January 7, 2008
When Drivers Can't See
Remember when the COT cars went to
Talladega last fall? There was a good deal of worry prior to the
race, because in testing some of the drivers complained about
problems seeing over the spoilers of the cars in front of them. On
Dave Despain’s Inside NEXTEL Cup the topic came up, and Brian
Vickers mentioned his concern. Michael Waltrip seemed to take
objection to the thought. He snapped back, "If you can’t see through
that wing, put your damn booster seat in."
No question that Waltrip was just a
little sarcastic and dismissive about what is a real issue for the
average guy. Michael himself might not be affected, because, after
all, he is about seven feet tall.
I first became aware of the whole
vision thing in racing one Sunday night in 1970. They were having
one of those fabulous 100-lap open competition modified races on the
half mile dirt at Lebanon Valley (NY) Speedway. The great warrior
out of Tampa, Florida, "Wily Will" Cagle showed up in a big old
sedan with a beefy big block. The car had center seating, and Will
had installed a huge internal wing that went from the bottom of the
front firewall right up to the underside of the rear roof. Everyone
I had a real good look at it, because
in the feature I started right behind Will. It was scary. Looking
ahead in a race car, you need to be able to see right through the
rows of cars in front of you in order to avoid wrecks. Cagle’s wing
was so high that all I could see was the back of his car. It was the
equivalent of following the back bumper of a trailer truck in a
Honda at 100 mph – in rush hour traffic. And, as I recall, Will got
wrecked that night. From behind, though I am pleased to say not by
The whole visibility issue became
more and more serious over the years. Full-bodied asphalt cars got
lower and lower to the ground, as compared to the normally more
upright dirt cars. To make vision even more challenging, of course,
the late model type cars have much longer hoods than a dirt car.
But what really brought things to a
head was when clever racers began to realize the positive handling
impact of lowering the driver himself way down in the car. A lot of
folks first noticed this trend with Dale Earnhardt Sr. Sometimes in
those black Goodwrench cars it seemed that all you could see was the
top of the Intimidator’s helmet.
Earnhardt really was an extraordinary
chauffeur. Everyone talks about how he was so good at the draft that
he could "see air." But, given where he sat in those long wheelbase
cars, he had to also have just amazing spatial orientation as well.
Imagine how difficult it must have been for him to be able to know
exactly where his front end actually was relative to the cars in
front of him – or the wall.
Over the years, other NASCAR
competitors have had to learn this special skill. All of them were
helped big time by better spotters and radios. Yet, it is a major
consideration of which few fans are even aware. Just think how
difficult it would be to adjust to this kind of environment after
coming out of an open wheel modified, a sprinter, or a formula
one/Champ Car configuration.
Just put in a booster seat? Get real,
© 2008 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181