Michael Waltrip's excitement was literally "through the roof" after winning at Talladega Speedway in September 2003. Celebrating in the infield, Waltrip emerged from his car via what NASCAR terms an "alternate exit," a roof hatch.
Since then, however, the optional roof hatch is a virtual no-show at the racetrack. What happened?
According to one source who wanted to remain anonymous, "If it's optional and it doesn't make the car go faster, we don't use it."
But it's not quite as simple as that.
Steve Peterson, NASCAR's technical director since 1995, helped develop the hatch at NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. "It goes back a ways, to the early 2000 era, when it looked like roof hatches really would be a good idea," Peterson said. "It was at the time that we started developing it, which took about a year and a half."
Engineers worked to build a roof hatch that would maintain the stability of the roof while not affecting the performance of the car.
"During that time, manufacturers were also building larger and larger head surrounds," Peterson said. "In the early days, you could stand straight up in your seat if you had the roof hatch open. Today you have to kind of twist sideways and turn and come straight up. The larger head surrounds made it more difficult for a driver to stand straight up in his seat. So to take the roof hatch off and to go out through the roof hatch became more difficult.
"But guess what? The larger head surrounds were negating the need to be able to pull a driver out through the roof if he had difficulties because we were getting better results from the impacts. The head surrounds are bigger for a reason. They're protecting the driver in side and frontal impacts."