For a sport based on high speed and non-stop action, NASCAR racing can be incredibly frustrating sometimes. It is positively soul-sapping to watch two lines of race cars sitting tucked away under their covers in a heavy downpour, especially when it occurs just before the long-delayed start of our sport’s equivalent to the Super Bowl. I have only one cheerful memory of racing rain delays. Years ago, some pit road reporter asked Ray Evernham (then Jeff Gordon’s crew chief) how the heavy rain affected the rac ecars. “It gets them wet,” Evernham deadpanned.
After a couple hours NASCAR® (most likely at the behest of FOX, the stupidest kid in the sandbox of sports broadcasting) announced the race would be postponed to the next day. Oddly enough, that call was made a couple minutes before a new evening of Animation Domination Prime Time Cartoons. Just a coincidence, I’m sure. Because when you’re second banana to cartoons, you’ve not only hit rock bottom, you’re rapidly boring toward the center of the earth. (Yes, I am aware you could be watching the Adventures of Quicksdraw McGraw and Bubba Louie right now, so thanks for giving my column a shot.)
If it’s a basic truism all stock car races should start by 1:00 p.m. ET, it follows that all races postponed to the next day should take the green flag somewhere between 10:30 and 11:00 the next morning. So the powers that be behind the curtain went ahead and scheduled the conclusion of the Daytona 500 for 4:15. Perfect! People who had off for Presidents’ Day had nothing to watch most of the day. Those who did have to work by and large weren’t going to be home in time to see the race resume. I guess if you piss everyone off equally, you win. Speaking of which, next time a TV network is forced to decide whether to air a rain-delayed race that likely won’t conclude until 2 or 3 in the morning on the Right Coast or air it the next day, go ahead and make up a pot of Folgers at midnight. The TV ratings for the second day’s (Monday) coverage were a lowly 4.2. For most races on the circuit, that would lead to dancing in the streets, but remember this is our Super Bowl. The 4.2 is the lowest rating ever for a live Daytona 500.
Interestingly enough, the highest ratings ever for a live Daytona 500 came during the very first one: the 1979 Daytona 500 earned a 12.9 rating. Of course, most of the eastern United States was socked in by a historic blizzard that afternoon (At 1:00 p.m., ahem) and most homes only had three channels of TV available to them, CBS, NBC and ABC. Also of note, the start of the ’79 Daytona 500 was delayed by rain, and nobody even suggested they come back and try again on Monday. People were tougher back then. I routinely walked to elementary school in the driving rain, 10 miles in each direction. And it was uphill both ways. Even while keeping a torch aloft over my head to fend off saber-toothed tiger attacks. And we got out at noon on Fridays because there was so much less history to learn way back when. (Editor’s note: this column has been corrected to refer to the 1979 Daytona 500, not 1976).
Once the racing resumed Monday, I found the event somewhat less than engaging. I’m not sure it was the race I was seeing or the 24-plus hours I’d already devoted to watching not much of anything happen. (As a side note to Mike Joy, I will add, treading lightly as I do when it comes to politics.) Yes, it’s an election year. It’s likely to be a very divisive, contentious, nasty and enraging 10 months between now and November. A lot of people will likely tune in to go three, three and a half hours without having to hear any more about the latest accusations, outright lies and political hyperbole from either side. I would not be surprised if I end up putting my remote through the screen of my TV during some campaign ad that insults my intelligence.
On lap 185, “the Big One” occurred as everyone knew it eventually would. But time around at Daytona, the “Big One” wasn’t the big story. On lap 200, the “Somewhat Smaller Big One” occurred, taking out Joey Logano and Chase Elliott, among others. But the fat lady was still just entering the stadium getting ready to sing.
And then all Hell broke loose. Active participants included Ryan Newman, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin. It didn’t just look bad. It looked flat-out awful. And that wreck surely looked fatal. (Editor’s note: this column has been corrected to reflect Corey LaJoie, not Randy, as the driver involved in the Daytona 500 wreck).
In talking to some of my fellow Frontstretch employees this week on social media or a back channel means of communications, between us many of them had never witnessed a fatal accident during a NASCAR® race. I’d hazard a guess more than half of them had not. I’m not so lucky. I remember vividly Dale’s demise at Daytona in 2001 and the twin tragedies that took the lives of Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty less than a year prior. I watched Senna die in San Marino in 1994. Fatalities used to be a nearly annual event in the run up to Indy 500, which is one of the reasons that I decided to focus more attention on stock cars than open wheel racing. But I watched the horrific wreck at Las Vegas that cost Dan Wheldon his life. Greg Moore died two years before Earnhardt in an open-wheel race. Former Cup driver Jason Leffler died at Bridgeport (New Jersey) on a Wednesday night. My then-roommate was at that race and returned home with the shocking news, streaks left by his tears having cut through the dirt on his face. Scott Kalitta died in an NHRA funny car crash at Englishtown back in 2008.
I was scheduled to be at the Pocono IndyCar race that cost Justin Wilson his life, but threatening weather made me decide to skip the trip. Like a specter lurking under the grandstands or perhaps in the top row of the cheap seat in the grandstands, death is largely ignored and always unwelcome, yet always present at a racetrack.
