Overreaction Better Than No Action at All

Overreaction Better Than No Action at All

Following Sunday’s wild finish to the Aaron’s 499 at the Talladega Superspeedway, many in the media seem to be overreacting to the outcome of the latest restrictor-plate race, but it is clear there are some things need to be addressed.

Safety has always been a concern at Talladega, including the track’s first event. Afraid tires would not hold up at the speeds being produced, many drivers – led by Richard Petty – boycotted the event. Since then, NASCAR and track officials have kept a careful eye on safety, but unfortunately it usually takes an incident like Carl Edwards’ flip on Sunday to get the wheels turning on real change.

When Bobby Allison blew a tire and flew backwards into the catch-fence in 1987, NASCAR implemented the use of restrictor plates. When Rusty Wallace flipped violently past the start-finish line in 1993, the grass was paved to prevent a car from digging in and turning over. When Jimmy Horton flew over the Turn One wall in 1993, the speedway installed fencing all the way around the track – Ricky Craven later put that fencing to the test in 1996. When Dale Earnhardt Sr. flipped into the outside wall in 1996 and was hit in the roof and windshield by a number of other cars, NASCAR introduced the Earnhardt Bar, a roll bar located down the middle of the windshield.

With Edwards’ car flying through the air and into the catch-fence, NASCAR should take a closer look at the incident to see where improvements need to be made. For this writer, a number of things stick out about the incident that need to be addressed.

First, it is clear that Edwards was throwing the block on Keselowski in order to push him below the yellow line. We saw in last October’s event Regan Smith make the pass for the lead on the apron after being forced down by Tony Stewart, only to be penalized by NASCAR and stripped of the win.

With this precedent, Keselowski was damned and determined not to let up and not to move below the yellow line. When Edwards threw the block, Keselowski was there and the rest is history.

“Regan last year did the right thing,” Keselowski said following the event. “He did the smart thing. He did the cool thing. And he did, he did something that I would be proud of if I was him. You know, he took the bullet. To be honest, I didn’t. I wasn’t going to take the bullet. I’m not in a situation in my career where I can afford to take the bullet and I had nothing to lose.”

The second thing that sticks out is the fact Edwards’ car got airborne in the first place. With safety innovations such as the roof flaps and the new car itself, it was a surprise to many that the No. 99 lifted into the air in the first place.

Sure, Matt Kenseth flipped his No. 16 during Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide race, but that was a Nationwide car, not a COT. Those types of bodies are more like the old style Cup car than the COT, it is understandable that one of those cars would roll over and flip through the air. However, when Edwards turned down across the nose of Keselowski and his rear wheels immediately lifted into the air, and there is a problem there. This new car was designed to be the safest it could be, but when a car’s rear tires lift into the air after being turned NASCAR needs to step in and take a look at ways to keep the cars on the ground.

“I really don’t understand why Carl’s car did what it did,” Keselowski pointed out. “I think that’s something we need to look into. Those cars should not go airborne like his did, and I think that kind of confused me. I just thought his car would spin into the triangle. I think we ought to look at that and do some wind tunnel testing on that and see if we can’t fix that.”

Third-place Ryan Newman agreed with Keselowski that NASCAR needs to keep the cars on the ground at all times.

“The one thing that stands out in my mind is two days in a row, like I’ve said, we’ve [seen] a car turned around and get upside down,” Newman explained. “We need to go back, not to the drawing board, develop some roof flats or something to keep the cars on the ground; that’s one thing not just for the drivers, but for the fans, as well. That’s one thing that stands out.”

Finally, one of the most surprising things that came from the wreckage was the fact both Edwards and Newman – who hit the flying No. 99 at a speed of almost 200 mph – had sections of their windshield missing. Granted, Edwards hit the catch-fence nearly head on and Newman caught the brunt of Edwards’ car in the hood and windshield, but with the technology available today this should never be an issue. Racing at speeds at close to 200 mph, drivers need to feel confident their windshield will not come apart in the course of an accident – regardless of the severity.

“NASCAR has got to do their job to get the cars on the ground and their job to make the cars safer. I noticed my windshield bed pulled away, and Carl Edwards windshield bed pulled away,” Newman added. “Whatever we can do to keep making the cars safer, because I’m pretty sure that we are coming back to Talladega, and I’m pretty sure that we are coming back to restrictor plates, and I’m pretty sure that we are coming back to three wide and four wide for most of the races. What we can do to make everybody safer is what we need to do to come out of here today.”

In addition, there is no denying the danger posed when Edwards’ machine went flying into the catch-fence, sending debris flying into the crowd. NASCAR and track officials have come a long way in the twenty-plus years since Allison’s terrifying incident, and thanks to those innovations, Edwards’ car did not end up in the grandstands and the injuries – while unfortunate – were kept to a minimum.

This issue is one that is tougher to address. Sunday’s incident proved quiet vividly that when a car is sent flying towards the packed crowd, there are safety devices in place to keep the damage as minimal as possible. Fans that attend any sporting event are subject to the dangers posed by that particular sport. Flying baseballs, hockey pucks and broken bats have all been sent into the crowd injuring the innocent bystanders. In a sport where 43 cars travel past thousands of fans at speeds nearing 200 mph, NASCAR has done an amazing job protecting those in the stands from injury or death.

“You have to understand that, like, for years, we have had wrecks like this every time we come to Talladega ever since the plate got here and for years it was celebrated,” runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. pointed out. “The media celebrated it, the network celebrated it, calling it the big one, just trying to attract attention and trying to bring people’s attention to the race.

“So there’s a responsibility with the media and the networks and the sanctioning body itself to come to their senses a little bit and think about, you know, the situation,” Earnhardt Jr. added. “But I mean, you know, you can’t sit here and jump up and go, wow, what I saw today was crazy. I don’t think it’s right, unless you’re a driver, because the media and the networks and everybody has been celebrating that stuff for years.”

Clearly Sunday’s scary incident has brought attention to the fact there are still gaps in safety that NASCAR needs to address. Yet, Carl Edwards claiming “we’ll race like this until we kill somebody” might be taking it a bit far. Keep in mind Edwards was not only able to climb from his mangled race car, but jogged across the finish line afterwards. Now, Edwards is a fit guy, but for anyone to be able to climb from an accident of that magnitude speaks volumes for NASCAR’s effort in terms of making the sport as safe as possible.

“There’s no such thing as overreaction when it comes to safety,” Newman argued. “For not just, like I said, not just us, but the fans as well. Just the bottom line is, whatever we can do to make it safer for everybody, that’s what we need to do. And yesterday and today were two things that I’m sure NASCAR will spend some time looking at, replaying some videos and watching what the cars do and let their engineers figure out what we can do to try to help the situation.”

Safety is never a finished project, it is something that constantly needs to be tweaked and worked each and every day. However I disagree with Newman’s sentiments. Now, granted I am not behind the wheel of one of these machines, but I believe NASCAR just needs to be careful of overreacting to this incident in the name of safety.

In 2000, when Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, NASCAR implemented the use of restrictor plates on the one-mile track in an effort to prevent any more tragic incidents. The result was a terrible race in which there was not a single pass for the lead.

What NASCAR needs to ensure is there is not a knee-jerk reaction to all the media outcries following Sunday’s event. Action certainly needs to be taken in terms of keeping the cars on the ground and ensuring the durability of the windshields, but there is a fine line between reacting and overreacting.