Restrictor plates easy answer, but are they right one?

Auto Racing

September 17, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

With the historic move of turning today's race at New Hampshire International Speedway into a "restrictor plate" race, NASCAR officials seem to have been looking for a quick fix.

After the deaths of Busch Grand National Driver Adam Petty and Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin at the same spot on the track earlier this season, many called on the sanctioning body to increase track safety.

Three-time Winston Cup champ Jeff Gordon called for soft walls in the middle of the corners "where we only go if we're in real trouble."

Driver Jeff Burton asked for the track to be redesigned.

Current points leader Bobby Labonte wanted NASCAR officials to walk each racetrack before the race weekend with a group of drivers to discuss exactly where protective barriers should be installed.

NASCAR did none of that. But officials had some good reasons, such as concern that soft walls would hold a car, instead of allowing it to slide along while decreasing speed. Holding the car, said NASCAR's chief operating officer, Mike Helton, "could turn every contact with the wall into a major accident."

To officials, the answer seemed obvious:

In the 10 years before the accidents, there had never been a fatality at the track. The track hasn't changed, but the cars are going faster. Therefore, slow the cars and eliminate the problem. The plates are expected to take 10 mph off race speeds.

As Jeremy Mayfield said during a conference call this week: "Without the time to do a lot of testing on soft walls ... what else was there to do? This addresses the speed issue - how fast we go into the corners. It's not the perfect solution, but, for right now, it may very well be the best solution anybody could come up with."

Restrictor plates have been used at the superspeedways to keep the cars on the tracks and out of the grandstands. A side effect has been to bunch them together throughout the race. That means it is more difficult for everyone to get out of each other's way.

Many drivers felt lucky to escape the races at Talladega and Daytona this season without a catastrophe, and NASCAR has been conducting tests to see if there is a better answer.

Now, New Hampshire gets restrictor plates without any testing of how cars will react there under racing conditions.

Just how it will turn out, no one really knows.

Local talent

Asphalt race tracks are extinct in Maryland, but asphalt racers aren't. Little boys - and girls - can no longer go to Beltsville Speedway to see Winston Cup stars, who used to race at a regular series stop there in the early days of the sport. Even in the late '70s, drivers such as Bobby Allison and Neil Bonnett used to stop by to run in a late-model stock car race or two.

The track no longer exists, but that hasn't stopped Marylanders from becoming race fans and it hasn't stopped several state residents from excelling in motor sports.

A couple of weeks ago, Doug Mills of Hagerstown clinched the Grand American AGT (American Grand Touring) driver's title in NASCAR's Grand American Road Racing Series at the age of 58.

Now, comes word that Nick Woodward, 20, who grew up in Preston on Maryland's Eastern Shore, has won the Atlantic Seaboard regional championship and the $40,550 that goes with it in NASCAR's Weekly Racing Series for Late Models.

Driving for the first time this season for car owner Steve James, Woodward won 14 of 18 races at his designated track, Southampton Motor Speedway in Capron, Va. That performance was also good enough to make him runner-up nationally.

Gary Webb, 51, who raced at Dubuque (Iowa) Fairgrounds Speedway, won 16 of 18 races to edge Woodward for the top spot. Webb's prize money totaled $150,000.

"I've been able to climb the ladder," said Woodward, a senior at High Point (N.C.) University, where he is majoring in business management and has a 3.27 grade-point average.

"I've been racing something for 12 years and I've been in this series for four," Woodward said. "Next season, I hope to move up to Busch Grand National.'`

Woodward said that because he goes to school in North Carolina, he is positioned to meet people in the auto-racing business, and he has hired Keystone Marketing Group to help him find the elusive Busch ride.

Keystone, in fact, helped him find his current sponsor, and Woodward hopes the group will "be able to guide me along."

He has built a resume that Keystone can work with. Woodward started racing go-karts at 9 with his dad and won the national title in 1994. He drove Dwarf' cars (tiny cars with motorcycle engines) at Delaware International Speedway in Delmar, Del., and then, at 16, stepped into late-models on the dirt at Hagerstown Speedway. A year later, he was rookie of the year on pavement at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, Va.

And now, he's Atlantic Seaboard regional champ.

From where Woodward is sitting, anything is possible.

He'll return to Preston Dec. 2 for Nick Woodward Day.

Dover triple play

On Friday, Dover Downs International Speedway will become the only track to feature NASCAR's three major racing series on the same day. Winston Cup and Busch Grand National cars will qualify for their Sunday and Saturday events, respectively, while the Craftsman trucks will race the one-mile oval for the first time at 4:15 p.m.

Tickets are still available for each of the three days of racing, though seating is limited for Sunday's Winston Cup event. For information, call 800-441-RACE.

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