DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Speed is the object.
Race drivers always try to go faster.
Engine builders are forever searching for more horsepower.
Car builders keep working toward slicker aerodynamics, ways of making their cars knife through the air with less friction.
So why is the pole-winning speed for today's $1.5 million Daytona 500 NASCAR stock car race nearly 17 m.p.h. slower than a year ago?
The answer: a carburetor restrictor plate.
The reason: safety.
But not the safety of the competitors. Rather, NASCAR set out to end the days of 200 m.p.h. laps in the interest of the paying customers in the grandstand.
"I don't think there's any doubt of it," Bobby Allison said. "Those two crashes last year brought to the attention of NASCAR the potential for disaster that was there. Something had to be done. I'm just not in love with the way they did it."
Allison, 50, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and the 1983 Winston Cup champion, was referring to incidents last year at Daytona International Speedway and at Alabama International Motor Speedway in Talladega, Ala., the two tracks where stock cars have routinely qualified and raced at more than 200 m.p.h. in recent years.
Journeyman driver Phil Barkdoll, who had been running near 200 m.p.h., got airborne during one of the 125-mile qualifying races here last February, slamming rear-end first into the fence near the end of the main grandstand. It was frightening, but the fence stood, and there were no injuries to driver or spectators.
Then, at Talladega during the Winston 500 in May, Allison was doing an estimated 210 m.p.h. on the main straightaway when his car slid sideways, swooped into the air and took out 75-feet of cable-supported steel fencing in front of the packed grandstand.
Debris from the car and the shattered fencing flew into the packed stands, causing several minor injuries among the spectators. Allison's car wound up back on the race track and the driver was not hurt.
"That was too close," Allison said. "I think it was the trigger that got this (slowing down the cars) started.
"They were going to do something eventually anyway. NASCAR already had an awful lot of information on skirts and side windows and things like that, but they didn't know how to put it to work. That (crash) kind of forced their hand."
The first thing the sanctioning body did was order the teams to use smaller carburetors at the two major superspeedways in an effort to slow the cars down, as well as the skirts and right-side windows to keep air from flowing through the car and helping get them airborne if they get sideways.
Those things worked well enough in the July races at Daytona and Talladega, slowing the cars down by about 7 m.p.h. But, in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona, Ken Schrader's car did get into the air before hitting the wall on the last lap and barrel-rolling across the finish line.
Back to the drawing board went NASCAR, this time coming up with the carburetor restrictor plate which will get its first real racing test Sunday.
The plate, with four precise one-inch holes punched in it, is issued by NASCAR to each team prior to qualifying and the race. It is screwed down on top of the carburetor, limiting the flow of air and gas and decreasing power in the racing engines by up to 200 horsepower.
"I don't like carburetor plates," Allison said. "They're a lot more expensive than smaller engines or smaller carburetors because you've still got to build a 700 horsepower engine to sit under them. And if that one doesn't produce enough horsepower with the plate on it, then you have to build five more big engines to try to find one with more power.
"But it is slowing everybody down."
Schrader won the pole position for today's race with a fast lap of 193.823 m.p.h., compared with the track record of 210.364 by Bill Elliott last February.