Classic Motorsport: How NASCAR Slowed Down #BlogPost

Our Story starts in February, 1987. NASCAR is in Daytona for the 29th Daytona 500. Bill Elliott, in the Red and White Coors Ford Thunderbird went out for his qualifying lap, Elliott and his Melling Racing fielded car had already set the track record for the 2.5 Mile oval 2 years prior, but there had been a redesign of the Thunderbird over the offseason, and Elliott was quick to show it off. Elliott immediately went to the top of the charts, with a new track record. Elliott had gone 210.364mph. The fastest any NASCAR race car had gone in a qualifying session. Elliott and his Thunderbird, however, weren’t done.

In May, Elliott went to Talladega, and sat on pole again. This time however, he was faster. Elliott had gone 212.809 mph (342.483 kph). This was faster than any car had ever gone at a NASCAR sanctioned time trial, and it still stands today as the fastest qualifying time of any sort. The closest anyone has gotten since was in 2014, when Jeff Gordon ran 206.558 mph (332.423 kph) to set a new track record at Michigan Speedway. This speed came at the cost of safety, and many drivers accepted that, but the spectators had no clue.

Everything had gone well until Lap 22 of 188. Terry Labonte held the lead over Bill Elliott and Davey Allison. Bobby Allison was running in the 5th position when disaster struck. Allison’s engine blew heading through the tri-oval, parts of the engine came off, and cut his right rear tire. At almost 215mph (346kph), Allison slid backwards, and the car began generating more lift than downforce. The car lifted up into the air, and was set on a collision course with the frontstretch grandstands. The car hit the protective railing in front of the stands before spinning around in the air 3 times, landing and sliding to a halt. This tore out a hundred foot section of catchfencing where he had hit it. When the safety crews got to a shaken but uninjured Allison, he asked how many fans had been killed. Only one minor injury had come out of the incident, but it was the closest any incident had come closer than any other to ending motorsports, forever.

NASCAR’s attention become focused only on driver and spectator safety. In July, 1987, NASCAR went down to Daytona for the annual Firecracker 400, but with a few changes. NASCAR had mandated safety changes to prevent cars going up into the stands. They put lexan windows on the passenger side of the car, instead of leaving it open. The window net was also improved for quicker driver exits in case of a fire. The biggest change, however, was the speeds of the cars. NASCAR mandated a 3:90 carburetor be used for the event. The pole speed was 198.085mph, 12mph (20 kph) slower than in February. For 399 miles, NASCAR’s new changes seemed to work to perfection, but the race was 400 miles.

Out of Turn 4, coming to the checkered flag, while battling for 3rd, Ken Schrader and Davis Marcus got together. Scharder shot towards the inside of the track, then back towards the outside. Air got underneath the car and it flipped up towards the outside of the track, and the stands. Schrader was broadsided by Harry Gant, and the car landed back on its wheels. Ironically, Bobby Allison won the race. It was another message that was being sent to NASCAR that changes still needed to be made. However, drivers saw it differently.

NASCAR didn’t have time to make any other rule changes but the July 26th running of the Talladega 500 still went on. For the Daytona 500, however, NASCAR implemented the restrictor plate, which allows less air into the carburetor, generating less power. Dyno tests at Daytona showed that engines were 200whp down on the engines the previous year, and the pole speed was set by Ken Schrader, at 193.823 mph, almost 17 mph (27 kph) slower than Bill Elliott the previous year. Dale Earnhardt was the first to speak out against it. “Lets just let em race.” he proclaimed. Ken Schrader said that “…it just ate the engines all up. It made everyone the same speed and that’s probably more dangerous.” Schrader would be proved right on Lap 106.

When the race started, it was discovered that everyone was equal. Even drivers in the slowest cars were able to keep with the fastest contenders. The cars became packed together and tight. Groups of 15 to 20 cars worked the draft to stay in the lead. However, this was dangerous. On Lap 106, Richard Petty was coming out of Turn 4, when he was tagged by Phil Barkdoll. The car got air up under it, and Petty hit the catchfencing. Petty flipped 8 times against the catchfencing. Petty was unhurt and so were the fans, but it showed that NASCAR still had work to do. Bobby Allison, again, won the race. It was the last victory of his career.

