Tuesday, October 09, 2012

COMMENTARY: Hysteria Aside, The Talladega "Big One" Is Nothing New

Sunday's crash has inspired debate.
A few thoughts, if I may, on the latest outbreak of screeching horror caused by Sunday’s last-lap, multi-car crash at Talladega Superspeedway… 

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


  1. Anonymous3:33 PM

    I think Jr's blood thirsty comment was spot on.
    I recall comments here asking why some race promoters run commercials that are mostly scenes of cars wrecking, often at Dega.

    As fans we have become desensitized to the reality that drivers can die doing this.
    Think back to what Delana Harvick said 6 days ago about Daytona and Dega, just wanting the race to end so she can leave with her husband next sitting to her.

    Robert Y

  2. Anonymous4:50 PM

    Are the underbody areas able to be" tweaked" by teams or NASCAR for restrictor plate tracks for smoother airflow?

    Brendan in NJ

  3. The bottom line of this debate is the crashes are 100% driver error and drivers like Dale Junior have no right to complain. Racing is about lead changes, plain and simple, and Talladega is far safer than places like Charlotte where the crashes are far harder than anything Talladega produces.

    Robert Y - Delana Harvick's opinion is worthless. Talladega and Daytona are real racing - real racing is about combat for the win. Driver risk is greater away from the plate tracks.

  4. Brendan in NJ - I don't believe so anymore - back in the 2000-4 period DEI hit on an aero tweak to the transmission tunnel area; by the end of 2004 everyone else found out about it.

    1. Anonymous7:26 AM

      Thanks for the reply. During "The Big One" I noticed how uncluttered the underside of the #14 was and how open and air catching the area around the fuel cell appeared.
      Brendan in NJ

  5. Anonymous7:30 PM

    The best thing is the past few races, "NOBODY" got hurt! Bruised ego's, a lot of wrecked race cars and everyone walked away.

    Jim J.
    Bellmawr NJ

  6. It seems to me that with the advent of fuel injection, it should be able to electronically limit the top speed of these cars and still let them have full throttle capability. I know that some supercars, and motorcycles, are equipped this way. NASCAR should be able to do this, and do away with the restrictor plate.

  7. Brendan,
    No, teams are not allowed to modify the under-car for any race. Other series, notably F1 and Indy actually have complete under-car plates with anti-lift planes. It would be a huge area for improvement if NASCAR would allow it.

    1. Anonymous7:29 AM

      Thanks for the reply. Maybe NASCAR would allow sponsor logo or at least "Hi Mom" at the plate tracks
      Brendan in NJ

  8. Jack - no way. It's another of those myths pushed by people who hate the restrictor plate. People need to stop hating it.