As the Nextel Cup series makes its second swing through Daytona, Fla., with Saturday's Pepsi 400, get ready to hear the term bump drafting. Depending on whom you believe, bump drafting is either A) a dangerous practice that shows a lack of respect and could get someone killed, B) a positive thing that allows frustrated drivers to pass when they otherwise would be unable to, or C) something you won't have to worry about much longer either way.
What is this practice that elicits praise from one driver and cursing from the guy in the next garage stall?
Simply put, bump drafting is a byproduct of regular drafting, which is as much a part of Daytona as seagulls and old men with metal detectors wearing black socks on the beach. Drafting allows slower cars to stay close to faster cars because the faster cars (presumably at the front of the pack) battle the wind resistance while the slower cars are pulled forward in the ensuing vacuum. Thus you have two long lines of traffic that can only go as fast as the two front cars. Passing becomes almost impossible.
While fans in the stands love watching and hearing the freight train roar by them every minute or so, the drivers start to feel like they're merely riding a train. And drivers don't like that. So somewhere along the line, someone figured out that by tapping the rear bumper of the car in front of the pack, it gave that car a little boost, which in turn pulled the rest of the line along with him. Voila. Instant passing.
Unfortunately, this doesn't always benefit the driver being bumped. If you have seen police car chases on TV, you have probably seen a police car put the car it is chasing into a spin with a mere tap on the bumper. At the speeds cars carry around Daytona International Speedway, it doesn't take much to get someone sideways.
"I think it is positively, absolutely idiotic, period," said Kyle Petty of bump drafting a couple of years ago. "At 180 miles per hour, whether you're running in a straight line or in the corner, you shouldn't be running into people. We should be better drivers. Let's go back 10, 15, 20 years. Who heard of bump drafting? People raced each other clean."
Ricky Rudd, a contemporary of Petty's, says he saw the "need" for bump drafting develop in another series several years ago at Daytona.
"You had to bump each other to get ahead in the IROC cars," Rudd said. It's nothing but line racing. One line racing the other."
Relative newcomer Jamie McMurray actually welcomes the occasional tap from behind.
"That's the highlight of the day for the drivers because it's very boring racing," he said. "There's guys you trust, and you see them coming, and you know it's not going to be a big deal. And then there are other guys where you just hold on and hope they hit you square."
It's a fine line, one that makes such drivers as Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon demand NASCAR's intervention just as other competitors such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Elliott Sadler ask them to stay out.
"We are all going to blame it on restrictor plate racing," Sadler said. "But we have all got brake pedals in the car."
Eventually, NASCAR did get involved, first through warnings in pre-race drivers' meetings, then through the rulebook. They created No Bump Zones on the track, and limited the bracing that teams were putting on the noses of the car, making them softer so that any attempt to bump draft could cause the nose to get bent out of shape, which in an aerodynamic race can send you to the back pretty quickly. But bump drafting still exists, for now. Next year, perhaps not.
The Car of Tomorrow was designed to level the playing field in many areas. It was also designed with bump drafting in mind. The front and rear bumpers are the same height. While the COT will not be used this Saturday, it will be used full time, including all races at Daytona and Talladega, next season. Until then, get ready to hear the term bump drafting used several times. Sometimes with a smile. Sometimes in disgust.