|Sunday's crash has inspired debate.|
Talladega opened its gates in September of 1969. Not long after, cars began circling the 2.66-mile tri-oval at ridiculously high rates of speed. Buddy Baker was the first driver to eclipse the 200 mph barrier, and he did it at Talladega, turning a test lap at 200.447 mph on March 24, 1970. Bill Elliott holds the official Talladega track record, after holding his breath through a 212.809 mph lap in 1987. Rusty Wallace upped the ante significantly with an unofficial lap of 216.309 mph on June 9, 2004 in a non-NASCAR sanctioned test.
Talladega has always been fast, and those speeds have always led to crashes.
In May 1987, Bobby Allison blew the engine in his Miller High Life Buick, then cut a right-rear tire on his own debris. His car took wing in Talladega’s frontstretch tri-oval, tearing down a significant portion of steel catch fence in a spectacular crash that gave rise to NASCAR’s restrictor plate era. Long before Allison’s crash, however, “The Big One” was already part of Talladega lore. And fans were already debating its merits.
|Ricky Craven (41) flies in 1996|
While restrictor plates have helped keep cars grounded in recent seasons, multi-car crashes are still a regular part of the Talladega landscape. And just like 25 years ago, “The Big One” most often occurs in the final laps of a race, when drivers cast caution to the win and push the competitive envelope in an attempt to win.
When the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. came from 18th to the lead in the final eight laps at Talladega a few years ago, he did so by running three and four-wide through a frenzied pack of cars circling the Talladega track at more than 200 mph. Nobody complained about the racing that day. Nobody said the track needed to be re-worked. Nobody called for a rule change.
It was pack racing, exactly as we saw it Sunday, but amazingly, everyone seemed to enjoy it.
Not long ago, drivers called upon NASCAR to abolish the 2x2 tandem draft and return traditional pack racing to the superspeedways, saying big-pack racing "put the control back in the hands of the drivers.” In the aftermath of Sunday’s last-lap crash, some of those same drivers complained that pack racing makes it impossible for them to control their own destiny. While fate and circumstance obviously play a role at Talladega, it wasn’t fate that caused those drivers to race five wide on the final lap Sunday, rather than on Lap 1, Lap 31, or Lap 101.
It was driver choice, plain and simple.
|Dick Brooks rode out a 1975 "Big One."|
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., used the word “bloodthirsty” Sunday to describe fans who enjoy pack racing at Daytona and Talladega. While it’s never wise to take anyone too seriously who has just ridden out a 190-mph, multi-car crash, Earnhardt’s choice of words was still unfortunate. It is difficult to imagine any of the 88,000 who bought tickets for Sunday’s race doing so in the hope of seeing death, dismemberment or bloodshed. Nobody wants to see drivers injured – much less dead – and Earnhardt’s “bloodthirsty” comment did a disservice to a fan base that over the years has made him a very wealthy man.
The bottom line on this debate is that stock car racing has always been dangerous. NASCAR does everything it can to keep the sport as safe as possible, and advances in driver safety have undoubtedly saved lives in recent years. But until someone repeals the laws of physics, human beings strapped into heavy objects and traveling at high speeds will always be at risk.
Photo: AP/Dale Davis