If History Is Any Indication, NASCAR Will Fumble Crash Response

Marc BashamContributor IApril 27, 2009

TALLADEGA, AL - APRIL 26:  Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Claritin Ford goes airborne as Ryan Newman, driver of the #34 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet hits the wall at the end of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 26, 2009 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

If there is one thing NASCAR has been able to do in their 60 year history it is compounding an already existing problem.

And thanks to the fireworks seen not only during yesterday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway but also at the Aaron’s 312 Nationwide Series race on Saturday, I have a feeling fans can see drastic changes coming to the world of restrictor plate racing come Daytona in July.

In case you have been living under a proverbial sports rock for the last 24 hours here’s a quick recap. After two multiple-car pile ups during the Aaron’s 499 the field was thinned down to around 20 competitive cars when the green flag dropped with five laps to go.

At a normal racetrack, a green flag within such a short amount of time would all but ruin the chances of most drivers. But as we have seen in the past, Talladega is anything but normal.

Thanks to some almost Earnhardt-esque driving, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski were able to make their way towards the front with ease, taking the lead from Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as they took the white flag.

What happened next shocked even the most seasoned NASCAR fan.

Utilizing the almost forgotten slingshot maneuver discovered by legendary driver Junior Johnson, Keselowski dove high then low racing to the checkered flag. When Edwards came down to block the two made contact sending Edward’s car flying towards the oncoming #39 and into the catch fence, destroying the protective barrier and injuring a few fans in the process with flying debris.

And now, with controversy over the speeds at Talladega again at an all time high, it is up to NASCAR to find a solution. But will this governing body, who continues to rule the sport with an iron fist and an ever-changing rule book, make the necessary adjustments to ensure the protection of fans and drivers alike? The answer, simply is No.

Throughout its storied history, NASCAR has taken a proactive response to tragedy. For example, the introduction of shoulder restraints after the death of champion Joe Weatherly in the 1960s, or more recently the influx of safety improvement after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001.

But NASCAR also has a history of jumping the gun, making unnecessary changes just to “please the public.” For instance, running the 2000 fall race at New Hampshire with a restrictor plate following the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, resulting in arguably the most boring race in NASCAR history (Jeff Burton led all 300 laps on the way to the win). 

This morning on Sportscenter, Dale Jarrett was on the set calling for NASCAR to not only slow down the cars but also move fans back away from the track and install larger fences. While I do believe that action does need to be taken to ensure the safety of both drivers and spectators, such drastic measures do not need to be taken right away.

Truth is the catch fence did its job. Other than a few minor injuries, the fence prevented Edward’s car from flying into the stands, causing a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. The strengthened fences, which were installed after a similar accident in the late 1980s, came as a result of careful planning and discussion between NASCAR and drivers.

Fans love the up close and personal aspect of NASCAR. There is no bigger adrenalin rush than standing feet away from a pack of 800 horsepower cars running 200 miles per hour. For NASCAR to take this away from the fans without proper planning and discussion would be ludicrous.

However, something obviously needs to be done cars getting airborne in the first place at Talladega. With two cars lifting off over the weekend, the danger aspect has rarely been higher. 

But simply slowing down the cars as everybody is suggesting is easier said than done. What makes Talladega and Daytona so dangerous are the tight packs of cars running at such high speeds with no way to break out. Unless NASCAR finds a way to solve this dilemma, very little can be done to prevent similar 10+ car accidents and airborne cars in the near future.

Does something need to be done? Simply stating, YES! If NASCAR does not take action there will be deaths at either Daytona or Talladega. Whether it will be in the grandstands or on the track, well that is a completely different story.

But before making any changes, it is vital that NASCAR takes a step back and evaluates each and every aspect of restrictor plate racing and spectator safety. Otherwise, they could end up biting the hand that feeds them.