Friday, September 30, 2005

Talladega Superspeedway

If you are like me, and spend a lot of quiet quality time reflecting on what to do to improve your life- you might consider tuning in UAW-Ford 500 on Sunday. NASCAR changed my life. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to get in, and get involved- this is one of the half-dozen best races of the season.

To the stupid, untutored fan, the heroes of NASCAR seem to merely driving in circles. But many of those circles are unique- and Talladega is the biggest and meanest and cruelest of them all.

Constructed in the late 1960s, Talladega was then, and is now, the fastest thing going. The single straight is long- and the rest of the track is a giant, graceful curving arc: a tri-oval. The turns are banked steeper than the roof on your house- and tower five stories tall. It is so grand in scale that a regional airport literally sits in the middle. It is so fast, the open wheel series won’t even drive it.

The first time the top series showed up and saw the place- they immediately went on strike, led by Richard Petty, and refused to drive.

Talladega is simply too fast- modern stock cars have simply outgrown it. A stock car, running in excess of 220 mph, is capable of flight- if the air-pressure underneath the car becomes unbalanced. In 1987, Bobby Allison literally did take off- tore off a hundred feet of safety fencing- and almost landed in the main grandstand.

NASCAR addressed this problem- and inadvertently provoked the law of unintended consequences. In order to promote safety, mainly by slowing the cars down, NASCAR introduced the restrictor plate- the greatest thing ever done for the fan. Plates are placed on the carburetor- and the “restricted” air flow serves to sap horsepower and slow the cars down.

It did sure as heck slow cars down. But it created a situation where no one can accelerate (no power) and consequently, no one can separate, break free from the pack. Cars were forced to bunch up together- and to generate more speed and momentary power, ride the draft of the car in front.

It is the most gripping thing, in my opinion, in sports today. A giant pack of cars, traveling 200 mph, literally touching at times, three wide and fifteen deep. It is also insanely un-safe- huge twelve-to-eighteen multi-car crashes dominate just about every race at Talladega.

The drivers hate it- and moan constantly. "Its not racing," Jeff Gordon-types snivel. But it is oddly compelling to watch- and damned entertaining. The last fifteen laps, as these guys go in and out of the traffic, is gripping action.