NASCAR lets drivers test options on rule changes

The Guessing Game

Posted: Thursday, September 06, 2001

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- A year ago NASCAR was lauded for changing its rules for the two fastest raceways on the Winston Cup Series schedule.

Now the sanctioning body wants to change the rules again. Actually, if you listen to 19 drivers who conducted a fact-finding test session this week at the 2.66-mile raceway, the rules need to be changed immediately.

When NASCAR changed the rear spoiler, restricted engine power further and added a air deflector along the roof to make the cars slower and more stable a year ago at the Talladega Superspeedway, it resulted in a race that produced 49 lead changes and a couple fender-benders.

Even then, some felt it was too good to be true.

Those same rules have become the sport's most-pressing issue beyond breaking seatbelts, neck braces and collapsing bumpers. That's why the sanctioning body had the drivers test other ideas and make suggestions.

Unlike the organization's previous 53 years, some safety issues apparently will now be a collaborative effort.

''It was pretty interesting,'' said driver Ricky Rudd. ''I think, if anything, it's just educating NASCAR farther down the road that gives them some more options to make the rules more flexible if they see the need and know what those changes will do instead of just shooting in the dark with them.''

While the rules have made the races at Talladega more competitive and without any serious incidents, the same package has turned Daytona into a battle zone. The season-opening Daytona 500 had a 19-car crash with 26 laps remaining, followed by a two-car accident on the final lap that killed racing icon Dale Earnhardt. When the series made its second stop at Daytona last month, there was a 12-car crash with 17 laps to go.

The problem, drivers insist, are the rules that call for a higher rear spoiler and a roof spoiler to create drag and a restrictor plate to cut about 35 mph of speed from the engine make the cars too equal and too easy to drive. Because cars lack power they remain in packs of 20-or-more cars. And because the extra drag and downforce make them so easy to drive, the packs of traffic often expand to three and four lanes wide.

One mistake can wipe out half the field. Without any rules, however, the cars likely would be racing at 225 mph and be too prone to becoming airborne during a crash.

Earnhardt hated restrictor plates since they were mandated in 1988. Of all the combinations of plates and aerodynamic restrictions, however, he best liked the very rules that were in place on the day he died.

''If Bill (France, NASCAR founder) could see this, he'd be proud,'' Earnhardt said three days before he was killed.

What drivers want before the EA Sports 500 at Talladega in October is a way for the speeds to remain restricted, but some of the aerodynamic restrictions to be reduced. That would make the cars harder to drive and help spread traffic into smaller packs.

Monday's closed session proved NASCAR is listening.

''We were able to learn many things,'' said Gary Nelson, NASCAR's director of competition. ''We couldn't have learned the things we did in a single-car test or in the wind tunnel or (dynamometer)-type test. We needed a pack of cars to help us obtain all that we did. Our next step is to take the information gathers and analyze all of it. That will obviously assist us in our decision process.''

NASCAR tinkered with different rear and roof spoilers and three different restrictor plates. All 19 drivers drove in a tight pack for 20 laps, then they met with NASCAR officials to provide feedback.

''What we're trying to do is break up the big pack,'' said driver Bobby Hamilton, who won the race at Talladega in April. ''It's tough to do that and keep the speed down at the same time. We're playing a guessing game.''

REACH Don Coble at

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