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NASCAR's stock answer to Talladega crash is not enough

Carl Edwards’ car hits the fence during a crash on the last lap of Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Associated Press

Carl Edwards’ car hits the fence during a crash on the last lap of Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

The scariest thing was not the collision.

It was not the bumping at 199 mph, and it was not the car that went airborne. It was not the second collision in air, and it was not the car flying toward the bleachers where thousands of fans sat behind a reinforced fence. It was not the car bouncing off the fence, and it was not how it landed in a flaming heap as other cars whizzed past at high speed.

No, to me, the scary part came a day later.

That was when NASCAR officials reviewed the video and results of Carl Edwards' final-lap accident at Talladega on Sunday, and came to this conclusion:

Yup, that's just how we planned it.

I am paraphrasing here, but that was essentially the message from the men in charge of NASCAR's rules. And — crazy as it seems — they had a right to be proud.

The air flaps on Edwards' car worked pretty much the way they were designed. The fence absorbed the impact. The roll cage and safety restraints in the car allowed Edwards to reach the dinner table on time.

And all I could think was:

If this is what safe looks like, I don't want to see the alternative.

We all understand, to some degree, that this is a risky business. People have been killed, and dreams have been crushed. But it takes an incident such as this to remind everyone that, as a sport, auto racing is still organized mayhem.

And, no matter how much emphasis is put on safety, the allure is still in the risk.

"If we flattened Lowe's Motor Speedway and reduced the speeds to 70 mph, sure, you could make an argument it would be a safer racetrack," Sprint Cup series director John Darby said. "But, at the same time, we are in the racing business … professional drivers controlling cars at high speeds."

In many places, the debate today is in the details. Whether restrictor plates — devices that reduce the speed of cars in races at Talladega and Daytona — do more harm than good because they keep the cars bunched.

Or whether rules that prohibit drivers from going below the yellow line on the inside of the track lead to accidents such as Sunday when eventual winner Brad Keselowski refused to give ground to Edwards.

And I'm sure NASCAR officials are already looking at ways to tweak the fence to avoid the problem of race debris that left seven spectators with relatively minor injuries. They will be more vigilant about penalizing drivers for bumping and drafting at the circuit's superspeedways. And they will continue working on more safety innovations.

But here's the thing:

In their hearts, they love this. And so do we.

Not necessarily the accidents or injuries, but the sense of danger that forever hangs over the sport.

Which is why television networks use crashes to tease upcoming races. And it's why newspapers across the country used front-page photos of Edwards' airborne car. And it is how the folks at Lowe's Motor Speedway could get away with setting the price of some tickets for next month's Coca-Cola 600 based on the number of cars involved in Talladega's largest accident.

(For the record, Lowe's sold 1,000 tickets for $14 each this week after a 14-car pileup on the seventh lap of Sunday's race.)

"For years and years, they've been telling everybody, 'Turn the TV on and watch the Talladega race, see when the big one happens, see who's in the big one, see who can miss the big one, see who can win the race and not get caught up in the big one.' It's just been on and on and on for years," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "But now you can't turn around and change your opinion, because everybody knew this was the possibility of the style of racing.

"We unfortunately had a terrible accident that some people were injured in. But that has been a possibility for years. So it's almost amusing to me that everyone's interest is all of a sudden perked by what happened when that possibility was there all along."

Earnhardt is not the only critic. A lot of other drivers are screaming about the inherent risks at Daytona and Talladega. They complain the races are not tests of skill, but carnivals of luck and survival. The action is fast, dangerous and unpredictable. It's why NASCAR loves those tracks. And why some drivers hate them.

"It goes without mention that the most exciting races that we have today are at Daytona and Talladega. That's a big part of our sport," Darby said. "I think there's more value in continuing our safety efforts at those tracks, (rather) than turning those two very historical, very exciting racetracks into flat parking lots. I don't understand that thought process."

He does not understand that thought process because racing enthusiasts love the sense of risk. They love living on the edge.

The sport has made tremendous strides in protecting drivers and fans, but you cannot predict every possibility with crash tests and wind tunnel experiments. And so, eventually, you have a car that comes dangerously close to flying into a grandstand.

What we know for sure is that their safety precautions worked this time.

And that, somewhere down the line, there will be a next time.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

NASCAR's stock answer to Talladega crash is not enough 04/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 7:11am]

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