Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Talladega Flights – Massive Crash Highlights Superspeedway’s Continued Conflicts

As you may have noticed, much of the action that many have become accustomed to in NASCAR has been absent over the last few weeks. Matt Kenseth winning back-to-back races was nice, and it surely did many good to see Mark Martin back in victory lane. For the most part, however, this has been a lackluster season, with little to rally around or get up in arms about.

Enter Talladega.

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For motorsports writers, when there is a lull in the season, it can be tempting to go to the well for topics and ideas: What’s Wrong With Junior? Why Does the Car of Tomorrow Have to Suck? Why Was Racing So Much Better in 1985? Fortunately, you can always count on Talladega to be a game changer, making you realize why you got so jazzed about this sport in the first place. This past weekend was certainly no exception, as there was more to write about from those 500 miles than the 3,160 that preceded it.

It also brought to the surface a few familiar issues with both NASCAR and superspeedway racing that have endured as long as Talladega itself.

Let’s take something pretty basic for instance, such as the construction of the racetrack. Might it be possible for somebody to actually drive around the track and look at it before they turn 43 cars loose at 200 mph in competition? With all the talk of SAFER barriers and a commitment to protecting the drivers, why are there walls positioned at nearly 90-degree angles at both the fastest and most precarious parts of a track known for hosting the most spectacular and devastating crashes in the sport’s history?

Recall Michael Waltrip’s slide through along the frontstretch on lap 44. Waltrip did an incredible job of harnessing a car that was out of control – even better than both of the Busch brothers did – and keeping his car from going Kool-Aid Man on the inside retaining wall. But before his flat Goodyears got ahold of something tacky, he was headed for an opening in said wall which was at an acute angle to the direction of traffic. Had Waltrip struck this part, it would have stopped the car both instantly and violently.

I’m not an engineer by trade, but I’m fairly certain that the human body does not respond well slowing down from 190 mph to zero in three feet.

Robby Gordon came closer to an unkind fate in the midst of a lap 181 multi-car pileup on the backstretch. While it still boggles the mind how you can wreck 15 cars driving forward in a straight line, even more incomprehensible to me is how you consciously position a wall opening at a life-threatening angle. Gordon sustained a severe frontal impact that wiped out the first five feet of his Jim Beam Toyota – and he struck the cushioned part of the wall.

Considering the Car of Tomorrow is far from a shrinking violet when it comes to structural rigidity, that’s a violent impact. And a few feet past where he hit was the making of a scene similar to that of Jeff Fuller’s wreck at Kentucky in 2006, where his car was effectively taco-ed after it struck a retaining wall tilted at a similar angle.

Of course, Fuller’s impact was at a low-banked, 1.5-mile speedway, traveling maybe 150 mph. He did not wreck at a 200 mph speed-drome constructed on an ancient Indian burial ground… and if he did, who knows if he would be alive today?

For all that NASCAR does to make the tracks safe for competition (and crashing), these are two glaring examples that need to be addressed, and hopefully will before somebody is killed. Which brings us to our next topic: one that, according to Carl Edwards, won’t change until somebody is.

For the life of me, I cannot understand what purpose the yellow-line rule serves at Talladega and Daytona. The idea is that the yellow-line rule will prevent a driver from passing on the flat part of the apron, only to lose control while transitioning to the banking in front of the pack. But that always seemed to me like a self-policing policy more than anything else. As much as a driver would like to gain position, sitting sideways in a cloud of smoke with 40 cars barreling towards you at 300 feet per second isn’t exactly how they would prefer to spend a Sunday afternoon.

My initial smart-assed cynical response is that it exists to mimic an out of bounds line as found in other sports – a blatant effort to attract the casual fan so Sportscenter-Guy can draw a parallel between a racetrack and Wrigley Field. Because the funny thing is it hadn’t been an issue the previous 30 years. Following an incident in the 1999 Daytona 500 between Dale Jarrett and the late Kenny Irwin Jr., as well as a couple of near misses in 2000, NASCAR suddenly decided to institute an out of bounds line for Daytona and Talladega starting with the 2001 July Daytona event.

