Each NASCAR season, there is what is known as “restrictor plate racing”. This type of racing occurs in the larger superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega. Inside the cars, a small piece of aluminum is placed between the air intake manifold and the carburetor. This plate restricts the airflow into the combustion chamber thus giving it the name “restrictor plate”. The restriction of the air intake limits the amount of horsepower the engine produces thus limiting the speed. Restrictor plates are required at larger tracks due to the numerous injuries and fatalities that have occurred due to, at least in part, by the 200+ mph lap speeds.
At these larger tracks with these restrictor plate races, there seems to be one wreck each race that takes out many of the cars known as the “Big One”. It is not a question of if it will happen, but a matter of when.
During the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway Saturday night, there was a wreck that occurred just over halfway through the race on lap 89 that involved and collected 22 of the 40 drivers. That wreck paled in comparison to the big one that occurred during the Coke Zero 400 last year.
Last year, after Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish to take the checkered flag the big one occurred. In a scary, yet spectacular display of smoke, fire, and debris, 24 cars were involved in a vicious wreck that claimed the car of Austin Dillon. Dillon, fortunately, was able to get out of what was left of the car and walk away. Right before he crossed the finish line, Denny Hamlin got loose coming around the final turn and ended up sideways. As he loses control, he turns completely around and catches the side of Dillon sending him airborne. Dillon’s number 3 car crashes into the catch fence and gets torn apart by the force of the impact. What is left of the body and frame is deposited back onto the track on the roof after the collision with the fence and the entire engine block is thrown to the infield. The frame of the car, the harness that holds the driver in place, and the catch fence are all safety features resulting from previous accidents, the same accidents that have led to the use of restrictor plates.
So why do these large accidents happen? The restrictor plate, in addition to the safety aspects the restrictor plates provide, they also help to even the field and keep the cars in a tighter pack or group. However, the closeness is what exactly can cause the initial wreck and is why there are so many cars involved. The way the aerodynamic packages are set up on the cars, the closer they are side to side the lower the drag is on the car. This is known as side drafting. The drag is the down force in the rear end of the car and the down force is what keeps the rear of the car on the track. Because side drafting lowers the drag, the more likely the cars are going to lose rear traction causing them to spin out. When all 40 drivers are in one group, the likelihood of one car getting loose increases and when a car does lose control, it is more likely to take out more of the field, thus resulting in the nickname, the “Big One”.