Austin Dillon, in the No. 3 car, keeps close company on the way to winning last year's Daytona 500.
Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

Say goodbye Sunday to restrictor-plate racing, but not the restrictions 

Restricting speed in any way was particularly irksome to the late Dale Earnhardt. “If you’re not a race-car driver and not a racer, stay home,” he once famously said. “Don't come here and grumble about going too fast. Stay the hell home. Get out of the race car if you've got feathers on your legs or butt. Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up there and eat that candy butt.”

No, they just don’t make drivers – or quotes – like that anymore. 

So said the man who died at the end of one such restrictor-plate race, the 2001 Daytona 500. And so said the driver considered the master of plate racing, who won 13 times at the two plate superspeedways, Talladega (10) and Daytona (three). Even self-interest wasn’t enough to make “The Intimidator” stop worrying and learn to love the restrictor plate.

“I hate restrictor-plate races – all of ’em. None of ’em are good,” he groused, even as his last career victory came at Talladega.

The only thing constant about racing is change. A new rules package governing car and engine design takes effect in two weeks at Atlanta’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Going forward at Daytona and Talladega, they also will employ alternative methods for controlling speed – other ways of limiting air flow to the engine (which reduces horsepower) and tinkering with the aerodynamics of the car. 

“Restrictor-plate racing” became close to a vile epithet in some circles. It became shorthand for the kind of tightly bunched, bumping and drafting exhibition that stressed teamwork more than the quest to go as fast as physically possible. The inevitable “Big One” at Talladega – the wreck that would take out a large fraction of the field – was boiled down routinely to three words: Restrictor. Plate. Racing.

Drivers will have to come up with some new cursed phrasing now. It won’t be easy. “Tapered spacer racing” just doesn’t have the same impact. 

The fact is, the speed still will be restricted by the new rules, basically serving the same purpose as in 1988 when, alarmed over Bill Elliott’s record qualifying run of 212.809 at Talladega as well as visions of cars rocketing through catch fences and into the seats, the sport made the restrictor plate part of its lexicon. 

Speaking Wednesday at media day for this weekend’s 500, Elliott’s son, Chase, a three-time winner last year, said, “I don’t think it’s going to change the pack racing at these places. You’re still going to see racing bunched up.”

“Restrictor-plate racing has not gone away,” said another racing Georgian, David Ragan. “It’s still going to be the same thing. I feel like we’ve misled people a little bit. It’s the exact same thing, just a different kind of restrictor plate.”

So, don’t think that just because Sunday is billed as the final restrictor-plate race that they’ll be breaking the sound barrier here anytime soon.

Long ago the concept of driving a car just as fast as physics, courage and technology allowed just went away. They don’t make sprinters run with spoilers on their back or restrict Julio Jones air intake on NFL Sundays. But they dare not let these guys explore the limits of their nerve.

“I understand we can go too fast, but how fast is too fast?” Kyle Busch said. “I don’t know.”

And I guess we’ll never know.

The young Elliott is never going to be able to challenge his father’s speed record. But at least he seems OK with that: “They (Bill and his engine-building brother Ernie) should always own it because they made a rule change out of it. If you’re doing something well enough to where they change a rule because of you, I think that’s pretty neat, and you should be able to hold onto it.”

While the sport continues to reign in the impulses of its drivers, a fellow can dream.

There’s the Ryan Blaney fantasy: “Personally I’d like to take the plates off them – no tapered space, no restrictor plates and run whatever angled spoiler you want. I think that would be awesome.

“Run whatever angle spoiler you want (the lower the spoiler, the less the drag – but also less downforce keeping the car from going airborne). Have at whatever, if you’re nuts enough to do it. Just go running. You’re going to go pretty fast – that’s part of it.”

True, in the strictest sense, the restrictor-plate age of racing ends Sunday. But it is being replaced by other limits. In fact, no less an authority than seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson suggests that the new rules will bring more bunched-up, restrictor plate-type racing to more tracks. Tracks like Atlanta.

Earnhardt the elder, wherever his spirit resides, can’t be pleased. 

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About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.