The Frontstretch: Talladega Revisited: Blame NASCAR … Not The Earnhardt Nation by Tommy Thompson -- Tuesday May 8, 2007

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Talladega Revisited: Blame NASCAR … Not The Earnhardt Nation

Thompson in Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday May 8, 2007


A week may have passed and the media furor over Talladega may have died down, but race fans in attendance at the Aaron's 499 still have every right to be insulted. Their emotions still raw, they are rightfully angry at being put in harm’s way by the act of a good number of moronic individuals. However, after time has passed and the facts have come out, it is important to understand that the responsibility for the melee that immediately ensued at the conclusion of the race was entirely the responsibility of the International Speedway Corporation. The owners of both the track and the sport, the France family, need to be held responsible for their inability to control the actions of a select few that should have been selected for the nearest county jail as quickly as humanly possible. Any such charge the disgraceful and dangerous behavior was the fault of “fans” of any driver, and “fans” of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in particular, as have been reported elsewhere, are erroneous and were opinions formed without fully considering the issue.

I feel confident on speaking on this issue due to my unique situation of being part of the conflict firsthand. Taking time to appreciate the NASCAR side of racing as a fan rather than a columnist, I witnessed the hooligans’ actions from the Gadsden Grandstands, lower level, Row 20. Rest assured that the true scope of what transpired was not covered by the television broadcast or in NASCAR's subsequent press statements that were nothing more than attempts to minimize the events; even my eyewitness report cannot in itself adequately describe what happened in its entirety, due to the enormity of the grandstands at the 2.66 mile track and the frequency of the delinquent behavior happening around it.

First, some background. With my girlfriend and seven-year old grandson in tow, I opted to stay at a campground in the Talladega National Forest in a conscious effort to avoid the more adult activities that traditionally take place at the campgrounds provided on racetrack properties throughout the NASCAR circuit. Adult activities that are best left to the adults and believe prudent to not expose a young child to, and I was hoping the weekend would prove a wonderful experience for my grandson to end up exposed to the best parts of the sport we all love. Unfortunately, I was not able to protect the first of my grandchildren to attend a NASCAR race from perverse behavior that far surpassed anything I have ever witnessed in the generally good-natured party atmosphere of trackside campgrounds.

Shortly after the start of the race, it became apparent to me that there was potentially a serious problem brewing, as Jeff Gordon started challenging for the lead. As he continued leading the race, the profanity and accompanying hand gestures from those in attendance were at an all-time fever pitch. No doubt about it, agitation continually increased at the mere thought Gordon might win. Perhaps sensing the tension, on several occasions, the public address system announced that the throwing of anything on the track would not be tolerated. Though the announcement lacked, in my opinion, the needed assertiveness, it comforted me at the time to know that the tracks managers were aware of possible problems, especially with the increased agitation reaching a crescendo. It also signaled to me that as a result of past uncontrolled incidents at the track, they were prepared to prevent a repeat of past actions.

I was wrong.

As the race ended under a caution due to a wreck on the backstretch and it became clear as the leaders rounded turn four that Jeff Gordon had indeed won, a barrage of debris began to rain down on those us of us in the lower grandstands. Looking to my right towards the tri-oval grandstands and beyond the amount of debris being tossed from the crowd was truly inestimable, but staggering to observe. Only a very small percentage of the projectiles, in large part partially full or full beer cans, actually landed on the track. The vast majority of objects being thrown were landing indiscriminately into the lower seats. At no time before or during the mayhem was there any visible show of security executing any plan to prevent what occurred or quash what was a dangerous situation.

After being initially stunned by the developing pandemonium, we were able to safely gather up my bewildered grandson and make our way with many others to shelter under the upper grandstands. Unfortunately, that sanctuary was a short-lived when some of the disorderly thugs in the upper levels began emptying what I assume were beverages and ice onto the crowds seeking safe haven below. We then quickly exited the grandstand area with no thought of returning for any post-race activities, thankful to be away from what had been a truly unpleasant and potentially harmful experience.

So, who were these despicable and crude people that acted in such a repulsive manner? Were they fans of the Earnhardt Nation upset that Jeff Gordon had not only bested Junior, but also surpassed the seventy-six wins total of his father, Dale… and no less on his birthday? No, they were not. From my vantage point, while I saw a large number of the offenders (certainly not all) wearing attire and otherwise displaying their supposed preference for the numbers 3 and 8, it is important to understand that these kooks are no more fans of the Earnhardts than they are fans of stock car racing!

