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, Daleâ€¦ 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 blameâ€¦
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