NASCAR broadcasts get a lot of flak, rightfully so, over a real lack of diverse voices, resulting in often dated, out-of-touch commentary, not to mention occasionally being just plain silly. But if there’s one thing NASCAR broadcasts get really, really right, it’s the technical breakdowns of the cars and racing.
That’s a good thing, too, because latest example of one of those breakdowns is over something that’s changing in NASCAR’s top series for the first time in 32 years: A move from restrictor plates to tapered spacers at its two biggest ovals, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
The move means a few changes: namely, taking power from the restricted 410 horsepower to about 550 HP, while adding aero ducts, larger spoilers and larger splitters to increase drag and offset the added power. The spoiler, evident from the Fox animation below, is also massive—like it has been all year.
The biggest change with the air restriction is in terminology, though, since “spacer tracks” doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way “plate tracks” does. As 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch responded when asked about the last traditional “plate” race, the Daytona 500, earlier this year: “Tapered spacers are still restrictor plates.”
They’re just slightly different, as NASCAR on Fox explained with the help of Cup Series crew chief Chad Knaus before the series’ first try with a tapered spacer at Talladega this weekend. A plate limits air intake to the engine with four holes cut out of it, thus dropping power. A tapered spacer does the same.
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As Knaus said, the big difference between a spacer and a plate is how the holes are carved out. On a plate, they’re flat holes. On a spacer, they’re conical in shape, changing things like throttle response and power numbers.
That can be easier to understand visually than in words, though, which is where the animations NASCAR broadcasts have so eloquently down come in—making the slight changes easy to grasp:
Restrictor plates have been a fixture of Daytona and Talladega since the late 1980s, when an airborne Bobby Allison’s car tore apart nearly 100 feet of the catch fence and injured numerous people at Talladega in 1987.
But NASCAR announced it would move to tapered spacers at Daytona and Talladega this season late last year, and that the change would happen after the season-opening Daytona 500—leaving three races, since each track gets two points races per season in the Cup Series. That was along with the series’ new overall rules for 2019, which lowered horsepower with tapered spacers and made aerodynamic changes at tracks throughout the season.
Despite having a similar function to plates, NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell said in its announcement last year that the goal with the tapered spacers at Daytona and Talladega is to “produce exactly what we’ve seen in the past, the side-by-side racing that fans love.” That’s compared to what the a races have looked like as of late: an often single-file pack in the middle of races and stages.
Some of the changes NASCAR throws at its top-level race cars are good, while others create more headaches than entertainment. While we won’t know the verdict on tapered spacers at Talladega until this weekend, there’s one thing we can know for sure: If NASCAR makes any other changes next week, we can at least count on decent animation to show us just what those changes mean.