When fans get ready to watch the Daytona 500 next February there will be a few new rule changes. NASCAR will have a different way to qualify the cars and we also have a brand new race car that will make its debut in February. That certainly is a lot of change.
Over the years we have had some new rule changes coming into Daytona but in 1991 there was a rule change that was really strange. The new rules that year confused fans, media members, fans and maybe even NASCAR at some times. NASCAR told the teams they were changing the way they would do pit stops.
The new pit procedure changed because of an accident that happened during the 1990 season finale Atlanta Journal 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That afternoon Mike Rich of Bill Elliott's #9 team lost his life due to a pit road incident. Rich was the rear tire changer on Elliott's car and was making a routine pit stop under caution when an accident occurred that crushed Rich between Elliott's car and another competitors car.
Back in 1990, rules for pitting cars weren't the same as they are today. There was no such thing as pit road speed. Electronic scoring wasn't introduced yet and drivers could go as fast as they needed to down pit road. Most times teams would be pitting cars with other cars driving past at 130+ miles per hour. It was dangerous. Even more dangerous was that there was no rule on when cars could pit making pit road very crowded. At times there were as many as 25+ cars pitting at one time.
Those two things contributed to the fatal accident of Mike Rich and NASCAR felt there had to be something done to prevent an incident like that from happening again in the future.
"There were some changes that could have been made, that need to be made." Richard Petty said. "I'm concerned they changed too much at one time and I don't know that they went in the right direction. Nobody knows."
By the time Daytona rolled around in 1991 all teams were well aware of the new pit road rules. It was the fans, broadcasters and others that needed pit procedure 101 to figure out what was going on.
There were several different things about the way NASCAR teams would now pit. The first thing that was different was there were two pace cars. One pace car led the cars around the track as usual, while a second led a pack down pit road. That was to slow down the race cars from speeding into pit road. That rule was pretty easy to understand but when trying to create a way to prevent so many cars from stopping at once, that's were it got really confusing.
NASCAR made it mandatory that all cars could not take tires during a yellow flag period. You could fuel the car and do any other adjustments to the car but teams could not change tires. Many teams didn't like this because it forced competitors to pit under the green flag and teams thought that was even more dangerous than pitting under yellow.
Not only could you not take tires under yellow, but NASCAR even ruled when you had to stop under the green flag. Before the race cars were issued a certain colored sticker before the race based on their starting position. Odd starting positions had a blue sticker and even starting positions had a yellow sticker. If a car had a blue sticker that meant they could only pit two laps after a restart. If they had a yellow sticker you could only pit three laps after a restart.
Everyone accepted the new rules but that didn't mean there weren't going to be problems. The new rules also had an impact on the race. Bill Elliott's shot at a third Daytona 500 was ruined when he suffered a flat tire. Elliott's car had a blue sticker which meant he could only pit two laps after a restart. Instead of coming in under the caution, which would have been the safer route, he was forced to wait to pit because of the new rules. He drove two laps under green with a flat tire before he could pit. Elliott's day was basically over after that and he finished 28th.
While the rules were safer NASCAR quickly realized there had to be a better alternative and by April the rule was modified and by May NASCAR changed the rule completely. In May NASCAR created a rule that we still use today. Cars could take tires under caution but lead lap cars had to pit on the first lap pit road is eligible and cars one or more laps down had to pit on the second lap. The rule worked a lot better and teams were happy as NASCAR created pit road speed and a way to keep so many cars from pitting at one time.
While we've come a long way in the last 22 years the rule changes from the 1991 Daytona 500 will live in infamy forever. Not only did a kid from California named Ernie Irvan pull through for his biggest NASCAR win but there were rule changes that fans, media members, drivers and teams will never forget.
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