Pushing the Limit

After this Winston Cup season is in the books, there won’t be much of an off-season for competitors. During December and January, each racing team works feverishly on their restrictor plate program – a program that comes into play during NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.

Crews are constantly looking for more ways to get more horsepower out of the gas flow restriction device, even though the plates on the Fords are the same as the ones on Pontiacs, Chevrolets and Dodges. Still, teams spend countless hours and an inordinate amount of cash trying to push the rules to the limit in order to increase speeds.

In an effort to slow down the cars, NASCAR continues to tweak the device, and the one drivers will be forced to use in Daytona in February may or may not be the same as the ones used at Talladega in October – the final plate race of 2002.

A company contracted by NASCAR to make them supplies the plates. Once NASCAR officials inspect the devices, they are locked away in a wooden box. When the plates arrive at the track, the container holding up to 100 metal plates is secured in the NASCAR trailer under lock and key. A restrictor plate is a square with a hole at each corner, designed so it can be mounted to the four posts positioned around the carburetor of each Winston Cup vehicle.

In the center of each plate, there are four small holes. These holes allow airflow to the carburetor, but restrict it, which in turn, slows down the cars.

Even the smallest change in size makes a huge difference.

“I would say 10 to 20 percent of our time is spent exclusively on our restrictor plate program because there are only four (plate) races on the schedule,” said Jimmy Maker, crew chief for former Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte. “The biggest point we focus on is the engine development, because it’s so different than the places we run each week.”

Restrictor plates are guarded like crown jewels upon arrival at Daytona or Talladega, and when cars line up during inspection, NASCAR officials are there to install the devices.

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The four holes in the center of the restrictor plate are off-center of the carburetor port. Air and fuel creates horsepower, so not only does the restrictor plate restrict the amount of air, but also the direction of the airflow, which cuts down horsepower.

“Tons of hours and thousands of dollars are put into restrictor plate racing,” said Todd Parrott, crew chief for Dale Jarrett. “Robert Yates Racing has always had a fantastic restrictor plate program. It’s something they want to be the best at because they’re considered to have one of the best engine programs in racing.

“I’d say that we spend about two times the amount of money on our restrictor plate program than on our short track and intermediate programs.”

Restrictor plates came about because of an accident here at Talladega Superspeedway in 1987. Bobby Allison lost control of his car, crashed and almost ended up in the grandstands. The catch fence was the only thing that stopped his car from entering the grandstands, and the only thing that prevented tragedy. In fact, the fence had been reinforced just prior to the event. Had the old one still been in place, the consequences could have been horrifying.

Speeds were already spiraling beyond the 200-mph barrier at Talladega and Daytona when the wreck occurred, and that’s when NASCAR decided to slow things down for the safety of the drivers and fans. The first restrictor plate was used in the 1988 Daytona 500, and they have been in use ever since.

“Probably 10 times the amount of effort is put into the plate program compared to the other programs,” said Larry McReynolds, a former crew chief who works in the television booth for FOX Sports during the first half of each Winston Cup season. “It’s hard to put a specific dollar or time figure on it, but with two teams, there are a couple of guys who work on the restrictor plates specifically for 12 months out of the year.”

There was even a version of the restrictor plate used in the early 1970s, required if drivers chose to use a certain type of engine. However, most pilots opted for standard engines, so the plate was never much of an issue

NASCAR remains hopeful that one day an engine can be built that will be viable on all tracks, but that day has yet to come.

Many drivers still detest the use of restrictor plates, but it’s hard to argue with the safety record of the devices. April’s event here was free of caution flags and accidents, although there was plenty of four- and five-wide racing. So until a better mousetrap is built, plates will remain at NASCAR’s fastest tracks.

And crew chiefs will spend a lot of time trying to figure them out.

“I think everybody works as hard or harder on the four restrictor plate races than they do all the other races combined,” said Robin Pemberton, crew chief for Rusty Wallace. “I think there’s a lot of emphasis put on those races because most other places we go are so much alike.

“The cars are basically the same for short and intermediate tracks with minor changes to set-up. So, there’s a lot of emphasis on the plate races.”

Said Wallace, “Restrictor plate racing is a total mindset. So much of it is not just having patience, but understanding patience, which means not trying to go as fast as you can on every lap of the race. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

Meet the Driver
Rich Mast
DOB: 3/4/57
Hometown: Rockbridge Baths, Va.
Mast drives Sauer’s-sponsored Fords for Junie Donlavey.

A veteran of the Winston Cup circuit, Mast has been a series regular since 1989. He remains winless on the circuit, but won the pole for the inaugural Brickyard 400 and has secured more than $8 million in earnings.

Mast, who started racing at age 16 in the hobby division of a Virginia short track, lists Civil War history as his primary hobby.

Hall of Fame Hopefuls

The 21 finalists for the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, Class of 2003, have been announced, and nine of the nominees have NASCAR ties.

For the fourth straight year Red Byron made the cut. Byron, originally from Colorado, was the first NASCAR champion, winning the Modified title in 1948 and the Grand National – now Winston Cup – crown a year later. Byron is also ranked as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers.

Joining Byron as NASCAR-related finalists are Cannonball Baker, Ray Fox, Harry Gant, Janet Guthrie, Ray Hendrick, Jack Ingram, Cotton Owens, and Ralph Seagraves.

Baker was the first NASCAR commissioner, and set 200 records in different forms of motorsports; Fox was a car builder and crew chief, building cars for the likes of David Pearson, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and Buck Baker; Gant had more than 300 short track victories, won 18 Winston Cup races, claimed 21 Busch Series checkers and won the 1985 IROC title; Guthrie was primarily a sports car driver, but competed in 31 Winston Cup events and three Indy 500s.

Hendrick had more than 500 wins in NASCAR Modified and LM Sportsman competition; Ingram won five NASCAR Late Model/Busch Grand National titles; Owens won more than 400 Modified and Late Model Sportsman races, as well as nine Winston Cup events and 40 as a car owner; and Seagraves was the special events director for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company who initiated RJR’s longtime relationship with NASCAR.

Other nominees are:

  • Clint Brawner – chief mechanic on Indy cars, 30 wins with Mario Andretti and 39 wins in all.
  • Briggs Cunningham – Sports car racer and developer of the Cunninghams.
  • Pete DePaolo – Won two AAA titles, 10 Indy car wins and the 1925 Indy 500.
  • Rene Dreyfus – Gran Prix driver who had 36 victories and 106 finishes in 148 starts.
  • Emerson Fittipaldi – Two-time world champion won two Indy 500s and the CART title in 1989.
  • Oliver Gendebien – Won 24 Hours of LeMans four times, the Targa Floria thrice, and the final Mille Miglia.
  • Bob Harmon – A longtime racing promoter who founded the All-Pro Super Series and All-American 400 race.
  • Ted Horn – Three consecutive Indy car titles and five career wins.
  • Mel Kenyon – USAC Midget champion with 111 career wins and seven titles.
  • Wayne Rainey – Two-time AMA Superbike champion, won three 500cc GP world championships.
  • A.J. Watson – Indy car chief mechanic and car builder with 27 wins, 18 with Rodger Ward.
  • Chuck Yeager – test pilot of “The Right Stuff” fame who set world records in point-to-point flights.

These 21 motorsports figures will be on the final ballot for induction, with six set to be named to the Class of 2003. The inductees will be honored in April of 2003.