Column: NASCAR's Talladega wreck-fast comes at a price
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) Nobody needs to be reminded that racing is inherently dangerous. We all know drivers assume the risks. It's understood that no one forces a driver to compete.
That shoulder-shrug approach doesn't make the scorecard from Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway any easier to accept.
The delicate line between sport and entertainment was dangerously straddled by 40 drivers roaring along in a pack of cars at 200 mph. When the dust settled, 35 cars had been involved in at least one accident and two cars went airborne. When Kevin Harvick's car lifted off the track in a last-lap crash, it finally put an end to the chaos.
Yes, driver after driver exited their race car unharmed. Save for some bruises to her arms and legs and soreness when she took her breath, Danica Patrick scrambled to safety following the most frightening crash of her career.
So, yes, we celebrate on Monday that no one was injured, and better yet, no one died in the carnage that was a typical Talladega race.
But all that wrecking came at a price.
The cost of damaged race cars on Sunday neared $10 million in losses across the grid, according to an informal survey Monday by The Associated Press of five top race teams. Within that series-wide estimate, some teams estimated they lost $500,000 per car – total loss situations – while others estimated $250,000 without including any engine damage.
Those losses, the terrifying tumbles taken by Chris Buescher and Matt Kenseth, the hard licks into the wall, the parking-lot effect from a 21-car accident, all of it is accepted as part of the show. Racing at Daytona and Talladega, the only two tracks in NASCAR that require the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates to slow the cars, simply is what it is.
That's all fine and well because everybody knows what they signed up for, right?
Cars should not be going airborne anymore. IndyCar faced this same issue in the buildup to the Indianapolis 500 last year, when three cars took flight in terrifying crashes. Rules were immediately implemented to keep the cars on the track, and IndyCar again issued a mandate in car design for this month's race.
NASCAR is in the same position and went to work Monday studying the wrecks to see what can be altered to keep cars from lifting off the track.
''We never want to see cars get up in the air,'' Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's chief racing development officer, told AP.
Improved communication between NASCAR, owners and drivers should lead to solutions. O'Donnell said the new collaboration gives NASCAR a new ''ability to work with the race teams and their top engineers'' on how to keep cars on the track.
Kyle Busch, who broke his leg and foot in a crash at Daytona last year, said after his second-place finish Sunday that he'd rather stay home than participate in plate races. Third-place finisher Austin Dillon admitted: ''We all have to do it; I don't know how many really love it.''
Dillon walked away from a frightening airborne accident on the last lap of last July's race at Daytona, an incident he said is ''not a fun thing to be a part of.'' He has faith that NASCAR understands the drivers' concerns.
''I know NASCAR will put their efforts toward fixing it,'' he said. ''They've made the car safer. That's the reason why we're walking away from these crashes. I think as a group, all of us want it to be where we're not leaving the ground.''
It's important to put Sunday's demolition derby in at least a little bit of perspective. Yes, the destruction was unusually high. But the threat of rain played a huge role in the multiple accidents.
Normally, the aggression in plate races doesn't come until about 30 laps remain and many drivers spend most of the race riding around in the hope they can stay out of trouble to make a late run for the win. They couldn't wait Sunday because rain could have ended the race with no notice.
It meant the pace was much faster from start to finish.
''It was almost like the entire race was overtime,'' O'Donnell said. ''Everybody was on the gas each and every lap. There was one point where we had weather 100 yards away, four laps to go until the halfway point and two laps to go in the fuel runs. That certainly produced three-wide racing from start to finish.''
Plate racing isn't going away anytime soon, though various measures could be taken to reduce the pack element – remove the restrictor-plates, slow the cars, knock down the banking at Daytona and Talladega – nothing should be eliminated from conversation as NASCAR tries to ''fix'' the issues plaguing the four events each year.
Not everyone is convinced the racing needs to be fixed. Brad Keselowski picked up his fourth Talladega victory and had few complaints after the race.
Of course, he ran up front and ahead of much of the chaos.
''I'm a capitalist,'' he said. ''There's people still paying to sit in the stands, there's sponsors still on the cars, drivers still willing to get in them. Kind of sounds like it's self-policing, and there's enough interest to keep going, so we'll keep going.''