NASCAR continued to think up solutions, including putting a V6 in the cars instead of a V8, but nothing came about, and the restrictor plate was here to stay. Fans loved the new style of racing. Groups of 20 to 30 cars became groups together, and in the 1988 Winston 500, one year after Bobby Allison’s horrible wreck, Ken Schrader won by half a car length. Fans were hooked on this new style of racing, and it wasn’t going to go anywhere.

Cars still came up into the air, but none into the catchfence. NASCAR had turned a blind eye to safety once again, but it became a problem again in 1993. Coming to the finish line of the race, Rusty Wallace was racing Dale Earnhardt for 6th position. Ernie Irvan crossed the finish line first, but Wallace and Earnhardt were still racing. Wallace went to block Earnhardt, but Earnhardt was already there. They touched, and Wallace went into the air before flipping wildly in the infield grass. Wallace had minor injuries, but came off lucky from the accident.

This crash prompted NASCAR to take a look at how to keep the cars back on the ground. If Championship contenders after being injured, there is no championship battle. After Johnny Benson flipped at Michigan Speedway in August of 1993, NASCAR tested a restrictor plate at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but drivers pleaded with NASCAR not to slow down the cars more. Jack Roush developed the roof flap in late 1993 to keep NASCAR from slowing the cars down more. In 2004, Rusty Wallace ran a test at Talladega Superspeedway without a restrictor plate. He ran 233mph around the facility. He said it was the most scared he’d ever been, and it’s unofficially the fastest a NASCAR car has ever gone.

Sorry for not getting this article out sooner, took a little more research to perfect his one comparative to the others. I’ll try to get one out about every two weeks odd so up until I have finals. #HelpJackThroughTheOffseason #NASCAR #Motorsport



233mph is just insane. Nice article

02/18/2017 - 16:30 |
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Great piece. Fascinating era in NASCAR history.

02/18/2017 - 16:39 |
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In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

It really is, I might end up writing an entire piece on the 1987 or 1989 Seasons. They’re both quite crazy with the aerodynamic’s, engine rules, and Championship battles.

02/18/2017 - 16:53 |
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you know, technically they have continued to work on the safety features on the cars to keep them down in case of an accident. in fact, the catch fence accidents still happen, just ask Brad Keselowski (Talladega, 2009) and Austin Dillon (Daytona 500, 2014)

02/18/2017 - 16:42 |
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In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Catch fence accidents still happen, but this was mostly covering the implementation of the restrictor plate and slowing the cars down. The two you’re referencing happened because of the style of car NASCAR was using and is using. With Carl Edwards wreck in 2009, the wing on the back of the car generated massive lift when the car went backwards, same thing happened to Brad Keselowski at Atlanta in 2010 and Ryan Newman at Talladega in the fall of 2009. With Austin Dillon’s situation, it’s that the teams use such little downforce, that when he made contact with the spinning car in front of him, that it launched the car an inch or two off the ground, before the air picked it up into the catchfence.

02/18/2017 - 16:50 |
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Richie 2

Hi. Thanks man for the hostory of NASCAR. Apritiate your time finding this kinda stuf.

02/18/2017 - 16:51 |
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Dat Incredible Chadkake

I think you might have also forgotten when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at Daytona HANS devices were used from that point on.

02/18/2017 - 17:19 |
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No, this was just on the implementation of restrictor plates at Talladega and Daytona. Earnhardt was killed in a freak accident really, but it was also caused by the aerodynamic package that they were using, which had a metal strip across the top of the car to create more drag. The racing was absolutely epic. At Talladega in the Fall of 2001, they ended up 3 wide about 9 rows deep with 5 to go. It was ditched after the 2001 season because of Earnhardt’s death and a huge crash on the last lap of that race that nearly killed Bobby Labonte. I might have to write an article on that as well!

02/18/2017 - 17:59 |
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Nice blogpost. I think this should be honoured.

02/19/2017 - 01:53 |
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ShadowHuayra (HemiPower)

Very well written. Great read for any classic motorsport fan.

02/19/2017 - 02:00 |
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Really cool article on an exciting and dangerous period in NASCAR history. I know a guy who was at Daytona in ‘88 when Petty flipped. He said he was sitting near the back of the grandstands, looking up at the car as it went by.

02/19/2017 - 22:47 |
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On the Apex

Great piece of writing. Even so, what would happen if the cars used no restrictor plates and focused more on roof flaps and other aero safety devices?
The issue was the cars flipping at high speed, not the speed itself. Thoughts?

02/19/2017 - 23:55 |
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