By Rick Minter
Talladega Superspeedway, site of this weekend’s Aaron’s 499, was built with maximum speed in mind, but throughout its history, that speed also has been a problem. The speeds shown in practice for the first race in 1969, coupled with the tire failures brought about by those speeds, led to a major driver boycott.
Officials and race teams continued to search for ways to deal with speed before a major change came following the Winston 500 in 1987. Bill Elliott set NASCAR’s all-time qualifying mark of 212.809 miles per hour to win the pole for that race, with Bobby Allison on the outside pole with a speed of 211.797 mph. Allison’s mark is the the third-fastest qualifying effort ever, behind Elliott’s record speed and his speed of 212.229 mph the year before at Talladega.
But on the 21st lap, Allison’s engine blew as he roared down the frontstretch. Parts flying from his engine punctured his right rear tire and launched his No. 22 Buick into the grandstand fence, ripping down a section and injuring several fans.
NASCAR responded by placing restrictor plates on the engines to slow speeds, but racing with the restrictor plates also has been controversial.
The plates lead to big packs of cars and often multi-car crashes. But fans seem to love those packs and the crashes, so the debate goes on.
ESPN TV commentator Dale Jarrett, a nominee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his driving exploits, has seen it all, literally, when it comes to restrictor-plate racing.
His first Sprint Cup start at Talladega came in the same race that Allison crashed, and the last of his 32 Cup wins came at Talladega in the fall of 2005.
He said little has changed at Talladega over the years. “It’s the same as always to me,” he said. “It’s tight, difficult racing. You get so many people involved at the end of the race, and it’s going to be high-speed pushing and shoving. It’s no different than when we started running the restrictor plates back after the 1987 accident with Bobby Allison.”
Jarrett has vivid memories of that incident.
“I was 14 or 15 cars behind that, just close enough to see what happened,” he said. “When Bobby’s car went up in the air, my biggest thought was trying to keep my focus and not become part of the incident.
“It looked to me like the car was going straight to the flag stand. I was concerned that’s where it was going, and then obviously into the stands.
“It was much relief when I knew that didn’t happen.”
Even though he was still running an estimated 215 miles an hour at that point, he recalls other details.
“I saw parts and pieces flying,” he said. “I saw the car hit the fence out of the corner of my eye.
“I remember seeing the caution flag. I don’t think the flagman ever flinched. I don’t know how he didn’t, because that’s where it looked like the car was heading.”
Jarrett said he doesn’t believe there is a simple way to find a balance between what the fans and promoters want at Talladega and what the drivers will like.
Some have suggested lowering the banking in the turns at Talladega, which would slow speeds and break up the packs. But track and series officials have been reluctant to consider that in the past.
“Fixing the race track is not going to happen,” Jarrett said. “There’s really not anything you can do unless you spend a ton of money and downsize the engines tremendously, which is probably not a bad thing for the entire series.”
Jarrett said his longtime car owner Robert Yates made a push for that back in 1995, but it didn’t gain any traction.
So, that means the plates are here to stay, he said.
“You can’t have the cars running 200-something miles an hour,” he said. “Most racing that the fans enjoy is frustrating to the drivers. We’re not going to get them both on the same page. As a driver and a competitor, you go in knowing that you’ve got a long day ahead of you.”