Monday, November 02, 2009

Commentary: Stop Yelling And Start Talking

It’s as predictable as sunrise.

Twice each season, in the aftermath of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events at Talladega Superspeedway, the hue and cry begins to “fix the racing” at NASCAR’s largest track.

If only it were that easy.

Superspeedway racing is safer today than it has even been. It is not, however, safe enough to prevent NASCAR Nation from holding its collective breath while safety crews cut the roof off Ryan Newman’s decimated Chevrolet yesterday; the latest in a too-long series of savage crashes that has plagued the Alabama track and its sister speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Everyone agrees that it has to stop. No one wants to think of what could happen in a worst-case Talladega scenario. But nobody seems to have a sure-fire solution, either.

Opinions differ on how to keep cars on the ground and out of the catch fence. Some have suggested tearing down the banking at Daytona and Talladega. Speeds would almost certainly plummet without those awesome, 31-degree highbanks, but that option is economically unfeasible. Estimates for such a makeover top $50-60 million -- unthinkable in these difficult economic times -– and reworking two of NASCAR's most storied tracks would rob the sport of much of its history.

Others advocate removing the restrictor plates, in an effort to spread out the pack and make crashes less likely. That solution ignores history, wrongly assuming that Talladega’s infamous “Big One” is the evil spawn of the restrictor plate era.

In fact, NASCAR turned to restrictor plates only after Bobby Allison’s car nearly landed in the Talladega grandstands during the 1987 running of the Winston 500. Just days before, Bill Elliott had qualified his Ford Thunderbird on the pole with a now-unthinkable speed of 212.809 mph, and even then, there was a long and terrifying tradition of airborne racecars at Talladega and Daytona. Both Phil Parsons and Ricky Craven have nearly left the ballpark in memorable Talladega crashes. Others – Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Randy LaJoie – survived similarly hideous flyers at Daytona. A few were driving restrictor plate-equipped cars. Most were not.

NASCAR continues to mandate restrictors plates simply because no better way has been found to slow the cars down. But even a smaller, 59/64ths plate did not keep the cars grounded Sunday. In the aftermath of two scary late-race incidents, fans and drivers are justifiably calling for action, demanding that something be done to prevent such incidents in the future. Unfortunately, even the men with the most to lose seem divided on what that solution might be.

Carl Edwards praised NASCAR for making Sunday’s race safer, saying, “I would not have guessed it, but I think NASCAR (is) headed in the right direction. They just need to say, `You can't push anybody anywhere on the race track.’”

Newman, meanwhile, climbed out of his demolished racer and said, "I wish NASCAR would do something. (The wreck was) a product of this racing, and what NASCAR has put us into with this box and these restrictor plates with these types of cars. 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.”

Shouting at NASCAR is a time-honored tradition, and while demanding that the sanctioning body do something may make us all feel better, primal scream therapy is no substitute for actual action.

Clearly, neither of Sunday’s major crashes can be blamed on bump drafting. Both were the result of drivers attempting to protect their position by blocking on the straightaways. Despite complaints from some drivers that NASCAR tied their hands Sunday, the partial ban on bump drafting had no discernable impact on competition. There were long stretches of three and four-wide racing, and no shortage of passing throughout the pack.

Clearly, they can race -– and race well -– without bump drafting.

So what now?

All parties agree on two goals; intense competition and safety for drivers and fans. Newman -– who has a degree in engineering -- invited NASCAR to pick his brain on possible ways to achieve both those goals, and the sanctioning body should take him up on that offer. Nobody understands a car better than the person who races it every week, and there are a lot of smart people in the Sprint Cup Series garage.

NASCAR cannot be too proud to ask for help.

Further, it’s time for both sides to put aside the adversarial “us against them” mentality that has punctuated restrictor plate racing over the years.

NASCAR has no desire to endanger its brightest stars, and the drivers are not interested in staging single-file, follow-the-leader races. Both sides share the common goal of making NASCAR’s superspeedway events better and safer for everyone.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know it’s out there.

It’s time to stop yelling and start talking.

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