Tick, tick, tick.
Four times a year, the sport’s big kahunas cross their fingers and throw caution to the wind in the form of a green flag at Daytona or Talladega. While NASCAR as an organization always claims that safety is paramount in every decision it makes, carefully worded platitudes don’t pay the bills — ticket sales and TV ratings do. The bread-and-circus restrictor plate races at the two tracks tend to fare well when it comes to those ticket sales and ratings, and so a temporary measure — restrictor plates, which NASCAR instituted back in 1988 (has it rally been 28 years?), remains in place and realistically is probably permanent.
NASCAR started using the plates (its latest usage, that is; way back when the plates were used at tracks like Michigan and to restrict some of the more exotic engines Chrysler and Ford dreamed up during the gradual transition from big blocks to small blocks) in response to a horrifying incident on May 3, 1987. Bobby Allison’s Stavola Brothers’ Buick blew a tire and got airborne on lap 21. The errant racecar tore down a long stretch of catchfence that separated the grandstands from the racing surface.
The mind reels at the sort of damage a nearly two-ton race vehicle entering the stands at triple digit speeds would do if it made it into the grandstands. Had Allison’s car punched through the fence, today race fans likely would be watching open-wheelers and straight-liners and perhaps winning a bar bet by knowing NASCAR sanctioned its last race at Talladega before the trial lawyers wiped it out.
Yet despite the plates being in place, there have been numerous more close calls that indicate plates are not the panacea that was hoped. Perhaps the most dramatic subsequent incident involved Neil Bonnett at Talladega in 1993. Newer fans are probably more familiar with incidents involving Casey Atwood at Daytona and Carl Edwards at Talladega.
And then of course there was last year’s Firecracker 400 at Daytona.
Mr. Peabody, set the Wayback Machine to July 5, 2015.
At NBC’s request, the race was moved from its normal Saturday night time slot to Sunday evening. Track promoter Joie Chitwood hated the idea, as fans typically used Sunday to drive home from the race, which didn’t help ticket sales any. But NBC was insistent, noting that annually the Fourth of July is the lowest-rated night on TV.
(Tangent alert: Really? Lower than Easter and Thanksgiving? That tells me A) the TV continues its march from novelty to electronic hearth to electronic babysitter for the kids to an enslaving prima donna that will not be ignored, and B) that too many people now have to work on holidays thanks to retail giants that see holidays not as a well-earned break for their employees but as a chance to run sales and rake in more money. So your buddy with the tinfoil-lined calendar cap who tells you within a generation Sharia law will be imposed in the U.S> destroying our way of life? Wal-Mart done gone and beat them to it.)
NBC’s decision blew up in its face. The race ended up scheduled against the U.S. team competing in the ladies’ World Cup soccer final. NBC tried putting a brave face on things, hoping aloud that once the game was through, viewers who already had their TVs on would just surf on over to Daytona.
Really? I can’t speak to soccer fans’ affection for stock car racing, but I can say neither I nor any race fan I know has ever decided that since the TV is already on after the race I’ll watch some televised soccer match. I can’t envision it ever happening in my instance, and if it did I would likely heave the TV out my window the next day, or during the soccer match. I don’t much care for soccer, though de gustibus non est disputandum.
For a smaller-though-not-insignificant portion of the population, that night also marked the last Grateful Dead concert EVER! (Well, actually, Bobby, Mickey and Bill soldier on under the banner of the Dead or the Dead and Company as we all knew they would anyway. GBTGD.) And as if NBC needed a third strike, there was no actual overlap between the soccer and the racing. A lengthy, soul-sapping rain delay at the track saw to that.
Yep, you’d think either NASCAR or NBC would have a meteorologist on staff, the silly bastards. For years and years (up until 1988) the Firecracker 400 was run on (oddly enough) the Fourth of July. The race typically started at 10 or 11 a.m. back then and would end early in the afternoon, giving everyone a chance to hit the beach back in the era before central air conditioning was common. It also had to do with the summer weather in Florida, especially coastal Florida. Summer days tend to be hot and very humid down there. Come late afternoon or evening as the air cools a bit and especially if the winds shift from land breezes to ocean breezes, the atmosphere is no longer able to contain all that moisture. That’s a textbook recipe for thunderstorms.
Back in the days of yore, NASCAR avoided most of those with the early start time. Moving to later start times, particularly in the evening, is simply another bullet NASCAR has pumped into its own foot with unerring accuracy that would make Annie Oakley swoon.
