Friday, April 28, 2006

Watch for the Big One

About as month ago, I suggested that if you are not a NASCAR fan, you should still try watching the race at Bristol.

This week NASCAR is at another very special venue, the 2.66 mile super-speedway at Talladega. This is another track with special features that make for racing that’s not merely exciting, it’s nail-biting.

Normally, super-speedway tracks (tracks longer than one mile) can lead to the kind of racing that only true fans can appreciate: cars get spread-out and there are long green-flag runs with no spectacular crashes. You need to know something about the strategies being employed and the personalities of the drivers or else you end-up asking “what’s up with watching these cars go round and round?”

Talladega is not like that. You do not need to have an appreciation for the cerebral subtleties of NASCAR to enjoy this race. Talladega is a time bomb. Talladega gives the drivers the heebie-jeebies. They all worry about being caught-up in the “big one”, a Talladega-signature crash of Old Testament proportions involving fifteen or twenty cars.

Why does the racing at Talladega almost always result in at least one spectacular multi-car pileup?

It’s a safety feature.

With the long straight-aways and high banking, the drivers would simply floor it. They would never need to ease off the gas let alone actually break. The 800 HP racecars would reach speeds of about 215 mph. This is too dangerous. Crashing at these speeds, drivers would be more likely to sustain severe injuries or death. Even worse: car parts are more likely to end-up in the grandstands, putting those annoying spectators at risk.

The solution: at two tracks, Talladega and Daytona, NASCAR requires the cars to have a restrictor plate, a low tech thin aluminum plate that fits between carburetor and the intake manifold. This limits the amount of air that can enter the engine, and less air produces less horsepower and lower speeds. (NASCAR cars are a cool blend of high and low tech—they still have carburetors!)

So the cars get slowed down to top speeds in the 185 mph range. The cars are easier to drive, and the safety equipment, including containment for fan-protection, is reliable at these speeds.

However, something like the law-of-unintended consequences rears its ugly head. The first effect of the restrictor plates is that it lessens the speed variances among the cars. This tends to cause closer racing, and hence more crashes, but it is not the big effect. Even with restrictor plates, the routinely fast cars will still be faster than the routinely slow cars.

The big effect is this: at these “reduced” speeds drivers trust their skill to draft the car in front. They get really close—even slightly bumping the car in front. Because of the aerodynamics, groups of packed-cars will run faster than any single car.

So what happens?

You get these massive packs of cars, sometimes all the cars in the race, running around the track, sometimes three-wide (meaning they are not just packed back-to-back, but side-to-side-to-side). Three wide racing at any track is exciting, but Talladega takes it to a new level.

See the problem? Suppose you have thirty cars closely packed moving around the track at 185 mph. Now suppose someone in the third row spins out. The twenty or so cars behind him have no place to go resulting in the massive pile-up known affectionately as the “big one.”

The only reason there aren’t multiple big-ones is that the first one usually takes out a good fraction of the field.

The only sure-fire way to avoid the big one is to be up front. Sometimes cars will try to stay back—but that is risky for other reasons. Even if you have the fastest car, if you end up alone, the pack will race around and catch you. For this reason, nobody ever pits alone at Talladega—or else you’ll find yourself with no drafting partner when you reenter the track.

Another dynamic of the drafting is that there are two classes of drivers—those the elite drivers trust as drafting partners, and those they don’t—which usually includes rookies. You see this effect this way: a car pulls out of line to go three wide. If he is a trusted driver, another car will pull out of line and get behind him. In this way they can pass cars and head to the front. If it is an untrusted driver who pulls out first, it’s possible that nobody will follow, and he’ll be hung high and dry without a drafting partner. It is easy to lose ten, even twenty positions this way.

The other cool effect is near the end of the race. By this time, a lot of cars will be out. Now people have to make deals, often with bitter enemies. Teams will get on the radio to other teams looking for drafting partners. Of course, one of the partners will be behind the other, and so you are essentially agreeing to push the car in front on to victory, relegating yourself to second place at best. These deals are as good as the paper they are written on. One car will make a promise, start pushing his partner as promised, only to pull out at any moment he senses it’s to his advantage.

Last year, the big-one was especially delightful. About ten or fifteen of the crashed cars came to a stop in a massive heap at the top of one of the curves. They only stopped for and instant, then gravity took over and the whole multi-million dollar junkyard slid down the banking. Very cool!

So watch. And then, if you still don’t like NASCAR, you truly are unsalvageable. (Although you still may want to give the race at Dover a try.) If God hadn't intended NASCAR to be fun, he wouldn't have given us pit road fights!

Last week's winner: the 29 car driven by Kevin Harvick.

Fact apropos nothing: racecar, a Toyota racecar is a palindrome

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