In a sport built around hero-type drivers guiding monstrous rumbling stock cars, Talladega Superspeedway is the most superlative track of them all.

Talladega is the biggest track in NASCAR. It is the fastest track in NASCAR. And, fittingly, it is capable of producing wrecks of epic proportions, crashes one normally doesn't see in the abnormal world of stock-car racing.

The actual racing is as exciting as Russian roulette. You win with luck, a fast pit crew, a good aerodynamic profile, and a good spotter. Driving skills are perhaps less important here than at any other NASCAR track.

Until, that is, The Big One is unfolding 500 feet ahead of you and 15 cars are piling up in an thoroughly opaque cloud of smoke. You'll need quick reflexes and a divining rod, or else your bumper will T-bone another unlucky car, and it's back to the garage for you.

Welcome to Talladega.


Located 40 miles east of Birmingham, Alabama, the Talladega grounds could house a small city. The oval — well, it's actually a tri-oval — is 2.6 miles in diameter and banks to a 33 percent incline on each of the three gentle curves.

The upshot is that drivers do not ever have to step off the accelerator. Talladega was built for speed, pure and simple.

Problem is, NASCAR got too good. As money poured into the sport, the cars starting going about 210 mph, which is beyond reasonable for a stock car. This came to a head in 1987 when Bobby Allison went airborne on a crash, flying 300 feet into the air and spiraled into the fence that protected the fans in the grandstand. The fence buckled and a few spectators were slightly hurt, but disaster was narrowly averted.

NASCAR had to do something, and after a decade of unsuccessful workarounds, the sport introduced the restrictor plate. The plate is a simple thing; it's just a thin piece of aluminum that goes between the carburetor and the intake manifold and prevents proper air intake into the engine. It changed superspeedway racing forever.


Say you're an ordinary person driving on a busy two-lane road. You hit a red light, and the cars around you stop. Say there's 21 cars idling in one lane and 22 cars in the other, and you're stuck in the middle. You've got a foot or two of space between the cars in front of and behind you. Just a normal tight packing of commuters waiting for the light to turn green.

Now picture that a bunch of race cars are that far apart, and that they're going 190 miles per hour. This is restrictor plate racing.

The restrictor plate keeps air out of the engine, which kills the horsepower. It slows the field down to a safer 190 mph, but it also is the great equalizer. Instead of having strong cars and weak cars, all the cars are now extremely weak.

Even more importantly, the lack of horsepower prevents any car from leaving the pack. Drafting — the process in which a group of cars driving in close single file can go faster than any solitary car — is always important in NASCAR, but at restrictor plate races drafting becomes paramount. Nobody has any horsepower, so no one can survive without a drafting partner. Hence, no one can break out in front of the pack, because the pack can just team up in two 22-car drafts and catch the leader easily.

And the pack stays tight, going around and around the 2.6-mile track in formation like they're the Blue Angels. Except that they're not stunt pilots, they're racers, and eventually a mistake will be made. Some car in the pack will spin out for whatever reason — a flat tire, getting bumped in the fender, whatever — and in a blink of an eye, half the field will be shredded to bits.

That's what happened in the spring of 2002, in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega. Twenty-four cars got smashed in one crash. The day before, in the Busch Series race, 27 cars got taken out in The Big One. That's what's happened at the other restrictor-plate track, Daytona International Speedway. It's like watching World's Wildest Police Chases; you know what's going to eventually happen.


How do you win at Talladega? Here's hashbrownie's guide:

  • Stay near the lead of the pack. When The Big One comes, you want all the crashin' to happen behind you.
  • Get a good spotter. Your spotter is the eye in the sky who's watching your position and constantly bartering with other drivers to arrange draft partners. Being left out alone as cars pass you on both sides is instant doom.
  • The protuding nail gets hammered. Don't be special. Don't get out far in front or far in back. Stay in the pack, or else you won't have a draft partner.
  • Pray. You'll need it.


One final note about Talladega: In its second race of 2002, the EA Sports 500, NASCAR managed to put on a race without any big crashes. This was accomplished thanks to a new gas tank rule, which shrank them by about one-half. This forced cars to pit more often, and coupled with the lengthy time it took for cars to get up to track speed after pitting (because of the lack of horsepower), the big group didn't really form.

On the other hand, this might have been just exceedingly good luck. If there's a timely caution flag, then everyone pits, and once the racing starts up again, the big pack is back. Moreover, when half the racing consists of pitting and getting back up to speed, one wonders what exactly the fans are paying to watch.


Track specifications:
Diameter: 2.66 miles
Width: 48 feet (12-foot apron)
Turn banks: 33 degrees
Turn length: 3,750 feet
Turn radius: 1,100 feet
Tri-oval "straightaway": 18 degree banking
Frontstretch: 2,150-foot chute, 4,300 total, no banking
Backstretch: 4,000 feet long, no banking
Pit row: 3,000 feet long, 48 feet wide


Sources:
Specs: http://foxsports.lycos.com/named/Story/FullText/Nascar/Tracks/103103.adp?categoryId=103103
Restrictor plates: http://www.nascar.com/2002/news/opinion/allison/04/21/aliison_column/
More restrictor plates: http://www.tzenterprises.com/nascar/story02/restrictor-plate-questions_071102.html
And more plates: http://nascar.about.com/library/weekly/aa041398.htm
Official Web site: http://www.talladegasuperspeedway.com/

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