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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Talladega’s New Catchfence A Needed Improvement Despite The Spin

To date, the most exciting and talked about ending of the 2009 Sprint Cup season was the death-defying finish of the Aaron’s 499 in April, held at the always treacherous Talladega Superspeedway. A frantic last-lap ended with Brad Keselowski winning in only his fifth Sprint Cup start while challenger Carl Edwards‘s car, battling Keselowski for the victory as the checkered flag was in sight, got airborne and slammed into the frontstretch catchfence after the two made contact. The violent impact into the fence, designed to protect spectators, caused the metal wiring to buckle, subsequently raining debris and injuring seven fans.

The spectacular wreck and the scene of Edwards exiting his demolished No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford and jogging to the finish line on foot was shown time and time again by not only sports news broadcasts, but national mainstream news broadcasts, as well. The footage should have been at least mildly embarrassing for the FOX broadcast crew covering the race, a crew who immediately and erroneously announced that no one had been harmed in the stands and that the fence had done its job.

Of course, we know now the reality of the situation was far different. Certainly, the fence prevented Edwards’s out of control 3,400-pound missile from landing in the stands – but it failed to prevent injuries to seven fans!

On Monday, Talladega Superspeedway President Rick Humphrey announced that the track will complete a project that should hopefully prevent such a problem from ever happening again. Construction will soon begin to increase the height of the existing frontstretch catchfence from 14 to 22 feet, an improvement expected to be in place before the Cup Series comes to the famed Alabama track at the end of October. Additionally, Humphrey announced that similar enhancements would be made to the backstretch fencing before the start of the April races in 2010.

Yet despite the dedication to fix the track, Humphrey maintains – as he has since that April incident – that the catchfence in question performed as it should. “It was pretty obvious that day that the fence that was there did its job,” he said of the Edwards incident. “We said we would have someone look at, evaluate, and see if any recommendations or anything needed to be done to… enhance what was in place.”

“We did that. Our company hired an outside engineering firm, and they came back with some recommendations. And we’ve taken them up on those recommendations.”

OK. Well since the fence is being heightened… wouldn’t it be feasible to think that the choice to almost double the height of the fence and better angle it over the track was a major concern of the engineering firm – a safety measure needed to improve the protection of fans from being injured from debris in the future? It sounds like far more than an “optional” enhancement to me. For had the management at Talladega Superspeedway sincerely believed that the fence had done all that it was supposed to, there would have been no need to contract an outside engineering company to look at improving it.

So why does Humphrey keep insisting things were the equivalent of 100% safe? To keep the issue in perspective, the catchfence did primarily perform its function of keeping a racecar out of the grandstands. When Edwards’s out of control Ford was hurled against the fence, it was repelled and landed back on the track. However, when the fence buckled due to the incredible force of the impact, debris, probably from the fence and public address equipment mounted in and around it, flew into the stands hitting spectators. To that end, the fence left something to be desired.

Sitting about 20 rows higher and some 60 feet further up the track from the impact point, it was immediately clear to me and others in my group that there were, in fact, fans injured. Why the FOX crew did not recognize the situation for what it was at the time is hard to say. Perhaps their camera angles and high vantage point prevented them from seeing what everyone around us witnessed. However, in the aftermath, the proper response to the incident should not have been “the fence did its job.”

At least there’s one thing we can all agree on: a huge tragedy was averted when the track’s fence caught the No. 99 and prevented it from entering the grandstands. The injuries incurred were relatively minor, particularly considering what they could have been had the catchfence failed to repel a disintegrating Sprint Cup race car. That, too, is inarguable. So… give the catchfence a B+ for keeping Edwards out of the grandstands. But when it comes to safety, there’s a rather large difference on the grading scale of B+ compared to an A.

The proper response from the speedway at the time should have been something a little more truthful. Something along the lines of, although they were grateful that there were no major injuries and that the fence did successfully prevent the No. 99 from entering the stands, the speedway would investigate the accident and consider further measures to protect its customers. Given the facts of what happened, that would have been a reasonable and understandable position to take.

Certainly, accidents happen, and there is always a risk to fans that attend motorsports events. Fans have been injured, and sadly killed, at not only stock car races, but off-road events, drag races, sprint car and midget programs, and IndyCar events to name a few. Heck, a very similar accident to Edwards’s occurred at Talladega in 1987 involving Bobby Allison, who tore out about 150 feet of the catchfence not far from where Edwards landed this spring. Almost eerily, fans were injured in similar ways as a result. The catchfence Edwards tested was simply an improved version of the one that Allison destroyed some 22 years earlier.

I have whiled away many afternoons looking at that catchfence, and at one time thought it to be built with adequate protection. It sure seemed tall enough, and the heavy chain-linked steel mesh along with the galvanized cable and turnbuckle rigging seemed impenetrable.

But as I understand now, it’s clear the fence still needed improving. Had it performed as it should have, even a fool would know that International Speedway Corporation would not be spending the undisclosed tens of thousands of dollars they have committed to upgrading not only Talladega’s fence, but Daytona International Speedway’s, as well. Yet instead of being forthright with the racing community and admitting that deficiencies were identified in the present catchfence design – fans are fed corporate gobbledygook instead.

It never ceases to amaze me how little regard many of those in control of this sport have for the intelligence of its fans. In this case, they are attempting to deny that what fans saw with their own eyes and is documented actually happened. Perhaps even more puzzling in this instance is why would they even bother to spin the story. It is doubtful that it was for legal reasons, as whatever liability the track may have to those injured is whatever it is going to be. If anything, the upgrade to the catchfence could, in itself, be argued as proof that the current height and angle was indeed deficient.

Curiously, the performance and safety of the fencing never was a big issue amongst most fans or the media, even in the initial days following the accident in April. In their eyes, it prevented a major catastrophe, as nothing more serious than a broken jaw was reported. But in my eyes and the eyes of many others who were there, things could have ended up far, far worse.

The good thing is with the announcement of improvements on Monday, much of that debate will soon become irrelevant. For the truth of the matter is that the track has identified and taken measures to to construct a new, improved catchfence that will better serve to prevent injuries from fans being hit with debris in the future.

Why couldn’t they just say that?

And that’s my view from turn 5.