NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Talladega the Last Straw: The Madness Must End

Anyone who reads this site knows that I’ve always defended restrictor plate racing as being just that, racing. Real racing. I’ve defended it as a discipline, just as road racing is a discipline, and insisted that the Chase needs Talladega just as much as it needs a road course in it.

And even after Sunday’s joke of an event, one that saw my favorite driver involved in the most harrowing crash I’ve seen in a long time, I still hold those opinions. Prior to the carnage that marred the race’s final few laps, there was the three- and-four-wide racing that Talladega has become known for, there was the bump-drafting, there were 50 wrecks that somehow didn’t happen… and the world’s best stock car drivers made it happen. When disaster struck in the form of Ryan Newman‘s Chevrolet doing a front flip at 180 mph and landing on Kevin Harvick‘s nose, it wasn’t the product of some eye-of-the-storm pack that left no room for anyone… it happened in a near straight line. The circumstances that wrecked Newman could easily have happened on a restart at Fontana, Michigan or any other track out there where the cars have to spend a lap getting up to speed.

Sunday was not an indictment of restrictor-plate racing, though that’s what everyone and their mother will be writing tonight… because Sunday was nothing new. Seriously, everyone that tuned it knows that plate racing in packs does lead to big crashes. It does shuffle the field in a blender. It does allow drivers like David Stremme and Jamie McMurray to look like drivers deserving Cup rides.

What Sunday was, however, was a truly vivid example of just how bad things have gotten in NASCAR today. Sunday, at a track that stands as an everlasting memento of the, as Matt McLaughlin coined it, “megalomaniac” that is the France family, every single person from the fans in the front row to the drivers on the track to Frontstretch writers like myself watching at home had their collective faces rubbed in the mess they’ve sown. Stock car racing hit a low on Sunday afternoon, and everyone, from the drivers to the fans to NASCAR ought to be ashamed of themselves for having let things get this bad.

Shame on NASCAR for their insistence to over-regulate to absurdity the racing at Talladega. For their asinine yellow-line rule, created in the name of “safety” when all it’s done is allow for subjective enforcement to send Dale Earnhardt Jr. to victory lane in April of 2003, to rob Regan Smith of a race everyone but the record book knows he won last fall and to force Brad Keselowski to send Carl Edwards flying sky-high this spring just to do his job on the track.

Shame on NASCAR for their underhanded decision to announce a mere 60 minutes before the green flag that drivers would be penalized if they in their infinite wisdom decided that contact in the corners constituted an overly-aggressive “bump draft.” Imagine the fallout if the NFL announced 60 minutes before the Super Bowl that teams could not blitz the quarterback or would be penalized if a hit was deemed too hard by the booth crew upstairs. A Denny Hamlin tweet said it best post-race:

Shame on NASCAR for having their puppet, ISC, touting how Talladega was committed to safety while their rulebook has made racing at the track anything but safer for the drivers themselves. I can’t count how many times NASCAR, ISC and ESPN (another lapdog) spent the weekend raving about how they raised the frontstretch catchfence from 14 to 22 feet to improve safety.

Who the hell cares?! The near disaster in the spring didn’t occur because the fence was too short! Take a look at the pictures from the spring… the problem wasn’t the height, it was that Edwards’s car did damage to the supports themselves when it hit. Making it higher made for great PR, but in the grand scheme of things it did about jack diddly to make this racetrack safer, be it for fans, drivers, whoever.

Meanwhile, while NASCAR and ISC spent time and money putting up more chainlink and hiring medicine men to do war whoops on the start-finish line, they ignored what their very own drivers, and their best and brightest drivers at that, were saying. It’s ironic that Newman happened to be the driver who had the flip of the day on Sunday, because rewind back to the spring race, and guess what he said needed to be done?

That NASCAR needed to spend time and money, then, to figure out a way to keep cars from going airborne.

Yet, instead of working on the wing or finding a way to configure the restrictor plates to allow the cars more room to spread out, NASCAR decided to completely dismiss the comments of a particularly talented engineer and the smartest driver in the garage, instead opting to, surprise, shrink the plate further and make the packs the cars raced in tighter. That’s the way to improve things there, take even more control out of the drivers hands and make the packs tighter.

For crying out loud, does NASCAR not watch their own replays?

