I used to be a big fan of pack racing (and of NASCAR). But over the past few years, I’ve come to dislike pack racing more and more, and have come to view it as straight-up reckless! In fact, I would go so far as to say that pack racing is asking for someone to die! And I believe I can prove that point.
After watching replays of various superspeedway races in NASCAR from the 1980s to the 2000s, I found a very interesting pattern. In the 80s, cars would spread out within the first lap and the packs would be quite small. In the 90s, the field started to tighten-up and it took longer to become spread-out. In the 2000s, it was nearly impossible for a group of 2 or 3 cars to get more than 2 or 3 car lengths away from the main pack. And throughout that decade, with the exception of the COT era vehicles, the pack just kept getting tighter and tighter. And the trend continued once NASCAR ended the COT era.
In 2001, this tight racing (which wasn’t as tight back then as it is today) cost Dale Earnhardt his life in the final lap of the Daytona 500 when contact with two other cars sent him head-on into a solid concrete wall. While there were other contributing factors to his death (like him not wearing a HANS device in that race), the tight pack racing was the primary contributor. NASCAR also didn’t do anything in response to the accident. They waited until the season was almost over when a nearly identical ARCA series crash at Charlotte killed another driver. The HANS device and (to a lesser extent) SAFER barrier are the only reasons NASCAR continues to get away with tighter packs.
In fact, rather than spreading these cars out and encouraging safe driving behavior, they creating pack racing at even more tracks, and creating gimmicks that encourage drivers to make risky moves when there is zero room to maneuver. They are encouraging big crashes in these tight packs hoping that the safety technology in the cars and on the track will save the drivers. This is just plain reckless!
Also, over the past decade, another safety factor has come into play: Spectator safety as numerous cars have ended up going over the SAFER barrier and over the concrete into the catch fences. Nearly every crash where a car goes into the catch fence destroys both the car, and the section of catch fence that was crashed into, instantly! The catch fence is more dangerous than any other type of barrier for the driver because when the car hits the catch fence, it usually goes from 190 mph to a complete stop instantly. Something that has never happened with the SAFER barrier. And with the exception of the 2009 Talladega race, every one of those catch fence crashes has been the result of pack racing. It’s only a matter of time before someone in the stands gets killed during a pack race because the car proved to be too much for the fence to hold back.
IndyCar has also been doing some pack racing lately, apparently trying to copy NASCAR. And while an IndyCar crash is safer for the spectators because of the lighter cars, it is far more dangerous for the drivers because the cockpits are exposed everywhere. The geometry of the cockpits are only enough to make sure that an upside down car doesn’t crush the driver. In a 2011 race at Las Vegas, Dan Wheldon paid the price of pack racing when his car went cockpit-first into the catch fence during “the big one” on lap 12 of 200. The race was canceled because of the accident, but IndyCar is still trying to do pack racing at some of the ovals that it visits. The only reason they have continued to get away with pack racing (except for the 2011 Las Vegas race) is because the cars are so fragile that drivers must avoid contact at all costs, lest it be rendered undrivable in a crash. And in the event of a major crash, the cockpit is the only part of the car that will remain intact. And again, it’s only a matter of time before something like Las Vegas happens again. Every time IndyCar does a pack race, they are relying solely on a drivers will to stay alive to overpower their will to win the race.
Now, both series have the ability to spread these cars out. IndyCar just has to make a rule limiting the amount of downforce that can be run at the larger tracks and that alone will be enough to spread the cars out. NASCAR just has to remove the restrictor plates at the shorter tracks which they introduced at the shorter tracks for the purpose of producing pack races. At Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR will need to work a bit harder to get these cars spread out. NASCAR’s low-downforce package does nothing to spread the cars out at the two superspeedways. But there are other ways NASCAR can eliminate pack racing. They can reduce the width of the tires, thereby making it impossible to go full throttle all the way around, or they can significantly increase the top speed of the cars. In doing so, the speed of the cars will simply be too high for the turns and they will be forced to slow down if they don’t want to crash, just like every other track NASCAR runs on. And if the higher speeds would prove too dangerous on their own, NASCAR could increase the speeds slightly while also reducing the tire width slightly. The combined reduction in grip with the increase in speeds would have the same effect. And the cars only needs to be required to lift slightly for the turns to spread the field out. Once a car has to lift (even slightly) to make the corner, then no amount of drafting will be able to keep a pack together. In fact, drafting will only make it so that you have to lift even more.
In conclusion, while pack racing does provide some exciting racing, it is also incredibly dangerous for both the drivers, and the spectators in the grandstands. It’s something that simply shouldn’t be done in racing.
EDIT [September 26, 2018]: I just now realized that I missed the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles (which started the evening before September 24) which is a special Sabbath. Oops! The 8th day is also a special Sabbath and there will be no blog post on October 1, 2018.