To associate these louts with the Earnhardt Nation would be as unfair as observers outside of the sport wrongly correlating their behavior to that of NASCAR fans as a whole. These people are not unique to Talladega or NASCAR, they are of the same ilk that have infiltrated and gave glaring black eyes to virtually every sport in America at one time or another. Like the punks and gangsters that have adopted the colors and logo of the Oakland Raiders, they are no more stock car or Earnhardt fans than those criminals are fans of either the Raiders or professional football. Instead, they are nothing more than troublemakers hell-bent on being disruptive and displaying their complete lack of civility.

Looking back, the blame for the ugliness that tens of thousands of spectators were subjected to rests firmly on the backs of track managers. They were not unaware of the potential for bedlam in their race facility, as evidenced by their announcements throughout the race; as a result, they were ethically and legally responsible to protect their patrons. The ignorance was surprising considering the likelihood of trouble anticipated with a Gordon wni; in fact, Junior himself said during the week leading up to the race that he had told Gordon, “You win this one and I ain’t coming into Victory Lane this time,” referring to a much tamer display of poor sportsmanship that occurred a week earlier in Phoenix when Earnhardt did publicly congratulate Gordon to a cascade of boos.

Although Earnhardt’s warning should have been more than enough, track officials shouldn’t have needed it; they have had significant indications since at least 2004 that changes were needed at the track to ensure a safe environment for race fans, when a shower of debris rained on Jeff Gordon that year after a late race caution ensured him another win at the superspeedway. Since then, they have failed miserably to respond to fans’ requests for greater safety, and this was the worst example yet of their poor performance.

Nevertheless, Grant Lynch, President of Talladega Superspeedway, would have you believe that the situation was handled appropriately. And he insists that, “Additional security was brought in for the grandstands and we had a plan in place should such actions take place." Really? And this additional security was only able to identify fourteen of the hundreds that participated in the riot? The few identified were not arrested, but merely detained and punished by not being able to purchase tickets under their own name in the future? That’s quite a plan you had in place there, Mr. Lynch!

Perhaps now suitable security measures at Talladega will be taken to maintain order at future race dates, as there will should be changes implemented possibly only for reasons of legal liability than for any sincere concern for race fans. In the end, though, the ones that will be inconvenienced by policy changes will be the tens of thousands of responsible spectators that historically visit the superspeedway. The culprits responsible for the more restrictive policies will not care, as they will have moved on to a new stage to display their idiocy. The legacy they left behind, however, will not fade for several events to come.

Truthfully, it seems that by simply watching from the grandstands I made an error in judgment that could easily have resulted in serious physical harm coming to those that I hold close to my heart. I was fully aware that there was a potential for serious troubles in the stands should Jeff Gordon win the Aaron's 499, but wrongly assumed that those in the "know" were even more intuitive than I, anticipating and preparing for any eventuality. In hindsight, I realize that I was wrong to trust the track's management to protect us while inside their facility. Luckily, none of my group, and miraculously, if reports are to be believed, no other spectators were badly injured. But I cannot trust the safety of my loved ones to luck. And I never will again.

But I know who is to blame…

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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05/09/2007 06:45 AM
Great report. I was in Moss-Thorton Tower. Had the race been officiated differently the fans would not have re-acted the way they did. Let’em race!
05/09/2007 07:44 AM

I experienced the same thing you did at the 2004 race that Gordon won under caution. As a result I will never go back to Talladega again.

I have been to Richmond, Dover, and Charlotte and have never seen behavior like I witnessed at Talladega. Maybe NASCAR should yank their race date and give it to someone who will actually care about the fans experience.

05/09/2007 08:07 AM

I was sitting in Gadsden as well in row 19 in the section where there was hardly anyone sitting. I stayed out there for a while and I saw that one little boy did get hit in the head but luckily only had a small bump on his noggin’, I feel these people or the result of B.F. catering to a new crowd. The traditional fans wouldn’t have considered endangering fellow spectators as well as competitors. So my blame goes to the powers that be in upper management of NASCAR.

