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Ingram: 200 mph, Four-Wide, Nose-to-Tail; What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 1 2009
These cars at Talladega during Sunday's race are running at 200 mph. (RacinToday photo by David Vaughn)   

These cars at Talladega during Sunday's race are running at 200 mph. (RacinToday photo by David Vaughn)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent

Talladega, Ala. – If you’re traveling west on Interstate 20 towards central Alabama on a race weekend, you’re bound to see  vehicles with “Talladega Bound” inscribed on the rear window. I doubt the count will go down come this October despite injuries to seven fans in last Sunday’s race.

NASCAR is selling danger, drivers are hawking their bravery and the fans are buying.

As for writers, after the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega a consensus opinion was very hard to pin down. It’s a situation similar to the racing itself at the 2.66-mile behemoth that rises from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountain like a man-made mountain of asphalt and steel. The track has produced a crazy patchwork quilt when it comes to the conduct of events over the years. After a controversial finish, opinions from writers tend to follow a crazy-quilt pattern as well.

In this case, some praised NASCAR for the safety measures that worked when Carl Edwards’ Ford hit the fence at the finish. Others cursed it for a lack of resolve or concrete answers to what appears to be the eternal issue of potential for serious injury or death to fans. Noted opinion-maker Dale Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, called for the scalp of the media and promoters for hyping the multi-car crash known as “The Big One.”

Earnhardt Jr. has a well-founded point. As fewer injuries have occurred in a dangerous sport, attitudes have inevitably become more casual. Hence, the pathetic guerilla marketing technique used by a track offering a select block of tickets for its upcoming event at a low-buck price equal to the number of cars in the biggest crash of the day at Talladega.

What was vitally different on the track Sunday from preceding races?

The drivers have now figured out how to draft in tandem lap after lap, not just on the straights or entering corners. Joined at the rear and front bumpers, a pair of drivers hope to run to the front, or break away from the field, particularly at the end of the race. Until this spring, the drivers hadn’t been brave enough to connect in the COT cars quite this way at Talladega. It’s how Edwards, desperate to get to the front after the final re-start, ended up partnering with a raw rookie like Brad Keselowski, who beat him at the finish line by turning him when Edwards threw a late block.

“Nobody would run with me all day long,” said an understandably miffed Keselowski, who got the last laugh. “If I hadn’t pushed (Edwards) to the front, I wouldn’t have had a chance to win this race.”

The increased velocity achieved with the two-car tandem was plain to see as the Edwards-Keselowski pairing came on like gangbusters to catch the breakaway tandem of race leaders Ryan Newman and Earnhardt Jr. A further testimony to the hastening element of this latter-day draft was Edwards’ description of Keselowski’s winning move. “He was so quick that I didn’t know he was inside,” said Edwards.

It was like a high-speed, mechanized version of a Sunday charge at The Masters on the back nine. Coupled with the rookie outfoxing the vet approaching the checkers, the finish had the maximum ecstasy value. When Edwards hit the fence after Newman hit his Ford and launched it, of course, that’s when the hand-wringing agony began.

Although it was a worst-case scenario of one car hitting another already slightly lifted off the asphalt, both drivers escaped injury, the fence did its job and the worst injury was a fan with a broken jaw.

One of the biggest risks to drivers in the future is the car hitting the fence on the driver’s side, not the case this time. That justifies Edwards’ heat-of-the-moment comment that, “We’ll keep doing this until we kill someone.”

Edwards’ remark also frames up the possibility of the car getting over the fence despite roof flaps, a horrific prospect for fans in the stands, a driver, NASCAR and the sport of motor racing in general.

Given NASCAR’s platitudinous response in a post-race weekend media conference and the track president’s stated intention not to make physical changes to the track’s layout, here’s one suggestion that has yet to be made: move the start-finish to the middle of the tri-oval just like at Daytona.

All three incidents of a car hitting the fence – Bobby Allison’s long flight and crash in 1987, Neil Bonnett’s brief flight that tore down the fence in 1993 (which had recently been reinforced by hefty horizontal cables) and Edwards’ latest meeting with the fence all occurred past the tri-oval and in the chute leading to Turn One, the current site of the start-finish. By moving the start-finish from its present location, there is less likelihood of a last-lap scenario such as on Sunday.

A less dramatic and more effective cure concerns the two-car tandems, made possible by the matching bumper heights front and rear on the COT chassis. It’s been well-established that the liftoff threshold occurs near 190 mph, hence the use of restrictor plates since Allison’s momentous crash. The tandem method exceeds that threshold by what is likely a considerable factor. If so, the tandem running needs to be addressed by NASCAR with a physical change to the cars, in either the area of the bumpers, or the restrictor plates, or both. If not, drivers will do what they’re paid handsomely to do: go faster.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 1 2009
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