In a NASCAR season full of bizarre incidents and happenstance, the incident at the entrance to pit road on lap 258 Saturday night at Richmond Raceway might have been the most unlikely. Even as race control opened pit road for a crucial series of stops, a wayward ambulance pulled to a stop, almost completely blocking the entrance to the pits.
OK, so maybe 40 (oops, 39, NASCAR was unable to attract a full field) of the best drivers in the world might have noticed a ten-foot tall, 12,000 pound vehicle and been able to avoid it. It’s one that comes with a myriad of bright blinking lights, LEDs and slathered in reflective tape. (Or, one might argue, NASCAR’s spotters are so adept at finding a wayward hot dog wrapper to justify a debris caution they too might have noted a fully illuminated E450 blocking the entrance to the pits rather than clapping their hands over their eyes and hollering, “Oh, crap!”)
Because of the way circumstances played out, I’m able to make jokes about the incident this morning. But that was a close call. Sure, the drivers were all strapped into their cars, wearing helmets, safety harnesses, HANS devices and fire-resistant undies. However, the two EMTs and the driver of that ambulance were not. 45 MPH may appear slow in the course of a race, but I welcome you to go park your car along the shoulder of a 45 MPH highway. Go ahead, watch in the rear-view mirror to see if anyone is going to run into you. Trust me, the damage isn’t going to buff out and you’ll need to do more than exchange info with the other driver afterwards.
So all’s well that ends well (or oil’s well that ends well as the Three Stooges taught us all those years ago.) No one got hurt. Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano were able to continue undaunted if not undented. Matt Kenseth’s race was over for the evening but he still made the playoffs. In fact, the same 16 drivers who were provisionally “in” the playoffs prior to the race were still in afterwards, their order only minimally shuffled, in fact. Onwards and upwards.
No harm, no foul, right?
But if one subscribes to the Butterfly Effect, or perhaps better in this case, the Chaos Theory, the page hasn’t been turned. Expressed simply, the Butterfly Effect postulates that small causes can have larger effects. As an example, a single butterfly in Africa flaps its wings and that minute disturbance to the atmosphere eventually causes a storm to form in the Atlantic that morphs into a giant hurricane which threatens the U.S. mainland.
Thus any change, no matter how minor, could set off a major set of unintended and unknowable (at the time) consequences. A meteorologist working an advanced model decided to round one number from 0.506127 to .506. Yes, we’re talking about ten thousandths here. But said scientist wandered off to have a cup of coffee (presumably to call his blonde neighbor across the hallway). Afterwards, he returned to his lab to find the numbers computed so unexpectedly off the mark he thought at first he was having computer issues. (Yes, even back then.) But when he began back-tracing the calculations to see where and when the error had occurred, he found that minute difference of 0.000127 had caused the error, massive as it was.
There is simply no way of saying had his car not been damaged in the incident, Bowyer would not have gone on and somehow won the race. If he had, Bowyer would have been in the playoffs and Kenseth would have been bumped as a result. As it stands with Kenseth, he could possibly, no matter how unlikely, go on to win the title this year at Homestead. (Presuming some wayward butterfly’s wings flapping hasn’t triggered a hurricane that levels the area of the track.)
By winning a title, Kenseth surely would all but guarantee himself a prime ride for next season and beyond, whereas a playoff miss might find himself on the outside looking in for 2018. Some will write off Kenseth’s fate to sheer bad luck. Others (Joey Logano fans, mainly) will cite divine retribution. But most likely it’s just a matter of the random chaos that has an effect on all our lives, from cradle to grave. (As a tangent…you knew it was coming…I believe wholeheartedly there is a God that comes into play here and the human chaos can be God’s will. But I think the Deity is much too busy to pick winning lottery tickets for you or I.)
A lot of folks will mistakenly mix up the Butterfly Effect with a short story, A Sound of Thunder, written by Ray Bradbury way back in 1952. (In fact, I did too until I started researching this column.) The Butterfly Effect Theory, in fact, predated Bradbury’s brilliant short story by decades. I have no doubt given his gifts as a writer and the way Bradbury labored to make each word in his stories perfect that he knew of the theory and purposely used the butterfly as opposed to some other insect or plant.
My guess is just about all of you were made to read A Sound of Thunder in either middle school or high school. If you weren’t, you were left behind by a crappy school system and as such, you’re likely a functional moron. So by way of reminder, in Bradbury’s story, set in 2055, time travel has become routine. (We better get on it; that’s only 38 years from now.) A company offers dinosaur safaris in which rich hunters can go back in time (under careful supervision) and shoot a dinosaur.
The firm’s scouts then go back in time and find a dinosaur that would die within minutes with history left unchanged to minimize the changes to the future for the want of that dinosaur. So strict are their rules that a levitating carpet is used as a path to the hunt to avoid damaging the grass and fauna in the area. Even the bullets must be retrieved because their presence altering the future is unknown.
While he talks a good game, when the hunter in question faces a T-Rex, he flips out in fear and goes storming off the path to escape. The dino is harvested moments before a tree would have collapsed on it and killed it anyway and the hunting party returns to the future from whence they came.
