Race Weekend Central

WTF Wednesday Awaiting The Big One: Improving Fan Safety at Talladega Superspeedway

As both the NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series head to their next set of restrictor plate races at one of the more anticipated racing venues of the season, many may be holding their breath for the “Big One”. While some of this anticipation is often due to the excitement that surrounds Talladega Superspeedway, the majority of those fans will be waiting and wondering if the recent reinforcements made to the crossover gate will truly keep fans, cheering on their favorite drivers, safe from the milieu that could ensue.

Alabama’s famous high-banked 2.66-mile oval has continued to be at the top of many fans’ lists due to the speed and excitement from the spectacular crashes that often occur. Unfortunately, on occasion. these crashes have led to fan injuries. I don’t know how many fans reading will remember Bobby Allison’s wild crash in the 1987 Winston 500, but a cut tire caused his car to turn sideways and go airborne, ultimately slamming into the catch fence at over 200 miles per hour. This horrific crash tore out over 100 yards of fencing while parts of Allison’s car went flying into the grandstand injuring a handful of fans.

Although I wish NASCAR officials would have been smart enough to listen to then car owners like Junior Johnson, who pleaded with them to restrict the speeds that these cars were getting up to prior to start of this race, I am so glad that restrictor plates were placed on these cars following this incident.

But the plates don’t necessarily keep that type of wreck from happening. Fast forward 20 years later and the incident between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499, in 2009. As Keselowski continued to push Edwards to the front of the pack, he made a move to pass his drafting partner. When Edwards attempted to block, Keselowski continued to hold his line, tapping Edwards and sending the No. 99 spinning and gently lifting off the ground before it was hit again by Ryan Newman at over 200 miles per hour, sending it flying right into the catch fence.

Much like Allison’s crash, Edwards’ car tore across the fence and sent parts and pieces of both the car and fencing into the grandstands, injuring fans. One of the fans injured was then 17-year-old Alabama native, Blake Bobbitt, who had to have her jaw wired shut following this incident. She has since recovered and made the return to Talladega Superspeedway in the fall of 2009. After this accident, an engineering firm was consulted, who in turn advised track officials to extend the height of the catch fence from 14 to 22 feet.

Now, here we are four years later and looking at further fan injuries at a superspeedway following Kyle Larson’s horrific crash on the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide race, at Daytona International Speedway in February. While I realize that Daytona and Talladega are two entirely different tracks, are we starting to see a trend here? It is also a bit concerning that it is taking continued fan injuries for NASCAR to make necessary safety adjustments that should have been made prior to them happening at all.

As Brett Poirier pointed out in his recent column (https://frontstretch.com/bpoirier/42954/), following NASCAR’s decision to reinforce the crossover gates at both Daytona and Talladega, “what about the parts that flew over the 22-foot fence at Daytona?” And that includes a tire that hit a man in the head!

Do repairs at these tracks actually correct a problem for fan safety or is NASCAR placing a Band-Aid on a problem to make it seem like they have resolved an ongoing issue – knowing they really haven’t. Look we fixed it!! A cheap ‘fix’ that really isn’t a fix at all.

When a fan purchases a ticket for a race, they are signing up for a good time with family and friends, and these injuries in the stands shouldn’t be a part of it. Drivers and pit crew members are aware of and prepared for the potential accidents and dangers that can occur as a result of this sport, but fans shouldn’t be expected to be ready for the same.

Maybe it is time that NASCAR took another approach and started asking fans and drivers what would make them feel safer at these superspeedway races versus hiring expensive engineers, who may have never sat in the stands for one of these races, what they feel would keep fans safe and the impending lawsuits at a standstill? My advice: don’t buy tickets up close to the action at restrictor plate tracks; it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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