“Love Bug Racing” and the Daytona 500

motorsports-nascar-bayneRemember the 2011 Daytona 500? That’s the year that rookie Trevor Bayne became the youngest Daytona 500 winner in history (one day past his 20th birthday). Competing on a part-time basis for Wood Brothers Racing, Bayne bore witness to the adage of “being in the right place at the right time,” benefiting from a temporary style of NASCAR racing called “tandem” drafting in which pairs of cars locked themselves together to take advantage of drafting benefits. The on-track appearance of many two-car hook-ups around the 2.5 mile track caused many to dub the racing style “love bug” racing, and it wasn’t meant as a term of endearment.

Tandem racing came and went quickly on the NASCAR scene, and really only took place on the high-speed, restrictor plate tracks–Daytona and Talladega. It was created by a situation in which the physical configuration of the air intake areas on the front end of the race cars, coupled with the spoiler area of the rear end of the car, allowed two race cars to actually fit together at extremely close distances, effectively making them perform as a single object. At the same time, NASCAR mandated smaller restrictor plate openings in an effort to reduce speed, and the result was the quickly-discovered phenomenon that a pair of cars could “hook up” and propel themselves more nimbly than a single car or a full drafting pack.

The Immediate Problems that Surfaced

It was quickly realized that there were problems with tandem racing, most notably that the car in front was actually steering the car behind. Once a particular car selected a partner and mated with it, the front car controlled the pace and direction, so it became a strategic selection process on the track–especially during pit stops and in the laps immediately following a restart–in which team cars sought each other out and executed their pre-determined pairings. Once the pairs were set, the field settled into a collection of two-car drafts, rather than the full field of head-to-head racing that fans wanted to see.

talladega-tandemTandem racing also presented problems for spotters (for more on what a “spotter” does, check out our earlier post). With two cars mated together, the spotter for the rear car needed to spot for both cars, since the driver had virtually no visibility of the track ahead. The “love bug” phenomenon also produced some interesting pit crew hi-jinks, with some teams resorting to coating the front ends of the cars with adhesives so that they would “stick” better in a tandem draft.

The image above, excerpted from a YouTube video of the April 17, 2011 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway,  provides a look at tandem racing in action.

So, while it was different and “cute” for awhile, race fans clamored for a return to the type of racing that has produced some of the most memorable restrictor plate racing. NASCAR needed to react, and they did.

The Gradual End of “Love Bug” Racing

NASCAR was quick to realize that the tandem drafting style was annoying to its spectator base, as well as to the drivers who needed to deal with it on the track. Perhaps one of the most vocal of the drivers was the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose memorable comment in a Chicago Tribune interview put it pretty succinctly, “It’s not as good as 40 dudes in one pack,”  he said. “Give me that any day over this.”

Beginning with the 2012 season, the NASCAR rule book stipulated two major changes: a reduction in the capacity of the radiators (from five gallons to two gallons) and relocation of the air inlet adjacent to the radiator to a higher spot so that the incoming air is blocked by the bumper of the car in front. These two changes resulted in the inability of the two cars to stay locked together for long periods of time without overheating. The cars would need to separate to get clean air and then reconnect, thus eliminating much of the tandem speed advantage.

Subsequent changes in the front clips and rear spoiler configurations of Cup Cars, coupled with changes in restrictor plate openings, also aided in eventually eliminating “love bug” racing, bringing NASCAR back to the pack racing that makes racing at Daytona and Talladega so edge-of-the-seat exciting. And you can catch the excitement this weekend as the Sprint Cup series returns to Talladega for the cut-off race in the “Round of 12”–four Chasers will be eliminated from Championship contention, so the event promises to produce more than its share of desperation and frustration.

Trevor Bayne’s Surprise Win

While many race fans disliked the “love bug” type of drafting in 2011, it ironically did produce one of the most popular wins in the history of the Daytona 500. Trevor Bayne was part of a wave of young, fresh faces on the NASCAR scene, driving for one of the most respected racing organizations  in the sport–Wood Brothers Racing. It was his first win, in the first race of his rookie season, and it was the Wood Brothers 98th win as a race team (and their fifth Daytona 500 win). All-in-all, it was the stuff of legends, a feat that people will talk about for years to come. Re-live the final laps of this extraordinary event via YouTube…

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