05/09/2007 08:48 AM

Bull!!! I’m sorry, you are 100% wrong!! It had nothing to to with NA$CAR rules at all. The one and only reason those low lifes threw stuff, was BECAUSE JEFF GORDON WON!!! No other reason at all!! I would bet 10 billion dollars if it had been Jr in the exact same situation, that croud would have LOVED it cheered and been happy as can be, and not once single thing would have been tossed at the track at all!!!

05/09/2007 09:12 AM

I think I should start with my background. I have been attending races at Talladega since the 1970s and have had tickets to the spring and fall races since 1987. I don’t know exactly, but I am very comfortable saying that I’ve probably attended 50 cup races at the track. I’ve also attended numerous races at Atlanta, Daytona, and Darlington.

I didn’t go this time and I may not go in the fall.

Talladega has always been ‘edgier’ than most tracks. In the 80s, the infield easily got an NC-17 rating. Everybody knew it, and I really think it provided part of the allure. Things started changing in the 1990s and for a good while it became a nice environment.

Things have changed. After the last few races, I have felt unsafe. No, that’s not right, the environment has been unsafe. I really feel like it is one drunk’s punch from a riot. I’ve had the honor of meeting Grant Lynch and he’s a good man but I just don’t think he grasps how serious the situation has become.

I think your observations are right on track except for one. The current problem IS the Earnhardt nation. You can sugarcoat it any way you want but the folks causing the trouble are the ones wearing black and red. It was already bad before Sr. died and has gotten worse since that day. The really sad thing is that they’re tarnishing Dale Jr, who seems to be everything they’re not: Classy, articulate, and professional.

I hope the track officials wake up by the fall but I have my doubts. I would advise anyone considering Talladega to at the very least leave the kids at home. I hate to tell people to stay away from a place I’ve loved for all these years, but that’s how it looks from the Talladega grandstand.

05/09/2007 10:52 AM

Could someone confirm or deny the fact that Na$car, oops I$C was still selling beer in CAN$ right up ‘till the end of the race? That would explain how after an entire morning and afternoon of sitting in the stands these hooliagns still had that much “ammo” left over.

05/09/2007 12:17 PM

We were not at the race but we still got angry at Nascar for not throwing the caution when the 00 blew up throwing oil all over the track. Which by talking with many friends that was what they were angry about. The caution flag did not fly until Nascar had their pet in the lead. Even the anouncers were even saying no caution yet? The 00 was at the top of the track with a cloud of oil behind him not on the bottom of the track and out of the way. I wonder if some of the oil on the track was part of the reason for the wreck under green white checker. JG is great driver who is capable of winning many races w/o Nascar fixing it for him. Because of this we are talking about finding another hobby instead of watching the races. The commercials are also a big turn off.

05/09/2007 12:55 PM

In response to Connie:
MayBe NASCAR waited to throw the caution to see if the 00 was dropping oil

MayBe after Tony Stewart’s comments they are going to go to the other extreme when it comes to throwing cautions

Richmond case in point

To author:
Great article. The problem is NASCAR and track officials should have “nipped” this immediately when it first started in ’04. Instead they let it grow and build momentum and it has turned into the brawl it is.

The problem is there are fans out there behaving like spoiled brats and because of their numbers and Bully mentality feel they can throw a tantrum anywhere they please no matter what the cost or who gets hurt.

05/09/2007 07:37 PM

Simple way to solve it…Ban people bringing in their own beer, have it sold in cups and cut it off 2 hours after the start of the race…To bad responsible people have to pay the price because of a few morons…

05/09/2007 09:51 PM

Yes, lets just blame Jr.‘s fans for all of this. You know, every other sport cuts off the selling of alcohol at a certain during an event. Maybe at ‘Dega they need to do the same. And actually use the security. You cannot sit there and tell NASCAR didn’t see that coming when little Jeffie won?? Get the security in place. I’m sorry I agree with article. I’m SICK TO DEATH with all of you self rightous people blaming the Jr. nation. I was NOT there. My sister(a fan of the 19) WAS there and said that a Tony Stewart fan near had great aim and his can actually made it to track.

I guess no other racer has fans that are feeling a little bummed out over HMS’s domination? Nope it’s all our faults.

Don’t bother replying to me….I’m through with this subject.

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