One “levigation” project.
That just about sums up the type of racing we’ve seen at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Once known as one of the sport’s best tracks, recent results have been nothing short of disastrous. Now six Cup races into a new racing surface, no fuel cells, tire combinations, or public relations maneuvers have been able to hide what the product has been for the fans. It’s high time to admit the project was a tragic mistake, before the track turns into a true tragedy.
It’s not that the track doesn’t mean well. Humpy Wheeler, perhaps NASCAR’s all-time best promoter and an expert for 30 years in creating the best possible racing environment for the fans, was concerned the pavement he had in place heading into 2005 was creating a one-groove racetrack. So, he made sure that every bump, every deviation was taken care of by a world-class technological paving system that made the Lowe’s Speedway smooth as silk. A new surface, Humpy thought, would be the best fit for drivers increasingly concerned about what Charlotte’s legendary bumps would do with a finicky-handling race car.
Unfortunately, in his great care to create more side-by-side racing, Lowe’s officials forgot the number one problem repaving gives a race track: too much speed.
“We’re flying around here,” said Jimmie Johnson after stepping out of the car after Saturday night’s Cup race. “The cars and the surface, the way the cars drive now and how good the surface is, we’re going way too fast. Not too fast from a safety standpoint, but too fast to run side by side and put on a good race.”
Keep in mind, now, that Johnson finished second. Imagine how the rest of the field must feel, other than winner Kasey Kahne.
“Kind of boring and frustrating from a driver’s standpoint,” continued Johnson in the media center on Saturday night.
Boring and frustrating, indeed. The second race at the track with a special 13-gallon fuel cell, the smaller gas tank caused Cup cars to pit every 35 laps and kept drivers from getting into a rhythm on track. Even if the fuel tanks were bigger, though, it might hardly matter; the speeds of the race cars, approaching 200 mph entering turns one and three, have made it absolutely impossible to get side-by-side with another driver on this racing surface. When you do, disaster strikes, in fact, the cars are so on the edge the vehicle can snap around on a driver if he’s simply running single file. Some of NASCAR’s best and brightest found themselves losing it on their own accord in either Friday’s Busch Series race and Saturday’s Cup race: Jamie McMurray. Greg Biffle. Johnson. Reed Sorenson – in both Busch and Cup. That’s not even counting the numerous rookies who endured some of the hardest crashes of their careers – David Gilliland. Todd Kluever. Auggie Vidovich. Taking vicious hits at some of the highest speeds you’ll see in the sport, they’re all lucky to be strapping into the driver’s seat next week, let alone getting out of their car in one piece.
Now, no one could argue the Busch Series race on Friday night featured an exciting finish, with two side-by-side battles for the win in the last 10 laps of the race. But when you take a step back and analyze how those final laps played out, you realize a simply truth; neither one of those battles ended with both cars making it to the finish line, three of the four drivers involved crashed, their cars too close to the edge of control to keep it all together.
In fact, crash would be the operative word for both NASCAR race series this weekend – an astounding 26 of 86 cars couldn’t finish due to damage from on-track accidents. In fact, in the past four Nextel Cup races at Lowe’s since the track has been “levigated,” 38 of 172 drivers have failed to finish due to accidents. 38! That’s an average of 9.5 drivers in the garage each race, and it’s not even counting several others who limped around the track without half their fenders. You’re hard pressed to find that carnage at Talladega, let alone anywhere else.
The bottom line in all this madness is that every time a car hits a wall – soft wall or not – lives are put at risk. Tony Stewart has already injured his shoulder in a vicious wreck at Lowe’s this year, and the track has been lucky that two years of wreckage hasn’t resulted in more close calls. There is such a thing as running too fast for a given track – you simply have to look at restrictor plates at Daytona or Talladega to figure that out. Restrictor plates at Charlotte would not be the optimal solution – but at this point, what is? 13-gallon fuel cells and a hard tire don’t disguise the fact that the track is too fast for the cars being forced to race around it. Normal tires result in flats every 30 laps or so; when they were tried in 2005, the race simply became a slot machine pull of who would and wouldn’t make it through without blowing a right front.
Supposedly, the Car of Tomorrow is designed to fix all this, but it’s not scheduled to debut at Lowe’s until 2009. That’s at least two more years of tiptoeing around the disaster that this type of racing scenario usually provides, and I’m not sure those are favorable odds.
Of course, Humpy Wheeler is also the best promoter NASCAR has to offer, and with his brilliant schemes does wonders in packing the fans into the stands every race weekend in Charlotte. His latest public relations coup, “adding” extra security for Brian Vickers in case of possible fan retaliation, served to spin even more attention to pre-race activity and get fans packed into their seats nice and early. But no one, not even Humpy, can make up for a track that doesn’t provide good racing. Halfway through the event, with many a favorite driver’s car smashed to pieces and with little side-by-side racing to keep them entertained, fans were leaving the track. In droves. It’s hard to remember a Cup race at Charlotte that ever had the amount of fans looking to beat the traffic like this year’s latest sorry attempt to disguise a well-known problem.
So, while everyone knows Humpy Wheeler means well, and everyone knows SMI means well, feelings don’t turn a race from a single-file parade into a last-lap thriller, nor do they prevent the type of disastrous wrecks that put drivers – and fans in the stands – unnecessarily at risk.
Two years is plenty of time to wait. NASCAR needs to stop playing around, step in, and fix this problem, for tragedy has a way of becoming impatient at the worst possible times.