This same yellow-line rule, designed to prevent accidents, served as the catalyst for Edwards’s Fusion to achieve fission instead – blowing apart the catchfence on the front straightaway while nearly valeting with Bob Uecker in the front row. At least eight fans were injured by flying debris (the radiator, carburetor and PA system had to end up somewhere), which could have very easily became a catastrophic event had the Nimitz-class arrestor cables that keep man from machine failed to perform – allowing the unthinkable to happen.

Thankfully, nothing truly tragic occurred. However, it highlighted quite clearly that the yellow-line rule is a failure. In three consecutive races, it has either confounded the outcome of the race or instigated very large crashes.

During the final few hundred yards of the Aaron’s 499, Brad Keselowski maintained track position, making it clear he was not going to be forced below the yellow line. Prior to the race in the drivers’ meeting that was televised on two networks, NASCAR declared that even getting pushed below the yellow line was no longer an excuse. Go below the yellow line and suffer the consequences, they said… so Keselowski didn’t.

In 2008, Regan Smith tried to avoid catastrophe and sending fans to the hospital, and was dropped from first to 18th position as a result. In the process, NASCAR robbed him of a well-deserved win, a great story of a rookie winning a race, and a much needed boost for a once proud organization that has become the Detroit Lions of NASCAR.

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Keselowski knew about that fateful day… and was determined not to suffer the consequences. So, he went Tears of the Sun and answered NASCAR’s call of “Hold The Line!” And what resulted was a scene eerily reminiscent of 1987 when Bobby Allison’s machine went into low-earth orbit at about the same spot – nearly turning his Buick Regal into the Grim Reaper.

In both instances, the drivers involved did exactly what they should have; and in both situations, the outcome was disastrous. The first car back to the stripe did not win last October, and this year, both driver and fans were placed in unnecessary peril due to rules that appear to be handed down from some obtuse universe. In what other form of racing is blocking encouraged?

Not in Formula 1. Not in IndyCar. Not even at your local dirt track. Only in NASCAR.

Which brings up the most common complaint when the discussion of superspeedway racing comes up – the restrictor plates. Since their introduction in 1988, the resounding call has been unanimous: “Take off the plates and let them race!” A romantic racing notion, indeed. Many long for the golden days of the slingshot pass, Petty and Pearson dulling in the closing laps in big-block Dodges and Mercurys, the racecar in its purest essence – wide open, flat out, belly to the ground, running as fast as mechanically possible.

It is, unfortunately, an era long since passed and wholly unrealistic though.

Can you imagine what damage could have been done had Edwards and company been traveling another 30 mph faster? These cars get light and generate lift just as an aircraft does – at about 170 mph. But when you’re traveling at B-17 velocities, it might actually just take a rocket scientist to figure out just how far and high one of these cars can travel.

Some say the track should knock the banking down. Um, do you remember Indianapolis last year? How is sending them through flat turns even faster going to help anything? Goodyear has been working for the last 10 months on a tire that will work there and still can’t quite get it right. The late Dale Earnhardt once suggested moving the grandstands into the inside of the track as a solution. I paused for a moment after hearing that and thought, what a brilliant idea!

Then, I remembered – Earnhardt died hitting a wall at about 150 mph, not 230.

In 2004, Rusty Wallace ran his Miller Lite Dodge around Talladega unrestricted as part of a NASCAR communications test. He lapped the 2.66-mile track at well over 221 mph – peaking at 234 mph according to some reports – on the backstretch. That was just one car by itself that was not prepared to run specifically at that track – and not in a pack of 42 other cars in the draft. You can repeal the laws of restrictor plates but not the laws of physics. A car striking the wall or another car on the track at that speed would make for another year of tears, flags at half mast and pre-race memorials that could easily be prevented.

Sure, the racing would be exciting – much the same way that getting shot at is exciting. And I don’t see how it would improve the “when driver and fans are getting killed with Metamucil-like regularity” ratio.

With as much that went wrong this past weekend – as well as what could have been even worse – thank God we still have Talladega on the schedule. There are many races on the calendar at some of the newer tracks that barely rate a shrug of the shoulders due to their cookie cutter, beige, boring, pre-packed monotony that is to be endured, not enjoyed. Talladega, however, is an animal all its own; one of the few remaining links to our past that is to be celebrated and revered for what it so proudly represents:

Same old NASCAR. Same old problems.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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