Sunday, April 26, 2009
Will It Take Tragedy And Death To Change Racing At Talladega?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) congratulates Brad Keselowski on his first Sprint Cup Series win in Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Jerry Bonkowski
A blind man could see that restrictor plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway has been a disaster waiting to happen.
Sunday, those of us with normal vision came far too close to seeing that disaster play out, something I pray we never get close to seeing ever again.
For more than 20 years, NASCAR has utilized horsepower robbing restrictor plates on carburetors to make racing "safer" at Talladega and Daytona by slowing down cars and taking speed control away from drivers, essentially making all cars artificially controlled.
In the process, the continued use of restrictor plates has actually made racing, particularly on Talladega's 2.66-mile, high-banked and high-speed oval, more dangerous. Some have gone so far as to call racing at 'Dega a tragedy waiting to happen.
In Sunday's Aarons 499, we came far too close for comfort – arguably closer than we ever have since plates came into use in 1988. How many more brushes with disaster does NASCAR need? It's time the sanctioning body finally does something to fix the problem.
Sure, we've all ooohed and aaahed at some of the spectacular wrecks that have occurred at 'Dega over the years. The track could easily start its own Who's Who of drivers that have had horrific, end-over-end wrecks there, including now-retired Rusty Wallace, Ricky Craven and Bobby Allison, as well as the late Dale Earnhardt, Elliott Sadler, Ryan Newman, and even as recently as Saturday's Nationwide Series race, when Cup regular Matt Kenseth went on one of the biggest rides of his life.
Most drivers have even walked away unscathed after their death-defying wrecks.
But Sunday, we barely avoided turning Carl Edwards into a cripple or worse (more on that later), let alone put several innocent fans in the hospital.
"NASCAR just puts us in this box," Edwards said after the race. "We'll just race like this until we kill somebody and then they'll change it."
NASCAR may have the insolence to think that with all the safety innovations that have arisen since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, that the sport is virtually bulletproof. And watching how Edwards walked away from the most terrifying wreck of his career once again proved just how effective those safety improvements have been.
But Sunday showed tragedy is still possible, not just on the racetrack, but in an area that is supposed to be immune from on-track damage: in the stands.
That several fans were lucky enough just to be injured – and thankfully, not killed – at the end of Sunday's race is both a miracle and hopefully the wake-up call that chairman Brian France and NASCAR need.
Sure, France or one of his spokesmen can lament that the way Edwards' car went airborne, almost crashed through the catchfence and showered fans in the first few rows with hot metal, shrapnel and assorted parts and debris was merely a freak occurrence.
Try to use that as comfort to the families of those fans who went to the track Sunday morning anticipating an exciting race and finish, likely never dreaming that they'd leave later that afternoon in either an ambulance or medical helicopter.
It's a miracle some didn't leave in a body bag or hearse.
Sure, NASCAR and speedway officials can fall back on legalese and say that every ticket has a small-print disclaimer that says the sanctioning body, the track and anyone associated with either is immune from negligence or blame in the event of an incident like we saw Sunday.
They can add that fans understand the risk that they're undertaking when they pull out their cash or credit card to purchase a ticket.
But come on now, do fans REALLY read the fine print? Do they ever in their wildest dreams think that they'll be injured by flying debris? Of course not. Maybe they might get hit on the head by a beer can thrown by disgruntled fans of a driver, but that's about as serious as it gets.
I can almost guarantee that many of those fans injured Sunday will likely have spoken to attorneys by tomorrow, and that legal action is likely in the offing – small print/disclaimer on the back of the tickets or not.
But if a good lawyer can poke loopholes in that disclaimer, NASCAR and France could be on the hook for damages for not protecting the fans strongly enough.
A good place any lawyer might start is the aberration of restrictor plate racing. There's certainly a ton of precedent, with all the drivers that have experienced barrel rolls and end-over-end flips at both Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, the only two tracks on the circuit that require restrictor plates.
The reason for the requirement is to hold down horsepower and speed, so that cars can "safely" race at speeds approaching 200 mph.
I'm sorry, but there is no place on God's green earth that ANY type of race car can consistently race "safely" at 200 mph or more, not NASCAR, Formula One or NHRA, where speeds oftentimes close in on 330 mph.
