Woody: On Sunday, The Beast Struck Again
By Larry Woody | Senior Writer
Talladega Superspeedway, with its skyscraper banking, oxygen-sucking speeds and 200-mph traffic jams, has always been a beast of a different breed.
It’s the one track that keeps drivers awake the night before a race.
At 2.66 miles Talladega the biggest, baddest slab of asphalt in NASCAR. Predictably, after last Sunday’s wild crash-o-rama, some drivers complained that it’s too big and too bad.
Carl Edwards’ Ford went airborne after being bumped by Brad Keselowski in a wild last-lap sprint to the finish line His car went airborne and crashed into the retaining fence, spraying shrapnel into the grandstands that injured at least eight fans.
“I guess we’ll do this until someone gets killed,” said Edwards after the dust and debris settled.
I’m not sure what the critics expect NASCAR to do about Talladega. After Bobby Allison flew his Buick through the air and almost into the grandstands in a similar incident in 1987, NASCAR required restrictor plates to be placed on the cars at Talladega and Daytona.
The plates sapped horsepower and lowered the speeds. (The summer before Allison went airborne Bill Elliott logged a 212-mph lap around the track.)
But no sooner were the cars slowed down than drivers began to complain that the restrictor plates prevented faster cars (i.e. their’s) from breaking away from the pack. They said the resulting clog of cars made racing too hairy.
After last Sunday’s melee, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow (which was introduced last year) causes the field to “bunch up.” Junior knows better than that. They were running “bunched up” at Talladega back when he was in diapers and his dad could reportedly “see the air” on the giant superspeedway. I covered my first Talladega race over 30 years ago and they were running “bunched up” back then.
Talladega has always had a cantankerous history, starting with its first race in 1969. Many of the drivers thought the sizzling speeds on the behemoth track would eat their tires. They said the place was too dangerous, and staged a boycott.
Big Bill France filled the field with ringers and backups– the desperate, the destitute and the daring – and race was run. The challenge to France’s authority, and to Talladega, ended that day.
Frankly I think NASCAR should be commended for being able to build race cars and retaining walls that allow drivers to walk away from crashes like the ones we witnessed last weekend. In Saturday’s Nationwide race Matt Kenseth took one of the most terrifying tumbles in the history of a track notorious for terrifying tumbles. He wriggled out of his crushed-tuna-can-of-a-car without a scratch.
Likewise for all the drivers involved in a 19-car pileup just a few laps into Sunday’s main event. Several cars were destroyed but no driver was injured in the making of this filmed highlight.
The same held true for Edwards in his last-lap cannonball ride; in fact when he squirmed out of what was left of his race car he jogged the final 100 feet down the track to step across the finish line – an incredible display of quick wit and good humor moments after an incident that would have turned most of us to jelly.
Let’s face it: There’s a limit as to how “safe” it can ever be to strap a humanoid inside 3,400 pounds of screaming steel, high-octane fuel and grinding gears and send it rocketing around concrete walls at 200 mph in door-to-door traffic.
The same goes for the grandstands. There’s a limit to how much protective barrier can be constructed between the fans and the race they came to see. On one hand, the heavy wire mesh and steel cable catch-fence Sunday did its job by keeping Edwards’ car from taking a catastrophic tumble into the stands; on the other hand, it didn’t prevent all the debris from flying through and injuring some spectators.
I was in the press box during the ’87 race and my wife was sitting in the grandstands about 200 yards from where Allison’s Buick ripped out a section of the catch-fence. What would have happened if the car had made it over the wall and barrel-rolled into the packed stands is frightening to contemplate.
After the crash of ’87 there was a howl of protest similar to the one we’ve been hearing after Sunday’s incident. I remember what Dale Earnhardt said in response to those concerns 22 years ago: “Build bigger fences.”
As for drivers who were worried about going Talladega-fast: “If they want to go slower, all they’ve gotta do is lift their foot off the gas,”
There’s no question that racing at Talladega is dangerous and scary. It always has been and, I suspect, it always will be. About all that NASCAR can do is what it’s done since Allison’s wild ride – keep emphasizing safer cars, more forgiving retaining walls and better catch-fences, while trying to hold a sane line on speeds.
But there’s a limit to how much technology can tame Talladega. It’ll never be a place for the timid and the faint of heart. That’s just the nature of the beast.3 Comments