Wednesday, February 12, 2003
After 200 mph, time to rein in the horses
By GODWIN KELLY
DAYTONA BEACH — In the first half of the 1980s, the mindset of the Winston Cup competitor at Daytona International Speedway was speed -- a raw, blinding, mind-boggling, piston-driven blur on the high banks.
As engine components and aerodynamics improved during the decade, teams found themselves in a race to reach the 200-mph mark over the 2.5-mile course.
Benny Parsons, the 1975 Daytona 500 winner, set the table for the magic mark at Daytona when he tiptoed to 200.176 mph in qualifying for the 1982 spring race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Parsons, 61, now lives in Daytona Beach and has long been a racing commentator for television.
“I guess 200 was a big deal,” Parsons said. “I was an active participant then and not part of the media, so to me it was just run the best you could.
“The fact it was 197 or 205 didn´t make any difference. I don´t know if the drivers were impressed with the speed. Drivers are impressed with victories, and I was the same way.”
The quest for 200 mph at Daytona gained momentum in 1983. During time trials that year at DIS, Cale Yarborough topped 200 mph on his first lap around the tri-oval and was gaining speed on his second lap under the NASCAR clock.
He was running at about 201 mph when his car flipped on its roof and backed into the outside retaining wall in Turn 4.
Yarborough was not injured, but his Chevrolet was mangled beyond repair. Car owner Harry Ranier was forced to withdraw the entry from competition and put Yarborough into a backup car.
Since Yarborough went to a backup, the first official lap over 200 mph was not counted by NASCAR.
Ricky Rudd, driving the Richard Childress Chevrolet, was awarded the pole position for his lap of 198.864 mph. Rudd remembers that lap well because the stock cars of the day had no aerodynamic downforce and little stability on qualifying day.
“I had my hands full on my laps,” Rudd said. “Those were different times. That was a white-knuckle affair around here because you had a small rear spoiler and it was laid back 10 degrees and you were running like 200. You needed every inch of racetrack to get around here.”
And so the drama for race fans had another year to build.
In 1984 Yarborough fulfilled his destiny, earning the Daytona 500 pole position with a lap of 201.848 mph.
With his name forever engraved in the Speedway record book, Yarborough passed the speed baton to Bill Elliott, a relatively unknown driver from north Georgia.
Elliott, driving a pointed-nosed Ford Thunderbird, won the Daytona 500 pole in 1985 with an amazing lap of 205.114 mph.
“I didn´t get caught up in the media side of it,” Elliott said. “I was removed from that side of the deal. My goal was to run as fast as I could go no matter if it was 190 or 250. That´s all I cared about.
“I just asked ‘How fast can we go?’ I don´t deal in miles per hour. I deal in seconds. I deal in the time it takes you to get around the racetrack.”
A 200-mph lap at Daytona takes exactly 45 seconds.
Now imagine the track announcer, Barney Hall, reading off “42.783 seconds” for Elliott´s pole run in 1987. That translates to 210.364 mph.
“There were building blocks to 200 mph and then I leaped through that,” Elliott said. “I went from 200 to 210 mph in a matter of no time.”
Elliott knew he had a fast car. He honestly didn´t know if he was going to bring it back in one piece during 1987 time trials.
“When I left pit road, I didn´t know if I was coming back,” Elliott said. “I was on to something that no one had ever been. Cale made it to 200 mph in ´82 but ended up on his lid in Turn 4.
“I was going into real uncharted territory. I don´t know if there was a sense of danger. It was just that nobody had ever done what we did.”
Danger. The danger of excess speed.
NASCAR, blinded by the fan appeal of 200 mph, got several warning signs but didn´t pick up on the messages.
“We were getting hints,” Parsons said. “We just weren´t picking them up.”
In 1983 the stock cars of Bruce Jacobi and Rusty Wallace set sail out of Turn 2 during the qualifying races. Jacobi´s crash sent him into a coma and he was bedridden until is death in 1987. Wallace, whose accident was nearly identical, was not injured.
In 1984 Rudd, driving Bud Moore´s Ford, had a violent barrel roll in the tri-oval during the Busch Clash.
“You talk about safety and where we´re at today vs. that thing I was driving,” Elliott said. “I´m surprised that more people, I mean, we got through that era pretty well, even as bad as Bobby´s wreck was in 1987.”
Bobby Allison´s terrifying accident in the Winston 500 at Talladega put the brakes on NASCAR´s venture into 200 mph country.
Allison´s Buick, running in the lead pack of cars at about 206 mph, cut a rear tire going into the elbow turn of the tri-oval and launched into the metal catch fence protecting spectators in the grandstand.
The fence repelled Allison´s car and spit it back onto the track.
“Man, it looked like a bomb went off,” driver Sterling Marlin said of Allison´s accident scene. “I was just hoping everybody was OK in the stands. When we came back around, I couldn´t believe how the fence was laid down and there was shrapnel laying everywhere. It was a freak deal.”
Dozens of race fans suffered cuts and bruises. One spectator lost sight in the left eye from the shower of debris. Allison was shaken but not injured.
From the moment Allison´s car lifted off the asphalt that day, stock car racing was forever changed.
NASCAR immediately hit the brakes on the quest for speed and explored ways to slow cars at Daytona and Talladega.
“With the insurance they got, they can´t run over 200,” Marlin said.
NASCAR tried a smaller carburetor first, then decided to use restrictor plates to slow the asphalt thoroughbreds.
“It was tough to go slower,” Childress said. “Racers are born to be fast and go as fast as you can. When you put a bridle on them and pull back, it´s hard. It was hard for all of us to get used to running slower. But we knew for the sport that´s what we had to do.”
Ten years after Elliott´s record run with an unrestricted engine, Mike Skinner won the Daytona 500 pole with a lap of 189.813 mph. Winston Cup cars are now even slower than that at Daytona.
At the time, Elliott and Parsons didn´t think much about their 200-mph achievements. When they look back now, it´s a different story.
“Here were are 20 some years later and we´re still talking about me being the first guy to go 200,” Parsons said with a sense of wonder.
“Out of all the accomplishments I´ve ever done, going 210 at Daytona is the one that impresses me the most,” Elliott said.