I've seen dozens of races at Talladega and Daytona, both in-person and on TV, yet nothing has ever scared me more than what we saw Sunday.
What's more, NASCAR applauded the man who started what could have been sheer carnage – rookie Sprint Cup driver Brad Keselowski – by toasting him in victory lane, when they should have disqualified him for aggressive driving at the very least.
If one of us did the same thing on a public highway that Keselowski did to Edwards, we would be convicted for road rage at the least, and potentially involuntary manslaughter at the worst.
Hear me out here. In virtually the same exact type of incident – without the resulting flipping car – Dale Earnhardt Jr. punted Brian Vickers in the season opener and he was roundly vilified for such a move.
What's the difference with what Keselowski did, then?
I understand that rubbin's racin', and all that jazz, but when a driver INTENTIONALLY spins the driver ahead of him to win the race, there's something wrong with that. He should not be rewarded with the victory.
Edwards was in the lead, Keselowski came up and drove directly into Edwards' left rear bumper, knocking him out of the way and then sending him flying first across the front of Ryan Newman's car and then slamming broadside into the catchfence. What would have happened if Newman had been killed or seriously injured by Edwards' flying wreck? Do we just chalk it up to just "racin' at 'Dega"?
Where do you draw the line between safe racing and stupid racing? Everyone in the stands and pretty much everyone watching on TV knew Keselowski was going to go for the win – and if it meant spinning Edwards, so be it.
Edwards did what he was supposed to do, to block Keselowski, while Keselowski said he wasn't going to let Edwards force him below the yellow "no-passing" line at Talladega, claiming he didn't have much of a choice.
"He blocked and I wasn't going below it," Keselowski said in victory lane. "I didn't want to wreck a guy, but you're forced to in that situation."
Even though Keselowski still had more than a car width between Edwards' car and the yellow line, he could have chosen to dip down a little more and would have still been within the rules – as long as he didn't pass Edwards under that same yellow line.
Keselowski could also have backed off, but chose not to. So, he simply ran into Edwards, wrecked him and gleefully motored on to victory lane to celebrate the first Cup win of his career.
But what would have happened if several fans would have died as a result of Keselowski's win-at-all-costs strategy? Is a win that crucial if someone perishes because of one driver's stupidity and insolent greed to get his first career Cup checkered flag?
"(Edwards) knows the rule," Keselowski said. "He put himself in that spot."
So, let's see: Keselowski admits he intentionally wrecked Edwards, he blames Edwards for putting "himself in that spot," and several fans are hurt by flying debris (fortunately, according to early reports, none seriously or with life-threatening injuries).
I don't know about you, but all that sure sounds like one of NASCAR's favorite penalties that it likes to hand out: actions detrimental to stock car racing.
In his ill-begotten bid to win, Keselowski was more than willing to risk Edwards' life, Newman's life and numerous fans' lives for a trophy and a paycheck.
If someone would have been killed or more seriously hurt, tell me honestly, would all that have been worth it in the big picture? The resulting public outcry would have damaged NASCAR for many years, if not decades, to come.
Even Edwards is counting his blessings that he wasn't hurt more seriously than just suffering a few bumps. He could have wound up never racing again.
"I'm very fortunate," he said. "We hit the wall in a way that it didn't crush my roll cage down on my neck, because that would have been a lot worse."
When is NASCAR chairman Brian France going to wake up and realize that a trailing driver INTENTIONALLY ramming a car that is in the lead at more than 190 mph, spinning him out of the way and running the risk of serious injury or death to that driver and fans, may be good theater but it is not clean racing?
Just because guys like the late Dale Earnhardt did it so many times still doesn't make it right. Do drivers prove how macho they are by wrecking a fellow competitor?
But for the grace of God and some reinforced concrete, steel and thick wire, Sunday could have become one of the biggest disasters in NASCAR history – at a time when anything negative is the last thing the struggling sport and sanctioning body need.
NASCAR dodged a huge bullet Sunday, one that should be the final and ultimate wakeup call to either remove restrictor plates altogether, or mandate the use of smaller, less powerful motors (sans plates) so that we never, ever have to see a debacle like we did Sunday at 'Dega.
By Jerry Bonkowski at Sunday, April 26, 2009