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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Drivers Should Unite Again on Talladega

I don’t know how many people noticed it, but I did.

It took longer to find out whether Ryan Newman was still alive after his nightmarish crash than it did for ABC to run a graphic that tickets were still available for remaining races once the red flag was finally lifted.

Did no one in the production booth question the timing of that? Or even worse, did someone think that right after millions of viewers and spectators finally exhaled seeing a driver walk away from a hideous wreck that it was an opportune time to try to sell tickets?

During the pre-race show, ABC showed Carl Edwards’s car going into the catchfence and injuring seven fans approximately a dozen times, in real time and in slow motion. Well, now we finally have a wreck more frightening than Elliott Sadler’s in 2003 for the highlight reel. You can probably bank on this, too: now that Newman is OK, his airborne crash will be shown in the promo for the next Talladega race on FOX in April.

Yet those clips worked perfectly for ABC/ESPN, who also decided to have a wives/girlfriends segment in the pre-race show before a race at the most dangerous track on the circuit. Part of the piece was wives kissing their husbands before they climbed into the racecar, clearly in an effort to create a made-for-TV moment, the possibility of that embrace being their last show of affection.

But after spending all day Sunday promising that, “The Big One is coming, gonna be a wild finish at Talladega, stay tuned for the multi-car wreck!” the announcers suddenly seemed to realize that they weren’t supposed to loudly anticipate another Edwards-style airborne crash while trying to spice up a broadcast of a 190-mph freight train. So they modified their tune, repeating, “Don’t get us wrong, we don’t want it to happen, of course.”

Right… and I’m Michael Jackson’s half-sister and entitled to some of his fortune.

Remember that shot of Matt Kenseth’s pregnant wife in tears following his Nationwide race barrel roll last season? I’m sure they didn’t want to show that.

My goal in pointing this out to start my article this week isn’t to illustrate the reprehensible marketing of restrictor-plate races, although it is downright sickening at times. It’s to point out that it’s the wrecks, danger and the real possibility of a tragedy that NASCAR and the networks are selling.

Racing is a dangerous sport, and most everyone involved in it accepts that. What isn’t acceptable is a level of danger that is preventable but kept in place because it sells.

Please do not try to tell me that we can’t lower the banking at this track because it will make for boring racing like at Pocono and Indianapolis. If that’s worth a driver’s or a fan’s life to you, then Newman was right: go home, because you don’t belong here. But you needn’t worry about what I think. NASCAR welcomes fans who want calamity, and ABC’s broadcast of Sunday’s race made this obvious.

It’s not “too impractical” to reconfigure the track to make the plate unnecessary, either. If a track has the time and the millions to reconfigure the grandstand, as Talladega is doing, then they have the time and money to reconfigure the track.

No, the only reason the restrictor plate remains in NASCAR after 22 years of consistently producing the worst wreckage in big-time auto racing is the morbid possibilities and the revenues that those possibilities generate.

NASCAR will attempt to enforce insane yellow-line and bump-drafting rules that change from event to event, they’ll change the size of the holes in the engines, raise the fences, and they’ll put out a car with a stronger roll cage. They’ll even hold an Indian ritual blessing at the track, which for all we know could have saved Newman’s life. But as long as networks can show abominable wrecks, rave about the wild races at Talladega and count the money, there will not be an alternative to the restrictor plate.

Not unless they take a hit on the balance sheets.

If the drivers in all three major series of NASCAR banded together and informed them that they will no longer race at Talladega until the plates (or “tapered spacers”) were removed, they would have this writer’s 100% support. No one in the broadcast booths, the stands or in the sanctioning body praising the excitement of plate racing is in the racecars facing constant danger with zero margin for error for 500 miles. Almost universally, drivers hate plate racing and post-race interviews at plate races reveal that. Sometimes, even after a thrilling win, like with Dale Earnhardt in 2000.

We know that a walkout has been tried before, in a mini-strike that ultimately ended in a victory for the iron fist rule of Bill France as he put scabs out on the racetrack for the scheduled race in 1969. But the drivers were right to do what they did. They had been demonstrating clearly back then that the tires would not hold up and no one was listening. And that’s not even close to the dangers they face at today’s speeds in big packs.

I’m not endorsing a drivers’ union, not after seeing what powerful unions have done to the price of baseball, football and New Jersey public schools. It isn’t necessary to form a band that will unite millionaires to strike for even more money and disgrace the image of the sport in the process. That’s something NASCAR truly doesn’t need.

But there can be a simple unified front on the part of the drivers… the guys who are in the arena, who people are paying to see, and who face this unacceptable insanity four times every year… that NASCAR will not be profiting from their efforts until the situation is fixed, until something is done to throw the restrictor plate in the trash.

Given the quotes from drivers like Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Edwards, Sadler and almost everyone else, there shouldn’t be a problem getting enough big names to sign on. Michael Waltrip is retiring, so he won’t be a voice of dissent.

Give NASCAR the prospect of a race in rural Alabama without Dale Earnhardt Jr. participating, after they’ve done everything imaginable to help him be prominent, and that just might sober them up. It’s just like it took four years of steadily dropping ratings and attendance to stop blowing off opinions from drivers and fans. Sadly, the only way NASCAR seems to want to listen, as I’ve illustrated with the first half of this article, is if the bottom line is affected.

Bill France did not have as much to lose then as Brian France does today. It’s not going to be as easy to offer a few million dollars in rain checks for future races to fans that paid to see Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. and saw backmarkers from the ARCA series instead, along with a race that would probably be mostly run under yellow.

So now would be the time to take a stand, drivers. Give NASCAR every opportunity and plenty of time to fix this problem before the next Talladega race. Don’t threaten to skip the Daytona 500. Just let NASCAR know the score now, before many Talladega tickets are sold. And watch the ticket sales when NASCAR says to shut up and race or be replaced, as the prospect of Talladega’s spring 2010 Cup event becoming a $70 Camping World East also-rans race becomes more and more likely.

The destruction-promoting networks need to get that message, too: no longer will they be able to promote restrictor-plate races with the possibility of a driver or fan death. They can repeat how many times the new car is so much safer all they want after a huge crash; we know damn well the networks love the violence of plate races. It shows in every plate race broadcast: in the announcers’ chatter, the television ads, the pieces on drivers’ wives kissing their husbands before they strap in, “knowing it may be the last time.”

So it’s an insult listening to announcers act somber when a driver looks like he might be seriously hurt. Why not just come out and say “Whoa! He might not be OK! Exciting, eh fellas?” Just be up front about it – that is the selling point of Talladega. Networks want violent crashes.

Fans have been sending a loud message with their wallets and remote controls that it’s time for NASCAR and for the networks who broadcast it to get its act together.

Now, it’s the drivers’ turn.

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