Thomas Bowles · Sunday October 16, 2005
The past few days have been full of questionable calls at all levels of major sports. Baseball’s gone through tough criticism after a bad umpiring call on a 9th-inning strikeout helped give a win to Chicago in the American League Championship Series. College Football and the NFL suffered through questionable last-minute referee decisions on Saturday and Sunday that had both USC and Atlanta given wins they perhaps shouldn’t have received. But in the sport of racing, where questionable calls can lead to life and death experiences, what happened on Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway gave the sport of NASCAR the biggest black eye of all on the week.
When you listen to the quotes surrounding what went on at the racetrack this weekend, the weird yet consistent theme you’ll keep hearing is the credit given to everyone who tried to make this situation better. It’s almost like the 43 drivers and crews associated with NASCAR Nextel Cup have been forced into a type of public relations spin mode in which they all say they “took one for the team” in racing on a track that clearly wasn’t capable of handling one Nextel Cup car running a 500-mile race, let alone 43. Look through the quotes over the weekend, and you hear people on camera complimenting NASCAR, Goodyear, and Lowe’s president Humpy Wheeler on doing the best they could to make the situation better, and how everybody knew about the problems heading into the weekend but went through with the race anyway. The problem is, this isn’t the type of sacrifice like when your crazy aunt makes a beeline in your direction at the Family Reunion and you’re forced to talk to her for five minutes for the sake of family peace. Running this race was a situation of life and death, conditions where drivers could have gotten seriously hurt regardless of SAFER barriers, and yet it seems everyone just resigned themselves to what was going to happen and hoped for the best. Yeah, I really think NASCAR should be patted on the back for running a race in which a driver was guaranteed to slam into the wall every 10 minutes at 190 mph. I’m sure Lowe’s ticketholders were thrilled with Humpy Wheeler after they saw 500 miles of single-file racing cause hey, he tried to make it better. And of course, if a driver got seriously hurt in this mess, we should have poured out all of our sympathy to Goodyear because they weren’t prepared for a little extra speed. Give me a break! Having a race run smoothly is these peoples’ jobs; it’s the type of field where you don’t get credit for trying if you make a mistake.
In the drivers’ defense, their reserved and cleverly veiled quotes are only what we hear on camera or read in the papers. Off-camera, you can’t even imagine how many swear words and arguments people have been having with NASCAR as to how in the heck they allowed this race to run in what ranks as one of the sport’s great embarassments of the modern era. Clearly, running every 20 laps under green with the drivers at 50 – 80% total effort, simply waiting for the next car to blow a flat tire could hardly be called racing. In fact, it couldn’t be called a demolition derby, either; letting drivers into cars turned into one-night death traps at 190 mph could hardly resemble cars hitting each other in a circle at 40 mph like most demolition derbys do. I’d say for the drivers, it probably felt like they were on some sickening roller coaster where they knew they were about to be thrown off the ride in midair, yet there was nothing they could do about it. Through pure dumb luck, despite the record number of cautions in this race (15), 14 for accidents, we had not one injury, a miracle considering the speeds the drivers were going at.
What’s worse, the debacle that happened at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Sunday night wasn’t a surprise; NASCAR’s known about it for weeks in advance. Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart, championship contenders and two of the best drivers in the sport today, wiped out two cars during testing. Testing. That’s not exactly a situation where you’re giving it 100% every lap. Indeed, even the most casual sports observers could have probably told you they heard the words “Lowe’s” and “levigation” in the same sentence in the days leading up to Saturday night’s UAW-GM 500. We also experienced a race in May that was one of the biggest crashfests in the track’s long history, with a record 22 cautions in the Coca-Cola 600 and a rash of right front tire failures that had everyone wondering what racing would be like at the track in the Fall. Certainly, you would think that after that race, exciting as it was in the last 100 miles, people would have thought of a solution that worked in the four months plus in between the Spring and the Fall. Apparently, despite all the tricks Lowe’s public relations Humpy Wheeler has pulled through the years, he couldn’t pull a rabbit out of his hat this time with the new surface; you can’t fault the track for trying, but the bottom line is they failed in the ample time given to them to fix the problem.
In my personal opinion, the reason the track failed, Goodyear failed, everyone failed appears to be the overall speed of these cars, cars that with the repaving are way too fast for their own good. I talked about this in a column I ran several months ago about the repaving of not only Lowe’s, but Richmond and several other tracks, where I mentioned how the speed of the Cup cars has gone up dramatically in just the past 3 to 5 years. Qualifying speeds at Atlanta, Texas, and now Lowe’s are now far faster than the pole speeds for Daytona and Talladega, where restrictor plates are used to slow speeds down. Isn’t it hypocritical to slow speeds down at those two tracks while allowing the cars to go faster at several other places? And, as has been stated by virtually everyone who covers this sport, including several of the drivers themselves, the Nextel Cup cars have become way too aerodynamic for their own good, resulting in the drivers being able to reach dangerously high speeds and causing the cars to be on the edge of control. Open-wheel cars have constantly had design, chassis, and engine changes occur when the cars were on the verge of getting too fast for their own good; if they didn’t, who knows what the pole record speed and the death toll would be at Indy nowadays, and you certainly wouldn’t see any side-by-side finishes in the IRL. For Nextel Cup, the Car of Tomorrow can’t come fast enough.
Of course, just because pure driver speed may be the issue doesn’t mean everyone should go blameless. Goodyear should have recommended to NASCAR the race be cancelled due to their inability to come up with a tire setup that was acceptable for race conditions; instead, they pushed ahead with a tire they clearly knew would not hold up under the circumstances. And the NASCAR brass failed on all levels to provide competent leadership and direction when needed. Certainly, with the ample warning of the potential problems here, the race could have been postponed until a solution to the tire and track problems were found, or restrictor plates could have been used—- as horrible a race as that would have been, in hindsight that would have cut speeds and saved a ton of sheet metal damage. Instead, NASCAR kind of shrugged its shoulders, closed its eyes and braced itself for the hit it knew it was about to take. Leadership is defined by reacting with clear, quick solutions in a crisis situation; unfortunately, NASCAR did nothing of the sort, and now will be criticized accordingly.
The unfortunate fallout from all these problems occurred with the TV audience, as NASCAR had a chance to gain a large group of new fans on Saturday night. The USC – Notre Dame college football game was an instant classic with a large audience; ratings-wise, it was likely one of the best lead-ins for an event the sport has had in the past quarter century. But instead of gaining respect and admiration for a sport they’ve probably never tried to watch, those football fans who did stick around instead changed the channel confused as to how a major sport could hold an event where all their drivers were put at risk, as well as boredom over a complete inability for any cars to run side-by-side. Doubtless, some of them were probably even discussing how funny it is that NASCAR is being considered a major sport if they still go through weekends like this. Sadly, I’m sure some of NASCAR’s hardcore fans have begun to think that, too.
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