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Friday, November 6, 2009

NASCAR must cope with Talladega

No other race track on NASCAR's 36-race circuit gets as much publicity as the Talladega Super Speedway in Talladega, Alabama. While it is one of NASCAR's most popular tracks, what is being said is far from good news.

NASCAR's present controversy surrounding safety at last Sunday's race on the high-banked oval, has ramped up along with race speeds, of about 200 mph. Two cars went airborne in separate accidents in what Talladega fans refer to as the inevitable "big one.”

In the closing laps of the race, Ryan Newman's #39 went backwards into the air, back-flipped onto the hood of the #29 car driven by Kevin Harvick, skidded upside down into the wall, where it rolled and pirouetted several times, finally coming to rest in the grass, on its roof. Radio silence immediately after the crash added to the heart-stopping action as emergency workers hurried to aid the driver. The top of the roof had to be cut off to gain access. Race cars were stopped seemingly in their tracks, on the field in a red flag condition. Silence fell over the grandstands while safety crews righted Newman's car. He emerged sore, but uninjured.

Then on the last lap, veteran driver Mark Martin's #5 car, bumped from behind, rolled over, righted itself again, enabling him to simply get out and walk away. A dozen other cars were involved. Newman's wreck took out five.

Talladega in the spring

Sunday's race was reminiscent of last spring when 17-year old Blake Bobbitt suffered a broken jaw after a crash that caused parts of a crumpled race car to hurl toward her through the fence. This too, was in the last laps of the race as the #99 car driven by Carl Edwards was bumped from behind. His car went airborne just as Newman was racing to the checkered flag along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski. Edwards' car flew into Newman's windshield, which propelled it higher and into the fence. The fence held, but debris shot through it, hitting Bobbitt in the face. Several other fans were injured as well, though not severely.

Following the spring crash, Newman, one of the only drivers with an engineering degree, made an impassioned plea for work on the design of the cars to ensure they stay on the ground. Ironically, it was Newman's car that left the ground on Sunday, the very next trip to Talladega.

NASCAR controversy

Part of the controversy surrounding racing at Talladega involves NASCAR as a sanctioning body. Supporters laud NASCAR's safety innovations and rules that were evident by Newman walking away from such a horrific wreck. There are also the detractors. Some claim NASCAR needs to do more to ensure driver safety. Others want the many rules repealed.

Commentator Larry McReynolds was the first to say that perhaps NASCAR has made too many rules.

NASCAR has mandated the design of the cars, to take away any aerodynamic advantage for race teams. The race car is in its first full year. Known as the COT (car of tomorrow), it was developed over a few years. It is anything but a stock car, which is what NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing stands for. The inspiration for the COT car was safety.

Another NASCAR mandate is to slow the engines at super speedway tracks—Talladega and Daytona. A restrictor plate is used to limit the engine's horsepower by decreasing the amount of air that flows through the carburetor.

The draft, when one car tucks up tightly to another, manipulates the air flow over both, has become a product of restrictor plate racing, however. Drafting, reduces the drag of the first car, resulting in more speed. Another product is bump drafting, which is a push from the second car to propel the first forward. It must be done squarely, or it can turn the car, causing disastrous consequences. It has long been prohibited in the corners, but just hours before Sunday's race NASCAR officials said bump drafting in the corners would bring driver penalties.

NASCAR has also banned driving below the yellow line, between the racing surface and the apron, if it means advancing a position. This rule contributed to the crash in the spring. Brad Keselowski refused to drive his #88 car below the yellow line. Had he done so and finished first, the infraction would have cost him the win. So when Edwards tried to block a hard-charging Keselowski. Edwards' car went flying. Keselowski won the race.

Potential mayhem results in boring racing

Talladega is known for spectacular wrecks. To avoid the potential mayhem on each lap, drivers have elected to just ride around for most of the race until it is time for a mad sprint toward the finish line in the last few laps. Until then, cars are lined up in one long line, nose-to-tail, much like rush hour traffic on a busy interstate, but at speeds teasing 190 mph. NASCAR fans complain that the race has become boring, except for the spectacular endings and "the big one" for which restrictor-plate racing has become known.

Just driving during a race adds another element in NASCAR's controversy corner.

Three-time champion Jimmy Johnson has been criticized for running at the back of the pack for the entire race. Diehard NASCAR fans have little patience for a champion that plays the strategy game in a race.

Johnson finished sixth, earning enough points to all but ensure a likely fourth consecutive title.

Should a championship race car driver be respected for playing the smart and safe strategy or chastised for hiding out at the back of the pack?

Newman's remarks

After Newman was released from the in-field care center Sunday, his remarks added fuel to the controversy.

"It's just a product of this racing and what NASCAR has put us into with this box and these restrictor plates with these types of cars," Newman said. "The more rules, the more NASCAR is telling us how to drive the race cars, the less we can race, and the less we can put on a show for the fans."

"I will go back in the day, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, all those guys, they respected each other. In the end there were some big accidents, but geez, we don't need the cars getting upside down like this. This is ridiculous." Newman said, adding that there is technology available that can help. He said it was a shame that not more is being done.

With three races left in the season, NASCAR will likely have to spend some of the off-season dealing with issues associated with restrictor-plate racing at Talladega, such as long periods of single-file racing, keeping the COT cars from going airborne, a review of rules, fan discontent, and the ever present driver safety.