Why does NASCAR need restrictor plates at superspeedways, anyway?

Sunday featured another Talladega Big One, and just like clockwork, another round of columns questioning this kind of racing, and following that, a round of emails questioning why NASCAR doesn't take the restrictor plates off its cars and let 'em run wild at Talladega and Daytona.

Simple answer is this:

That's Bobby Allison at Talladega in the 1987 Winston 500, and but for a few bolts in a catch fence, that could be a video you'd be watching about how that old-timey racing sport called NASCAR ended once and for all. Allison's car got airborne and very well could have leaped the fence and taken out an entire swath of fans. It was at that point that NASCAR decided that 200+ mph speeds were just too much for these speedways to handle, and so began installing restrictor plates in cars to slow them down.

For those not familiar: The restrictor plate is a metal plate with holes in it designed to slow the airflow into the engine thereby reducing horsepower and speed. Depending on track conditions, NASCAR can mandate larger or smaller holes, but unrestricted airflow into engines at these superspeedways hasn't happened in decades. Restrictor plates aren't necessary at NASCAR's other tracks; either the tracks are too small or the banking not as severe to allow drivers to get up to the phenomenal speeds they do at Daytona and Talladega. The concern is primarily for the crowd's safety; drivers are well-protected and have already survived wrecks that would have been unthinkably catastrophic even a few years ago. (Of course, too much power at a track unable to handle it was a contributor to the death of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon last year, though safety and equipment issues are different matters there than in NASCAR.)

Of course, the very concept of a "restrictor plate" seems to run counter to the idea of racing itself: speed without restriction. And for that reason, many fans loathe the idea of the plate. Turn 'em loose, right?

Also of note: the perpetual law of unintended consequences that constantly bedevils NASCAR. Cutting the top speed of the fastest cars brings those cars back toward the mean, which leads to the gargantuan pack racing that so many fans love. (The superspeedways even used the "return" of pack racing in promotions recently.) The problem is, when you've got 35 cars all packed into one space, and one at the front goes wrong, well ... we saw Sunday what happens then.

Complicating the pro-plate stance was a race that happened three years ago at Talladega, when Brad Keselowski clipped Carl Edwards in juuuust the right way to send Edwards airborne:

Everybody walked (or staggered) away from that one OK, right? (Although seven fans did get injured.) You can't prove a negative; you can't say that restrictor plates have kept cars on the ground all this time, particularly when circumstances clearly still exist that allow the cars to launch into the air.

But bottom line: Cutting the power to engines is the best way to keep the cars' speed down, and keeping speed down is the best way to keep the cars on the track and not in the stands. For that reason, the restrictor plate is here to stay. NASCAR would rather have a lot of angry live fans than a few he-sure-did-love-'Dega late ones.

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