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Engineering – and dodging – disaster again at 'Dega

THATSRACIN.COM OPINION

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Nov. 01, 2009

TALLADEGA, Ala. – In a race that was 90 percent tedium and 10 percent terror, the best news Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway was that no driver or fan was seriously hurt.

The worst news: Two frightening crashes in the final five laps relegated winner Jamie McMurray to almost an afterthought.

In other words, it was business as usual at Talladega.

This was my first time watching a race at Talladega in person Sunday. I came away very impressed with how kind everyone was to me at the track – and very relieved that nobody died.

The signature moment of Sunday’s Amp Energy 500 came when Ryan Newman’s car back-flipped through the air before slamming its rear end into the hood of Kevin Harvick’s car.

Newman’s car looked a little one of those trained dolphins at Sea World as it did that bizarre backward somersault. It wasn’t a cute moment, though.

It was quite horrifying.

Newman’s U.S. Army Chevrolet finally came to rest upside down. It took rescue workers nearly 13 minutes to turn the car over and cut him out of it.

Once Newman got free, he was unhurt – but hopping mad.

“It was a boring race,” Newman said later, “and it was a ridiculous race.”

The first 90 percent of the race was the boring part. The cars ran single-file far more often than usual at Talladega, in part because NASCAR had disallowed bump-drafting through the turns two hours before the race began.

The ridiculous part came in the last 10 percent. Only moments after Newman went airborne, there was a 13-car crash on the last lap.

Automobiles bounced all over the place, as if a three-year-old had a temper tantrum and had overturned his Matchbox car set.

Fortunately, nothing flew into the stands this time and hurt any fans (which happened six months ago here). But it was still another scary day at Talladega.

“Bumper cars at 190 mph,” Jeff Gordon would say later after his car got destroyed.

“I don’t think anybody wants to be out there and involved in what happens at the end,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 11th and missed both of the major late crashes.

“Dodging cars, seeing people flip upside down…. I am sure NASCAR will figure it out. They are pretty hard-headed over there; don’t like to admit they [are] wrong sometimes.”

Junior has that right.

NASCAR tried to cure a sledgehammer of a problem at Talladega by sending out a couple of gnats.

A tweak to the restrictor plate here. A side wicker – whatever that is – there.

Not nearly enough.

Jimmie Johnson – who basically clinched his fourth straight Cup title Sunday – has the best solution I’ve heard.

“Get some tractors out here and knock down the banking,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s point is solid. It’d be expensive, but so what?

If the drivers have to lift off the accelerator because they have to slow down a little through the turns, maybe they won’t bang into each other at such high speeds so often.

And maybe one of them won’t sail through the air at every race here.

Newman said afterward: “We had this race back here in the spring and complained about cars getting airborne and now, ironically, I’m the guy that gets upside down.”

Newman also said NASCAR hasn’t done nearly enough to address cars getting airborne. And he’s angry that officials haven’t ever consulted him about the possibilities.

“It is a ridiculous situation,” Newman said. “It is a shame not more is getting done.

"I don’t know. I guess maybe I expect NASCAR to call me. I am the only guy out there with an engineering degree [from Purdue]. I would like to have a little respect on my end.”

If NASCAR officials have any sense, they talk to Newman soon. And Johnson. And Earnhardt, who also said after the race: “We have sort of out-engineered this race track somehow.”

I still keep thinking about what Carl Edwards said after his car went airborne and slung debris into the Talladega crowd in April, injuring seven spectators.

“I guess we’ll do this until someone gets killed,” Edwards said back then, “and then we’ll change it.”

Well, nobody got killed Sunday.

But NASCAR can’t keep rolling the dice here with minor tweaks.

Sunday gave us another crash course in the fact that it is time for major changes at Talladega – and the drivers need to band together to demand it.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com.

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