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Woody: Crashes Not Wrecking Racing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 4 2009
Larry Woody says this isn't a wreck, it's a magnet. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images) 

Larry Woody says this isn't a wreck, it's a magnet. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

By Larry Woody | Senior Writer

It is race fans’ guilty little secret: We love wrecks.

We crave crashes, we delight in demolitions, we’re wowed by wipeouts. We can’t get enough of that tumbling stuff.

I’ve been covering NASCAR for 40-some odd years (some odder than others) and I continue to be puzzled by why so many race fans – and race media – live in a state of crash-denial.

Racing is not just about going fast. If it were, open-wheel racing would leave NASCAR in the dust. So would drag racing. And spaceship launches.

Instead, NASCAR consistently draws more fans and has higher TV ratings. What’s the one thing that NASCAR has that they don’t have, or at least seldom have? Contact and crashes.

Why is racing so popular at Bristol? Because it’s Wreck City, that’s why. I know it and you know it. Why are we so ashamed to admit it?

Why does Talladega draw such monster crowds? Because of the constant tension, waiting for The Big One to explode at any moment. Watching a race at Talladega is like watching Stevie Wonder dismantle a bomb.

In the aftermath of Carl Edwards’ wild ride at Talladega it was interesting to hear some of the critics complaining about too many crashes. Weren’t these some of the same critics who earlier were griping about how bland and boring NASCAR had become?

Some of the people who said Talladega was too rough had been wondering where all the action had gone. They whined about the no-passing, no-shoving, follow-the-leader racing that we’d been seeing most of the season.

Even once-brutal Bristol seemed to have lost some of its bare-knuckle belligerence.

Then all heck breaks out at Talladega – lead changes almost every lap, cars swerving, spinning and flying through the air – and immediately we hear the tsk-tsking from the critics’ corner.

When TV shows a race highlight, does it feature a couple of cars cruising around the track? Nope, it shows cars bouncing off of cars, cars careening off walls, cars doing cartwheels. (Assuming such car-carnage footage is available; if not, it just runs more shots of a centerfielder making a diving catch.)

Don’t misunderstand: race fans don’t want to see a driver injured any more than football fans want to see a player seriously hurt by a hard hit.

Yet in the NFL they compile videos of The Game’s Hardest Hits; they don’t have video compilations of The Game’s Warmest Handshakes. Football fans, like race fans, expect some bang for their buck.

If the NFL eliminated tackling, the league would dry up and blow away, just as racing would if they eliminated wrecking.

NASCAR’s challenge is to build cars and tracks that can absorb beat-and-bang action while at the same time keeping everybody safe. It’s a fine line to toe, but more and more the safety innovators are getting it done.

That Edwards – and the day before, Matt Kenseth – could walk away from their terrifying Talladega tumbles is testament to the safety features in their cars. And the front-stretch catch fence kept Edwards’ car from going over the wall, although unfortunately it didn’t keep all the debris from flying into the stands and injuring some spectators.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a racetrack has never been a 100 percent safe place. It probably never will be. Like most things in life, racing comes with no guarantee. The edgy ruggedness of stock car racing has always been a big part of its appeal.

If there was some way to guarantee that a race could be run with absolutely no contact – no beating, no banging, no spinning, no wrecking, just cars gliding unscathed around in circles – they wouldn’t be able to give away tickets. Without wrecks – or at least the possibility of wrecks – nobody would watch.

There, I said it. Racing’s guilty little secret is out at last.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 4 2009
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