Will it take a death at Talladega?


Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2009

Editor's note: One of the late motorsports writer's columns from the week after last spring's Talladega race.

Automobile racing, Humpy Wheeler says, is “controlled violence.”

The important word there is controlled.

Strip away everything – the points and counterpoints, the what-ifs and the buts – from the final lap of Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway and there is one question that matters.

Is racing at Talladega out of control?

I say it is, and Carl Edwards' crash Sunday into the catch-fence in the tri-oval of the 2.66-mile track merely reinforced that opinion.

NASCAR has been trying to fix the race cars at Talladega since Bobby Allison's car came as close to going into the grandstands in 1987 as Edwards' Ford did Sunday.

In 22 years, configuration after configuration has failed. Openings in restrictor plates have been larger and smaller, all manner of spoiler sizes and angles and all types of blades and lips and other devices to catch and/or deflect air have been employed.

The result: Cars bunched tightly and running the same speed so that tiny miscues turn into huge crashes. These crashes endanger drivers and tear up race cars and, in the case of Sunday's last-lap incident, injure seven fans in the grandstands who never signed up to get hurt when they bought a ticket for a Sprint Cup race.

There's ample evidence that you can't fix the car. So fix the track. Turn one end into Indianapolis with flat 90-degree turns connected by a short chute. Or do something else. Change the size. Cut the banking. Something. Anything seems better than having fans hurt and seeing a race car coming heart-in-your-throat close to flying into the stands.

“We are taking a look at everything,” Grant Lynch, senior vice president for business operations of International Speedway Corporation, said Monday. Lynch is a former president of the Talladega track who now oversees operations for several tracks in the ISC portfolio.

Well, maybe not everything. By midday Monday, current Talladega track president Rick Humphrey was saying that changing the race track is not an option. NASCAR officials, in a Monday afternoon teleconference, echoed that.

So what happens now?

The fence damaged Sunday will be repaired. Talladega's fence is 14 feet high, 7 feet lower than the fence at Lowe's Motor Speedway, but to be fair the fence at Talladega did the job this time.

Lynch said the speedway would “assess our comfort level” with the configuration of the fencing, with whether it should continue selling tickets for seats in the lower level along the frontstretch.

NASCAR will look at the size of the opening in the restrictor plate and said it also will study how the roof flaps on Edwards' car and the one in which Matt Kenseth flipped in Saturday's Nationwide race functioned in those two crashes.

Initially, though, they pointed out that Edwards' car appeared to be coming back down toward the ground when Ryan Newman's car hit it and propelled it into the fence.

But here's the problem: With the cars bunched up as they are, how likely is it that a car will go up and come down without somebody hitting it?

There are people talking about getting rid of the yellow line that marks out of bounds for passing on the inside at Daytona and Talladega. That's pointless. If there's no line there, the race leader will go to the edge of the pavement – and beyond, if need be – to protect his position.

NASCAR also hinted it might have to be more vigilant in assessing penalties for aggressive driving. You mean like it was Sunday, when it “warned” Brian Vickers not to do again what it had specifically told drivers not to do in the pre-race driver's meeting?

Others want the Talladega start-finish line moved closer to Turn 4. That just moves the wreck, and besides, that might “hurt” the racing, which is apparently all that matters.

“To me it is what it is,” Lynch said. “We have the most exciting racing there is, but there is that element of it that causes concern. At any race track at any time under the right circumstance, you can have an issue.”

That is absolutely correct. The difference, though, is it's news when you don't have it at Talladega.

Two weeks ago, Talladega officials announced they were adding a new item to the track's concession menu. It was a jumbo hot dog, and they called it “The Big One,” naming it after the multi-car wrecks so often seen there. NASCAR's Web site carried a banner advertisement last week reading “Who'll survive The Big One?”

And this weekend, Lowe's Motor Speedway announced a despicable promotion tying the price of bargain tickets for its May races to the number of cars involved in the biggest wreck Sunday at Talladega.

“We have had wrecks like this every time we come to Talladega, ever since the plate got here, and for years it has been celebrated,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Sunday. “The media celebrate it, the networks celebrate it, calling it ‘The Big One,' just trying to attract attention and … bring people's attention to the race. So there's a responsibility with the media and the networks and the sanctioning body itself to come to their senses a little bit and think about the situation.”

The front page of Monday's Charlotte Observer trumpeted Talladega's “wild finish” complete with crash photos.

“Danger is part of racing's appeal, I don't care what anybody says,” said Wheeler, former Lowe's Motor Speedway president. “You don't defang the tiger because people pay to see the sharp teeth. But you can't turn him loose, either.

“The fence did its job this time, but the problem is what happens if it doesn't. You'd have a calamity.”

All I want is for someone to tell me what's acceptable. We apparently established Sunday that seven fans being injured – one spent the night in a hospital with a broken jaw – is OK.

It seems we've decided we can live with that much damage being done to the sport's customers for “good racing.”

How many people have to be listed in “guarded” or “critical” condition before we say that's too much? Is it lead changes? If we have fewer than five fans hurt for every lead change, is that acceptable?

Does somebody have to die before we've decided we don't have control?