This year the race is back on Saturday. But it’s still being run in the evening. NASCAR officials admitted there was some consideration to moving it back to the late morning start time, but they ran the idea up a flagpole and nobody saluted it. (Most likely because they were working at Wal-Mart or an auto parts store at the time.) My guess is the TV network hated the idea, though it’s hard to imagine the ratings are much worse for late Saturday morning than they are for races run after midnight like last year’s 400, particularly given the graying of NASCAR’s fan base.
Anyway, back to 2015. It rained. And it rained. And it rained some more. Air Titans did titanic things, perhaps because the business ends of those trucks are powered by Chevy’s not-imported engines. And eventually the race began with the soccer players back at their hotel and tucked safely in bed and the Dead three songs and two encores from the end of their show.
Officially the race itself lasted just under three hours. In the midst of the race, three Big Ones (a clever marketing term for a huge smoking pig pile of a wreck that puts multiple lives in danger) broke out. That led to a green-white-checkered finish, which, of course, at a plate track, led to carnage. Austin Dillon’s stricken Chevy went airborne and tore into the catchfence. Given the car’s altitude, it originally appeared it was going to sail over that fence. The job of the catchfence is not just to gently guide an out-of-control race car back down onto the track with minimal damage, but also to protect the fans in the stands.
To an extent, that fence did its job. There were some fans injured, but none of those injuries were life-threatening. Dillon’s Chevy, minus the engine, a couple tire wheel/assemblies and some of other parts that made it look like a racecar and not a decal-festooned meteor, came to rest back on the track near the pit wall. Members of several other race teams rushed to the car to help, clearly expecting Dillon was likely seriously injured.
Thankfully the young driver emerged from the wreckage banged up a bit and clearly shaken, but intact. Those fans who’d remained awake until 3 a.m. probably felt they’d just seen a miracle. Yes, a race that lasted until 3 a.m. was a true test of endurance for fans and competitors alike and a TV ratings disaster. But it beat 1998, when the wildfires forced the Firecracker 400 to be postponed until October. Of course NASCAR had been saying all week the races would go on as planned, so a lot of fans found out the race was postponed while they were already en route to the track.
A few months ago the Cup circuit hit Talladega. In that particular event, three cars got airborne despite the plates and flaps on the roof. NASCAR analyzed all three incidents and decided only Matt Kenseth’s unplanned flight warranted concern. NASCAR doesn’t like it when cars get sideways on their own and then go airborne. The theoretical liftoff speed is said to be about 200 mph.
In the two other instances they decided the other victims got airborne due to ramping. Ramping was a new expression to me, and I’d guess whoever came up with the terms had never been upside in a racecar in a tight pack of his or her competitors headed at a fence. It seems to mean that the physics of the force of a collision with another car sent one or both airborne. Thus I guess you’d have to write Carl Edwards’ infamous flight at Talladega off of Brad Keselowski’s car as ramping, a huge comfort, I am certain, to the young lady that caught the PA speaker in her jaw.
But based on only one UFO at Talladega this spring, and this year’s Daytona 500 being strictly a ground game, NASCAR has decided that no rules changes are in order prior to this year’s Firecracker 400. I seem to recall that this year’s Daytona 500 was pretty much a formation flying exercise with the Joe Gibbs Racing cars politely lined up until the end the end of the race, when there was a last-lap scramble for the win. And, perhaps more than any other track, there’s a huge difference in the racing at Daytona between the cooler temps that are the norm for the 500 and the hot, sticky July conditions prevalent for the 400.
In fact, in the days of yore, the GM teams used to bring their sleeker, low-drag Cutlasses to the track in February and their higher-downforce, formal-roofed Monte Carlos to the track in July. When a racetrack is loose, as is the case for most of the Firecrackers, it increases the chances that someone is going to get sideways and thus airborne.
Still, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see the plates removed, and it’s unlikely that the banking at Daytona and Talladega will be lowered to reduce speeds, not unless NASCAR is forced to do so in the wake of a tragedy of course. Had not Kyle Busch served as a crash test dummy in last year’s Daytona NXS race, it’s likely that section of wall he hit in the incident that left him with a broken leg and foot still wouldn’t be lined with the SAFER barrier.
So far no racecars have actually breached the fence. Maybe they won’t this weekend either. Perhaps the ultimate nightmare would to have one car like Dillon’s last July tear down a section of fence and have a second airborne car sail through the hole in the fence the first car had created.
But that would be ramping, and ramping is apparently nothing to be concerned about. Though of course the fact it ain’t happened just means it ain’t happened yet.
Tick, tick, tick.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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