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Give drivers a brake at this bullring

But they'll need more. Martinsville tests one's ability to stop 1,000 times.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- One of three true short tracks in Winston Cup, Martinsville Speedway presents some of the world's most dedicated speed freaks with an interesting dilemma.

How to go slow.

"Drivers, save your brake pads!"

Aerodynamics? Forget it. Horsepower? Bring all you want. What separates winners from wipeouts is a driver's ability to finesse a barreling car into a sharp turn using as little brake as possible.

Oh, and step on it.

"We're putting the brakes to an extreme test," said Ricky Craven, who won his first Winston Cup race in September at Martinsville. "The risk is always making the entire 500 laps. But the easiest way to save brakes is to have a good-handling race car."

If the 55-year-old speedway were human, it would politely be referred to as eccentric (wink, wink). Shaped like a paper clip, it is .526 miles -- the shortest, slowest and, potentially, most infuriating track in the series.

The 800-foot straights are flat asphalt. The turns -- they number four, but they're actually two U-turns -- are concrete, with nearly imperceptible 12-degree banking. Long straights, sharp turns, little banking.

Think about it.

"This racetrack is two little drag strips, but you have to turn around and go the other way," said Jimmy Makar, crew chief for Bobby Labonte's No. 18 Pontiac. "You use a lot of brakes to slow the cars down, so you generate a lot of heat in the brakes and the brake pads.

"That creates a lot of problems."

In today's Virginia 500, speeds will reach nearly 130 mph at the end of the straightaways and slow to about 50 in the middle of the turns. At twice per lap, that's 1,000 times. Obviously, 3,400-pound stock cars don't just slow drastically on their own.

It takes brakes.

The key: don't use them.

The braking system on Winston Cup cars is not that different from passenger cars: rotors, calipers and brake pads, though a bit bulkier. Brake pads on passenger cars typically measure a quarter-inch thick when new. Those at Martinsville are a little more than an inch.

And still too thin.

"The problem is there's not enough pad on your brake pad," said Terry Labonte, who starts fourth today. "That's what creates the problem. You're using them too much and they wear too much."

During a long green-flag run the temperature of the rotors can reach 1,200 degrees -- so hot they glow. Brake fluid boils. Heat and friction disintegrate pads. Ride the brakes hard into every turn and they will be gone by the end of the race.

Hence, the "Save Your Brakes" campaign.

Every 20 laps, or so, Makar will push the button on his headset to remind Bobby Labonte to take care of his brakes. Again and again. But a broken record is better than a broken race car.

So, how do you "save" brakes?

"Stay off them," said Jeff Hammond, former crew chief turned Fox analyst. "It sounds asinine, but the key to this racetrack is when you touch the brakes, get off them. You need to let the car roll into the corner with minimal amount of brake.

"Everybody thinks driving hard is the way to go fast here, but that's not it. It's not getting into the corner here, it's getting off the corner that wins. With the brakes, you've got to get on, get off, get on, get off. There's an art to knowing how to take care of your brakes and make them work here at Martinsville."

An art Terry Labonte is yet to master in 47 career starts.

"I've run out of brakes here before -- more than once," he said.

"It's so easy, when you're trying to catch somebody, to drive into the corner farther than they are to gain some ground on them. It seems those last 50 or 60 laps, you're about out of brake pads."

Once abuse starts, it can't be undone. A long caution can help cool the rotors and conserve the pads, but once racing starts again, the abuse is renewed. A driver's first indication the brakes are failing is also his last.

"It's usually too late," defending race winner Dale Jarrett said. "The bad thing about our braking system is it doesn't give you a lot of warning. You can feel the pedal getting soft and you know you're abusing the brakes.

"When they go, there's there's nothing you can do."

Quite a dilemma.

Virginia 500

1 p.m., Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. TV/RADIO: FX, WQYK-AM 1010.

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