CHARLOTTE _ Last week NASCAR officials met with team members and drivers to discuss possible changes coming to the sport for the fast-approaching season. Among those proposed changes are allowing drivers to bump-draft and a re-examination of the yellow line rule on the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega.
While the yellow line rule is relatively new to NASCAR, bump-drafting and aggressiveness on the superspeedways is something that has been around for years. As restrictor plate racing evolved in the late 1980s and early 90s, the slingshot move gave way to aggressive bump-drafting and the "Big One" kept getting bigger and bigger each year.
Perhaps no driver understood that better than Rusty Wallace. Twice in 1993, during the season-opening Daytona 500 and four months later at Talladega, Wallace was sent flying through the air in wild end-over-end wrecks. While he was able to walk away from both – although the Talladega incident left him with a broken wrist – those wrecks left a lasting impression on the 1989 Cup Series champion.
So, when veteran Neil Bonnett and up-and-comer Rodney Orr were killed prior to the 1994 Daytona 500, Wallace knew things had to change.
Standing up in front of his peers and fellow competitors, Wallace called on everyone in the room to do a better job policing themselves and using restraint on the track. Driving his point home, Wallace ended by saying, “I think everybody's got more concern for this race than they’ve had in a long time. I’d even go out on a limb and say I think every damn body in this room is running a bit scared, and I’ll tell you my wife is damn scared and I think the rest of your wives and family are too. So use your damn heads, please.”
This weekend I was able to catch up with Wallace as he was being inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame to discuss his message to his fellow competitors and what he thought of NASCAR’s possible changes for 2010.
“I’ll never forget that because the year before I went end over end at Daytona in 1993 and four months later I went over again and I said, ‘Man, we’re wrecking because we’re hitting each other,’” Wallace said. “That particular speech I sat them all down and said we need to stop hitting each other. You control the brake, you control the gas, you steer with your own hands. It’s our own fault you run into people.”
Wallace’s speech, while moving, did little to prevent further incidents from happening. As the years have gone on, bump-drafting and aggressiveness have only increased. Now with the fields glued together in huge packs of cars, the margin for error is forever narrowing.
Understanding the risks and attempting to remedy the situation, NASCAR implemented the yellow-line rule to put a visible boundary on the track the competitors knew was out of bounds. Despite NASCAR’s best efforts, this rule has continuously caused debate and controversy since its inception.
To further "help" the superspeedway problem, last October at Talladega NASCAR surprised drivers prior to the race, informing them bump-drafting of any kind – especially through the corners – would not be allowed. This resulted in a lackluster race in which drivers paraded around the speedway in single-file line before all hell broke loose at the end.
Now, less than a month before the Daytona 500, NASCAR is working with the teams to re-examine both of these rules. The consensus was that bump-drafting would go back to self-policing amongst the competitors themselves, unlike October’s race at Talladega. Drivers emerging from these meetings seemed to be in favor of what NASCAR had to say on bump-drafting and expressed that sentiment on various social networking sites.
The yellow line rule, however, has seen a variety of opinions from the competitors.
“It's been wild no matter what set of rules they give us,” Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch said. “I remember the days of watching Jeff Gordon slide up from the flat up onto the banking to make passes going into the Turn 1 without the double yellow line rule. Then there's the side effect of this double yellow line rule, and that is you use it as a boundary line. You use it to force other drivers to maneuver in ways that they wouldn't normally maneuver. So there's always a Catch 22.”
“The yellow line rule I think needs to stay, just my opinion,” Michael Waltrip Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. added. “I think there's only six or eight feet from the yellow line to the grass. Where do you go when you get in the grass? You've got to keep the cars out of the grass somehow because that would be bad.”
As far as Wallace, he feels the changes being made by NASCAR 16 years after his passionate speech are good for the sport.
He argues that by allowing the drivers to be in control of their fate and showing a bit more personality, the racing will be more exciting. In terms of the yellow line rule, Wallace agrees the boundary needs to be in place, just not for the entire race. His idea is to section off a number of laps the rule is enforced, and then when it gets down to, as he put it, “crunch time” let the drivers figure it out for themselves.
NASCAR appears poised to let the drivers do just that, and while nothing has been formally announced as of yet, it is expected the sanctioning body will address these issues later this week during the Media Tour in Charlotte.
Either way, it seems NASCAR will continually be chasing that perfect balance of competition and safety on the superspeedways.
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