll just move some lead around to different places, make sure we get it where we want. We'll probably pack some of it around the fuel cell, because without our regular fuel cell we'd have a lot of nose weight, so we'll use lead to keep the balance of the car where we want it."
How much more running around will you have to do in between pit stalls to find partners to pit with now that you'll be pitting twice as much?
"I don't know. That's one of those things that we'll have to see develop as the race goes on. We'll see how the first couple of pit stops work out, and if the pack ends up getting pretty broken up we'll probably end up pitting with whoever is around us. You're always going to want to come to pit road with one or two good cars, three or four if that's who you're racing around, so that all of you can get back up to speed better, and hopefully, make up a little bit of ground."