Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday March 12, 2007
In casinos across the Vegas strip this week, visiting NASCAR fans entertained themselves by pulling a simple lever to gamble their future away. Throwing a quarter in the nearest slot machine, they crossed their fingers and hoped for the best, looking for a miracle jackpot that would transform their lives and reverse regret about ever choosing to throw money in that silly thing to begin with.
Well, who knew that the very race track those fans came to see would spend the last four days doing exactly the same thing? Luckily for track owner Bruton Smith, Goodyear, and NASCAR, they pressed the lever just right; for in his case, they were gambling with drivers' lives.
After high expectations turned nervous anticipation, the first Cup race at the newly reconstructed track at Vegas ended with the type of surprise jackpot everyone agreed they never saw coming. Think of it as if you mistakenly hit on 19 in Blackjack, setting yourself up for disaster, but somehow you stay in the hand by getting a two and raising your total to 21. When the dealer comes around and loses with 20, that's the type of situation where you get up, thank your lucky stars, and run out of there with money you shouldn't have had.
That's exactly what happened for the sport's powers that be over the weekend. In this case, the "jackpot" the track received was just your average race, a miracle that averted disaster after everything that could go wrong, did go wrong throughout the week. After a Nextel Cup qualifying session that saw nearly half a dozen cars crash out led into a Busch race that resembled a demolition derby, the shouts of protest emanating from NASCAR veterans and youngsters alike were reaching a crescendo. Driver's concerns were big enough to stuff an entire room full of complaint boxes; between the tires, the pavement, and the high speeds, it seemed everyone was more willing to fill out their own comment card about the Speedway, and they weren't the happy, smiley type.
"The track's like driving on black ice," said Greg Biffle after a hard wreck Saturday left him counting his lucky stars he was still in one piece.
"The race (Sunday) is going to suck," criticized Kevin Harvick after he watched no fewer than twelve Busch cars crash out, with over half the field incurring damage during the race. Saturday was like Bristol; except the cars were going too fast and the track too dangerous to make this good ol' short track racing.
Of course, this type of complaining couldn't have been made possible without NASCAR's well-financed friend Goodyear, who once again came to a newly paved facility with the tires but not the traction to give drivers an opportunity to hold a successful race. Tony Stewart was so angry at Goodyear officials, you thought he was going to go strangle one of them to prove a point sometime throughout the weekend. Stewart may have been a little temperamental, but he was exactly right; after the Charlotte debacle of the past few years, it was inexcusable for NASCAR's exclusive tire company to fail again to bring a working compound to a repaved facility. It's becoming a broken record of excuses for these guys, but without competition or consequences, those excuses are more than enough for the NASCAR brass that puts unequivocal trust in a company that grows less trustworthy by the day. Goodyear claimed they needed to bring a harder compound to reduce speeds and keep drivers safe; well, when ten-year veterans are seeing their cars snap around at 190 mph before they can even blink, safety's not the first thing that comes to mind. When you bring a new compound to the track that no one’s tested, after three days of January testing on something completely different, wouldn’t that throw up a red flag, Goodyear? I mean, really? Damned if you do and damned if you don’t isn’t the answer…because cars are still going to circle the track regardless, and they need a working tire to race on.
The drivers agreed with the pointed Goodyear criticism…that is, when they were fully conscious. Reed Sorenson was seeing stars after a savage crash on the backstretch left him woozy and briefly slumped over in his car. Kasey Kahne saw his Dodge snap around without warning in a savage crash that left parts strewn everyone and bystanders concerned (Kahne was all right). That's just a sampling of the difficulty Saturday presented to NASCAR vets; by Sunday morning, local hospitals should have been put on high alert, preparing for the worst.
Within the first ten laps on Sunday, the worst-case scenario looked like it would play out, as no fewer than four cars had already crashed in what seemed to be shaping up as a long day. But after a shaky beginning, the best drivers in the nation did what they do best; working through a difficult situation, they drove to the best of their ability and kept their cars in one piece, for the most part. There were still a few isolated incidents; it doesn't seem like Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, or Aric Almirola left the track smiling after demolishing their race cars. But by and large, after a horrific weekend Las Vegas Motor Speedway got away with murder; no major crashes, no drivers hurt, and some actual racing as a shocking bonus, with two grooves breaking into the new track by the final 50 laps of the race.
Still, don't be fooled by the outcome. Just because the wrecking calmed down doesn't mean everyone left with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Drivers were just as upset after the race on Sunday as they were the day before, the lone difference being that they actually had learned to drive on eggshells at this point so they were making the best of what they had. But clearly, no one was cheering after this race came to an end.
"It was the poorest race I've ever been in. It wasn't fun to drive," said David Stremme after the race Sunday. "A lot of guys were out of control. Fortunately, we came home in one piece."
That's something we can all be thankful for. Now, Bruton Smith has twelve months to fix this problem; let's hope he, Goodyear, and NASCAR get together to ensure next year's race doesn't head down the same scary road. Let's hope the powers that be aren't stupid enough to just keep pulling the lever on these repaved tracks and just "seeing what happens," because one of these times someone's going to pay the ultimate price.
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