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Why Are Superspeedways So Much Slower Than They Used to Be?

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What’s Happening?

Superspeedway racing in NASCAR has historically been about one simple thing, speed. Superspeedways feature drivers mashing their feet to the floor and simply having their car go as fast as possible. However, speeds have decreased significantly in recent years, and it all goes back to one incident.

  • Superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega were formerly the fastest tracks in NASCAR. Sustained speeds routinely exceeded 200 MPH, even during the race.
  • However, safety concerns caused NASCAR to make some major changes. The slowdown started in the late 1980s.
  • Fans understand why speeds are highly restricted but aren’t necessarily happy about it. Fans naturally want to see cars go faster.

The Beginning of the Slowdown: 1987

Since Talladega and Daytona were both built, speeds generally increased as time went on. Speeds peaked during the 1987 season when the Daytona 500 at Daytona and the Winston 500 at Talladega both featured record pole speeds over 210 MPH. For some perspective, the 1987 Indianapolis 500 pole speed was 215.390 MPH, so, Cup Series cars were genuinely rivaling the world’s fastest closed circuit race cars.

However, the increased speeds also heightened the danger, and that reared its’ ugly head in the 1987 Winsto 500 at Talladega. Bobby Allison blew a motor, and a piece of the motor cut down his tire sending his car flying through the air. The car ripped down the catch fence, just missing the flag stand, and the race was delayed for 2 hours to fix the catch fence.

This was a wake-up call for the industry. The goal became to keep cars where they were supposed to be, on the racing surface. The easiest way to do that was to slow down the cars. NASCAR tinkered with other ideas late in 1987, but, in 1988, a permanent fix was found.

The Restrictor Plate Era: 1988-2019

When NASCAR rolled into Daytona Beach, Florida for Speedweeks in 1988, it was the dawn of a new era for NASCAR racing. Each car would be outfitted with a carburetor restrictor plate to reduce speeds. The plate was placed between the carburetor and the intake manifold, which limited airflow into the carburetor.

The result was a massive reduction in horsepower, and, in turn, reduced speeds. The pole speed for the 1988 Daytona 500 was 193.823 MPH, nearly 17 MPH slower than the 1987 race.

The addition was a controversial one at the time. Racing at Daytona and Talladega became a different beast as the reduced horsepower meant drivers were all running the same speed, leading to large packs of cars. The plates didn’t solve the flying cars problem either as Richard Petty turned over in a violent crash during the race.

However, NASCAR pressed on with the restrictor plates. They tinkered a bit with the size of the holes in the plate or the aero package at times to make the racing product better, but, speeds stayed between the mid-180s to the mid-190s. NASCAR also introduced other safety improvements like roof flaps to keep cars from flying. However, things changed once again in 2019.

Working Into the Next-Gen Era: 2019-Present

In 2019, NASCAR changed its aero package across all tracks to a high downforce, high drag package with 550 horsepower. The resulting reduction of horsepower negated the need for restrictor plates on superspeedways since restrictor plates reduced horsepower to around that level anyway.

The Daytona 500 ran with the 2018 superspeedway rules package, but the change came at the first Talladega race. Some wondered if the racing would change at all without restrictor plates, but, it was fundamentally the same. It turned out to only be a stop-gap before the Next-Gen era.

In 2022, NASCAR introduced the Next-Gen car. During testing, there were two packages, a low horsepower package and a high horsepower package. NASCAR elected to use the high horsepower package for most tracks, but, not superspeedways. The superspeedway package featured 510 horsepower and a 7-inch rear spoiler.

The result was some of the slowest speeds ever seen on superspeedways. The pole speeds with the Next-Gen car at Talladega are 4 of the slowest 5 pole speeds in track history, with the 2011 spring race being the only one slower. Daytona pole speeds are the slowest they have been since the late 1960s.

However, the package also produces a large draft effect, which increases the speed during the race. During a superspeedway race, speeds still routinely get into the mid-190s if drivers are not saving fuel.

Slower speeds exist at Daytona and Talladega due to safety concerns, and NASCAR has kept this up for over 35 years at this point. The avenue for how has changed some in recent years, however.

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Joshua Lipowski

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