Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Talladega

The big story in motorsports this week is the ending of Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega, Alabama. Carl Edwards was leading on the final lap when he moved to block Brad Keselowski as the two cars came through the trioval toward the checkered flag. The two cars touched and Edwards spun; the rear of the car lifted off the ground but appeared to be coming back down when it was struck by Ryan Newman's car and catapulted into the catch-fence high above the racing surface. Edwards' car came back down on the track, completely destroyed; Edwards was not hurt, but seven fans were injured by flying debris.

The most important principle is business is this: don't kill your customers. NASCAR came perilously close to doing this on Sunday. Had the catch-fence failed, dozens, maybe hundreds, would have been killed; it would have been the worst racing disaster since the 1955 Le Mans 24 hour race, when a collision sent Pierre Levegh's car flying into the crowd, killing Levegh and 80 spectators. That accident resulted in a ban on motor racing in several European countries that was only lifted after safety improvements were made. Mercedes, which built Levegh's machine, did not return to racing for three decades.

NASCAR and its fans were fortunate on Sunday: the catch-fence worked and no one was seriously injured. But it never should have come into play.

Talladega has always been a dangerous track. When it opened in 1969, speeds were so high that many drivers boycotted the race, citing the inability of tire manufacturers to produce a tire able to stand up to the 200 mph laps being turned. NASCAR ran the race anyway, and the next year, the drivers returned. By 1987, speeds were much higher: Bill Elliott set a record when he won the pole with a lap of 212.809 mph for the 1987 Winston 500 that May. During the race, Bobby Allison cut a tire, spun, and flew into the catch-fence at just about the same spot where Edwards crashed on Sunday.

Although no one was seriously injured, Allison's flight forced NASCAR's hand: the cars had to be slowed down. The solution was the restrictor plate, which reduces the flow of air into the engine, dramatically reducing horsepower and thus speed. NASCAR has used restrictor plates at its two fastest tracks, Talladega and Daytona, since 1987. Unfortunately, the restrictor plates resulted in all of the cars making approximately the same power, leading to the cars bunching up in huge packs that make for huge wrecks.

The restrictor plate was part of the problem on Sunday, but there is a more basic problem: the cars are getting faster again. Telemetry from the TV footage indicates that Edwards and Keselowski were doing 199 mph when they collided on Sunday. Racing is about speed, but that much speed is too dangerous for the spectators. The cars are too fast. They need to be slowed down again.

Many solutions have been offered. NASCAR will almost certainly introduce smaller restrictor plates that will sap even more horsepower from the cars, keeping them bunched up and resulting in more huge wrecks. They will probably tinker with the aerodynamic package used at the restrictor plate tracks. What they will not do is something drastic. NASCAR rarely ever does.

But something drastic needs to be done. Some have suggested reconfiguring Talladega. I would suggest that a better solution is to change the cars themselves in a way that solves two problems: the excessive speed and the huge packs. To eliminate the huge packs requires that the restrictor plate be eliminated; to reduce speed requires something more.

NASCAR's engine formula is simple and outdated: a 358 cubic-inch carbureted pushrod V-8. NASCAR has never been about technology, and that isn't likely to change, but technology isn't the solution. Rather, it's in turning an old saying on its head: "there's no replacement for displacement." The bigger the engine, the bigger the horsepower. Conversely, the smaller the engine, the smaller the horsepower.

The engines should be smaller. As part of the rules package mandated for Talladega and Daytona, NASCAR should specify a much smaller engine that does not use a restrictor plate. Less size equals less power equals less speed; no restrictor plates equals no huge packs equals no huge wrecks.

And all of that equals no cars flying into the stands, which is the point of this entire exercise. Remember the first rule of business: don't kill your customers. NASCAR almost broke that rule on Sunday. If they ever do break it, it will be the end - of the unfortunate victims, of NASCAR, and maybe even of the sport itself. And not killing your customers is more than a rule of business. It's a moral imperative to which NASCAR must pay greater attention - before it's too late.

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