Race Weekend Central

The School of Hard Knocks

There is an old adage, or at least a belief, in engineering that the road to improvement is paved with failure.

Flawless performance teaches an engineer nothing worthwhile; it is only through terrible (and sometimes tragic) consequences that the faults in a vehicle can be discovered. Once such faults have been discovered, they can then be addressed and corrected.

Which leads me to the current state of NASCAR and the plight of restrictor plate racing at Daytona International Speedway.

The horrific events of last Monday morning caused NASCAR Nation to once again rise up and debate the merits of plate racing at the superspeedway. For all those who argued that plate racing was a necessary evil at Daytona, there were those who called for wholesale change in either motors or aerodynamics or both. Serious damage to the catchfence from Austin Dillon’s late-race/early-morning wreck also brought calls for change, as in the notion that perhaps a re-design of the protective barrier was needed. Monday’s mayhem was not the first time fans were injured by debris thrown into the grandstands.

Monday’s wreck was all too familiar.

Ryan Newman led the outcry from drivers declaring that the dangers of plate racing were just too high, and especially at Daytona, where such violent accidents injure fans, destroy equipment, and – sometimes – kill drivers. Newman cited Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001 as an example of just how bad, and how quickly, things can get at the facility.

And yet video footage of such violent incidents grabs the attention of mainstream media outlets. No doubt Dillon’s flight into the fence was shown repeatedly on the Monday morning news programs. Had Austin not wrecked like he did, news of the Coke Zero 400 would likely have been trumped by fluff pieces showcasing the best new recipes for summer side dishes.

It’s not like such accidents at the “Birthplace of Speed” are anything new.

Think back to the early days at Daytona when Lee Petty flew over the fence and out into the parking lot. Think back to 1988 when Richard Petty flew and rolled against the catchfence on lap 106 of the Great American Race. Think back to 2000 and the NCWTS race where Geoffrey Bodine flew his Ford F-150 into the fence in a ball of fire.

The engine from Bodine’s truck wound up in Turn 1. Most who witnessed the wreck assumed Bodine was dead. Thanks to good safety equipment and a solid roll cage, he survived with relatively minor injuries. Five fans, however, were hurt during the incident.

Jimmie Johnson assumed the same thing about Austin Dillon on Monday morning, with much the same result. Dillon was both shaken and stirred, but he walked away.

And once again five fans were hurt during the incident.

So was Ryan Newman correct in saying NASCAR got what it wanted?

Not if race fans were injured in the process. Think back to Daytona 2013 and Kyle Larson’s XFINITY car tearing through the catchfence. The engine block of his Chevy wound up on the wrong side of the track and two fans were hurt. NASCAR and speedway personnel repaired the fence and it as business as usual.

Until the wee hours of last Monday morning, that is. Another stock car required a rollback, another catchfence required serious repairs, and another five fans required medical attention.

This cannot be what NASCAR wanted, but it is ultimately what NASCAR got.

It’s foolish to assume that automobile racing is safe. That’s a notion too obvious to consider. But maybe it’s also foolish to assume that restrictor plates make for better races on superspeedways. That issue’s been hotly debated since the 1980s. And maybe it’s foolish to assume that changing the rules for horsepower and aerodynamics will improve racing across the series.

More horsepower and less downforce should give drivers more control over their competitive success.

Putting drivers back into the performance equation will hopefully give NASCAR Nation what it wants.

The problems plaguing NASCAR 2015 demand rapid and serious improvement, and these issues go far above-and-beyond the near tragedy we witnessed in the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning.

So will the road to improvement be paved with lessons learned during recent events? I guess we’ll have to wait until this weekend at Kentucky to find out.

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