Thursday April 30th, 2009

I don't have much to add to all the elegant and moving tributes to David Poole, the NASCAR writer for the Charlotte Observer who passed away on Tuesday. He was a great guy, and if you want to get a sense for how respected he was, please check out Lars Anderson's moving tribute that ran on earlier this week. It's excellent.

My tribute to Poole will be to highlight one of the last things he ever wrote -- a column for about last Sunday's wreck at Talladega. It's well done, as usual, and this passage, near the end, stood out to me:

All I want is for someone to tell me what's acceptable. We apparently established Sunday that seven fans being injured -- one spent the night in a hospital with a broken jaw -- is OK. It seems we've decided we can live with that much damage being done to the sport's customers for "good racing."

To me, this is the crux of NASCAR's problem. So far, nobody is saying anything about changing anything. The 99 car's roof flaps, we are told, were working properly, and would have kept Carl Edwards' car in contact with planet earth if not for the impact from Ryan Newman's car at just the right instant. "If you could predict every spin of every car, the whole system would be very easy," Sprint Cup director John Darby told USA Today. "We can test and understand how air will lift a car, but you can't test for every single situation."

That, of course, is true. It's also true that the new, safer car protected Edwards so well that he was able to walk (run, actually) away from his car. And the improved catch fence at Talladega did what it was supposed to do, as well, bending but not breaking upon impact. So let's give credit where it's due. NASCAR has made a whole host of safety improvements in the last 25 years, and every one of them did what it was supposed to last Sunday. And because of that, a very scary situation did not end in fatality.

But Poole is right. The only reason nobody's talking about changing anything right now is because nobody died because of the wreck. A broken jaw seems to be an acceptable price to pay. But what if it had been a broken neck? A severed limb? If someone had died, there would be no arguing right now about whether things should be changed -- change at that point would be a forgone conclusion. No less an authority on the situation than Edwards said afterwards, "We'll race like this until we kill somebody. Then NASCAR will change it."

Well, why do we have to wait for the worst-case scenario to come true? Clearly we now know that even with all of the safety innovations in the last generation, a horrific accident is still a possibility in NASCAR. It's still possible that a car -- or parts of one -- will fly into the stands and kill somebody, especially at a track like Talladega, which is longer and more banked than even Daytona. The track seems too dangerous to be hosting Cup races, especially with restrictor plates keeping the field tightly bunched together.

Remember, it was Talladega where Bobby Allison flipped his car into the grandstand catch fence in 1987. Nobody was killed that day, either, but the mere thought that it could happen spurred NASCAR to act. Restrictor plates -- like them or not -- are a result of that day. Why is there not the same sense of urgency this time around? Sunday's wreck might have been a fluke, but that doesn't change the fact that it could have been much, much worse.

Much has been written about the yellow-line rule, which forbids a driver from going too low on the track to pass. Brad Keselowski was running just above the yellow line in his duel with Edwards. But if you get rid of the rule or move the line, you just move the problem. There will always be an inside limit to the track, and you can't avoid such battles for position.

The only option, to me, at least, seems to be some restructuring of the track, either by flattening out the banking in at least one of the turns (from 33 degrees to zero, preferably-make it like Indy), or by shortening the straightaways. Whatever, Talladega needs to slow things down.

Unfortunately, this isn't likely to happen. Talladega is an enormously popular track precisely because it is fast and dangerous. Don't believe me? Just check out the fan video of Edwards' wreck below. Those fans are in the eye of the storm, and they love it.

NASCAR can't count on its fans to be the responsible ones in this case. The sport of racing, which former Lowe's Motor Speedway chairman Humpy Wheeler once described as "controlled violence," doesn't have much margin for error. It's time to err on the side of caution.

2: Finishing position of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday at Talladega, his best of the season

3: Number of top-10 finishes for Junior in 2009

4: Number of places in the Cup standings that Junior advanced (from 19th to 15th) after his run at Talladega

10: Number of top-10 finishes (out of 19 starts) for Junior at Richmond, including three victories

A fan's perspective on the crash at Talladega last weekend (from the folks at All Left Turns). You can see Carl Edwards' car for just an instant, right around the 27-second mark. Our videographer was sitting just about -- by my estimate -- 100-feet away from where the car impacted the catch-fence. It's pretty terrifying. But note that once the confusion dies down, the fans actually start to cheer. Like it or not, this is part of what they come to Talladega hoping to see.

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