Only things in that “future” are very different. First in small ways, like the way some words are pronounced. But ultimately, they discover that because the past was altered, however minutely, a fascist dictator has become president of the United States. (Won’t go there.)
The hunter examines his boots and finds a crushed butterfly on one of them, a butterfly he inadvertently killed when he fled off the path, and the death of that single creature has altered the future. (Yes, you have to wonder why they couldn’t go back in time to the day the cowardly hunter applied to go on the hunt and deny him a chance but that change, too, would have altered the future.) Anyway, it’s mind-boggling to contemplate, especially by the light of a lava lamp while all tuned up.
Chaos Theory can also be scary to contemplate. Imagine a woman steps off a curb in London in the early 1960s. A driver is forced to brake and as a result, he misses the traffic light. While he’s waiting for green, there’s a big wreck in the intersection that takes an hour to clear. As such, the driver misses an audition scheduled with his band and they don’t get a recording contract.
Let’s say that driver is Paul McCartney and, as such, the band is the Beatles. They never record songs together and the rest of us miss out on so much great music as a result. (Not to mention we all have to rename our proms and The Monkees are the biggest band ever.) Gasp. Which means the nascent hippie generation never forms, LBJ is reelected, and the Vietnam War drags on another decade. It costs countless human lives and one of those soldiers killed had he lived would have discovered a cure for cancer….
So in this case, a six-ton ambulance is our butterfly. Right about now, some of you are hollering “screw the butterfly!” or “Matt, has that smoking pile of mush you call a brain finally taken the Last Train to Clarkesville?” But beyond the fates of Kenseth and Bowyer, let’s look at other scenarios as to how last night might have turned out without stretching reality to its breaking point.
Say NASCAR had managed to wave off opening pit road until the ambulance was safely out of the way. On the next lap, the lapped cars entered for their service and one Derrike Cope, running somewhere around 10 laps down at the time, tears the clutch out of his Chevy leaving the pits. His night is over.
As such, Cope doesn’t wreck on lap 398, just two laps from the end of the race, drawing a caution. As a result of no yellow flag, Martin Truex Jr. remains in the lead. Since there’s no final pit sequence, Kyle Larson remains in second place. Both Larson and Truex leave the track content. They both had strong runs building some momentum going in the Cha…er…playoffs. But Truex gets the five bonus points for the win, not Larson, an effective 10-point swing. You don’t have to be Ray Bradbury to envision how critical those ten points might become in the later stages of the postseason.
Or chew on this awhile (the caterpillar said to Alice, handing her a mushroom). Dale Earnhardt Jr. is credited with leading from lap 335 to 347. The No. 88 team was trying a desperate strategy, gambling on a caution flag coming out during that period. A portion of that time, Earnhardt was virtually on a lap of his own.
But because our great big, well-illuminated Ford butterfly never twitted onto pit road, Kenseth (seems no matter how fate plays out, he’s the whipping boy) and Bowyer are also running up front. Kenseth loses control and takes out Bowyer, resulting in a caution. Earnhardt is on a lap by himself, with four fresh tires and plenty enough fuel to reach the finish of the race.
Under that scenario, the laps wind down, Earnhardt wins the race and the crowd goes wild! NASCAR officials simultaneously blow joy-juice into their tighty-whiteys. Countless magnums of champagne are uncorked at NBC’s corporate headquarters. Driver No. 88 is in the playoffs with the win.
Like Peter Frampton in the summer of 1976, buoyed by the unanticipated success at Richmond, Earnhardt suddenly comes alive. He wins at Talladega! Hell, he wins at New Hampshire. Tickets to all upcoming races are suddenly sold out. TV ratings soar. Even Tom Brady of the Patriots is watching the races during halftime, pulling for Junior. In textile mills in Red China, the presses are running nonstop to produce enough Earnhardt T-shirts to keep up with unprecedented demand.
The cover of Time magazine (presuming Time still has a print edition) then features Earnhardt beneath the headline “NASCAR Is the Next Big Thing….Again!” Dump trucks full of cash are being emptied daily on the sidewalks outside NASCAR’s palatial Daytona Beach headquarters under heavy guard.
A senator from North Carolina proposes the face of Earnhardt replace Ben Franklin on the 100 dollar bill. Asked about the potential change, Earnhardt replies, “A hundred isn’t nothing but change to me.” Going into the Homestead season finale, Earnhardt is a single point ahead of Larson. On the final lap, coming out of the final corner, Earnhardt rattles Larson’s cage to grab the win.
In Victory Lane, a jubilant Earnhardt exclaims, “You remember that bit about me retiring at the end of this year? Amy can get her own damn mayo. I was just kidding. I’ll be back to defend my title.” By mid-2018, Bill Gates is begging Brian France for payday loans.
Unlikely? Sure. Even Hollywood would blanch at the script and they’ve released how many Adam Sandler films? But sometimes the future just ain’t what it used to be.
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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