Look at the two big flips of the last two races, those of Edwards in the spring and Newman on Sunday. The roof flaps did their jobs both times. So why are these cars getting airborne? It’s simple really, when cars get out of shape in these packs they get hit by cars passing by. That impact negates what the roof flaps are doing, and sends the cars airborne. Edwards went airborne because he got drilled by Newman’s car. Newman on Sunday got airborne not because of his contact with Marcos Ambrose, but because after spinning Harvick had nowhere to go but smack into Newman’s car.

Take the packs away, or at least loosen them up, and those roof flaps might actually do what they’re supposed to do. Either way, NASCAR’s unilaterally made decision to tighten the packs up and threaten its drivers as a way to improve safety backfired royally on Sunday… and demonstrated, as Newman said so eloquently in his post-race remarks, that they don’t seem to care much for the drivers anymore these days.

Shame on NASCAR indeed.

And while I applaud drivers such as Newman, Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin for speaking up bluntly following Sunday’s travesty, shame on the drivers too for allowing the France family and NASCAR to get away with this crap. Seriously, why the hell did no one put their foot down in the drivers’ meeting and say ‘Look, this bump drafting rule stuff is ridiculous, I’m not racing to the tune of the script up in the tower?’

Newman was correct in noting that things seem to have changed since the strike of Talladega 1969, where NASCAR was forced to make changes such after seeing its stars deck it’s leadership to the floor literally, pack up and leave the world’s most expensive racetrack and reduce Talladega’s inaugural race to a used car lot running at high speeds. NASCAR certainly does seem to be taking its drivers and teams for granted now in much the same way Bill France Sr. did when he told LeeRoy Yarbrough to go home if he was scared.

Things have also changed, however, in that no one was there to deal Mike Helton a blow to the head when he delivered the message Sunday morning that NASCAR was going to decide what was and wasn’t acceptable driving in the corners. It’s one thing for drivers to deliver snippy soundbites post-race that don’t go according to script, or to run single file for hundreds of miles (though drivers did that in plate races even before Sunday)… but it’s another to stand up and do something about it.

Because the power to change things in NASCAR is largely in the drivers’ hands. Race fans turn out in droves and spend tons of money because of their loyalty to manufacturers and drivers… not loyalty to NASCAR’s governing body. If the drivers want change, they can and will get change… but that requires growing a backbone, speaking up and acting out when things get ridiculous.

Talladega’s current configuration with the plates, the new cars, etc. is ridiculous enough. Having the rules changed an hour before the race should have easily been a tipping point.

Shame on the drivers out there for not having the backbone that Yarbrough, Petty and all the others that struck so they didn’t have to did. Shame on them for being good little lapdogs.

And yes, shame on me and every other race fan that’s complained, written, voiced displeasure about the direction of the sport, cracked a snide joke about Brian France but in reality hasn’t done a damned thing to force the sanctioning body to start listening to what the competitors and fans that are its lifeblood are saying. Because love or hate Talladega, well over 100,000 of us still showed up and packed the front grandstand and infield. Millions of us still tuned in Sunday to watch the race, knowing full well we probably weren’t going to like what we saw.

And we all poured millions of dollars more into the coffers of the idiots that have managed to take a truly great sport and reduce it to what was seen today.

Several seasons ago, after being involved in a wreck at Talladega, Martin remarked that “only the fans can do something” about the racing product being put on. And he’s right, it is up to we the fans. We’re the ones that make the sport conducive to sponsors becoming the “official underwater basket weaver of NASCAR.” We’re the ones that make the sport profitable enough for the France family to hire lawyers to cover up DUI and cocaine problems that the family seems to always find itself in. And we’re the ones that ultimately need to speak with our wallets and our remotes.

We need to tune into and sell out the short tracks, the Darlingtons, the venues that we all speak up for but then never seem to show up at. We need to stop responding positively to ads celebrating and mystifying the big wrecks of the sport, no matter how spine-chilling they may be. We need to step up and support our drivers when they do say that something with the sport is broke, and that may mean actually cutting our spending and our viewership when they head to Talladega, Fontana or some other crappy racing configuration.

Fact is, we need to wake up and realize that this is “your, my, our NASCAR,” and our NASCAR ain’t so pretty right now.

Shame on us for letting it get this far.

Shame on the drivers and teams for not having the balls of those before them to just say no, and instead do exactly what Big Brother Brian and his cronies insisted on Sunday.

And shame on NASCAR, for reducing stock car racing to what we saw on Sunday.

Shame on all of us who call racing our passion, our home.

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