When the rescue crews put up the folding partitions Monday evening, that wasn’t a good sign. Those screens are meant to keep the fans and media from seeing what’s going on behind them. Those screens are rarely deployed. In fact, I recall Dale Jarrett about busting a gut howling because they deployed those screens after he wrecked at Indy and scared the hell out of his kin and friends by doing so. But if you’ve been around a while, there was one hopeful tell-tale sign: The No. 6 car was taken away on a flatbed. It wasn’t like it could have been driven or even easily pushed away, but that battered Ford was not covered and moved into a locked garage stall. That’s what NASCAR® does after a fatality. Always. I guess it’s to prevent the morbidly curious or grisly souvenir hunters from disturbing the damaged vehicle before officials can inspect it.
A few things can’t be argued here. It was two hours after the wreck and almost that long after the TV coverage left off (just in time for FOX’s Monday night lineup at 8 — another coincidence, I am sure). Truth No. 2: In the absence of hard information from reliable sources, unfounded rumor and wild-ass speculation will fill the void. There was indeed already an Internet back in 2001 when Earnhardt was killed. It’s the only reason anyone knew who I was. But Facebook, Twitter and the other rapidly appearing, evolving, then disappearing elements of the “Social Media” existed only in scribbling jotted down by awkward teenagers who are now multimillionaires. Information wants to be free. I get it. But when talking about peoples’ lives, there’s a certain responsibility, and just basic damned couth, that demands you act responsibly and not further add to gushing torrents of misinformation.
Official word finally came from Newman’s team. It was the best possible news. He was awake and alert, communicating with his doctors, family members and friends. Barely 24 hours later, Newman walked out of the hospital under his own power, still equipped with both legs God gave him, though curiously enough, barefoot. Was he trying to channel Paul on the cover from Abbey Road?
The term “miracle” gets thrown around too loosely some times. A last-second three-pointer clinches a National Championship. A hockey team beats another hockey team by a point. Perhaps those were minor miracles. But Mister, when you’re upside down in a car still skidding down the track in a shower of sparks and a car traveling kissing close to 200 mph slams into you in the driver’s side window opening on a high-banked racetrack and you survive, that there counts as a major league miracle.
I’m glad the team handled the formal announcement the way they did. The formal announcement of Earnhardt’s passing came from NASCAR’s Mike Helton. I’d like to think that if shown a rewind button, he’d have instantly deleted what he’d just said. Helton’s announcement was “ … we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” Somehow, though, it wasn’t Earnhardt, a husband, father, and hero to his millions of fans, who had died in that last lap wreck, it was NASCAR who was the primary victim in the incident. They’d “lost him.” And at what an inconvenient time. They’d just signed their big new TV contracts, and didn’t one of their biggest stars and long-time draws go ahead and die on them? The nerve of some people. Bill France, looking like he’d spent the previous night sleeping under a bridge with the other two Billy Goats Gruff, certainly was dispassionate at Earnhardt’s memorial service. Asked how Earnhardt’s passing would affect the sport, France, never a fountain of compassion on his best days, said something along the lines of “After Fireball Roberts … (a superhero of his era and a fan favorite) died we got by just fine, and we’ll do so again now.”
So where does that leave us now? Grateful for a major miracle, of course. But nervous about having to count on a second one at Talladega in April or when the circuit returns to Daytona in late August. Keeping the cars on the ground has always been a big deal in the relentless pursuit of safety. Cars, race cars included, just tend to brake better and handle more easily with all four wheels on the ground. Plus, as a stricken car gains altitude, there’s more of a chance it will get up into the catchfence that separates the fans from those big heavy race cars moving at incredibly high speeds. And once a car does go through the catchfence and into a heavily populated section of the grandstands, resulting in fatalities among the fans in numbers too gruesome to contemplate, it is well and truly over. All of it.
It’s been close. We saw Bobby Allison back in Talladega in 1988 almost get in the stands. A few years later, Neil Bonnett’s Chevy tore down a long stretch of grandstand fencing. Geoff Bodine had a horrific wreck in the first Truck Series race at Daytona that almost landed his vehicle in the cheap seats. More recently, Carl Edwards did the same. A PA speaker his car dislodged hit a young lady in the jaw, breaking it. Late, late, one Sunday night, Austin Dillon got tangled up at the fence at Daytona, and most who saw the wreck assumed the young man had just been killed.
By comparison, Earnhardt’s fatal wreck looked like a fender-bender compared to Dillon’s. Earnhardt just sort of nosed into the wall and then rolled backwards back down across the track to the apron with the rear tires locking up once or twice as he rolled. I, and most fans watching, just sat there waiting. At any second Earnhardt was going to leap out of that car and wag a pointed finger at the driver he felt was responsible for his poor finish after having been in contention to win the race. But Dale’s leaping and pointing days were behind him at that point. NASCAR had lost Dale Earnhardt. Earlier in that 2001 Daytona 500, Tony Stewart had been involved in a far scarier-looking wreck when his car went airborne while he was near the front of the pack, rolled across his teammate Bobby Labonte’s car while in the air and proceeded to decimate most of the field before returning to Earth. Stewart was in fact still at Halifax when the late Dale Earnhardt arrived.
Keeping the cars down on the ground has always been a big part of NASCAR’s safety agenda. As speeds at Daytona and Talladega begin climbing higher again, the tension has increased. I seem to recall that right in the 197-198 mph range, NASCAR would reach into its bag of tricks to come up with a way to slow the cars down. Whether it was a smaller restrictor plate (or several smaller plates in the days leading up to the events), a smaller carb in the days of yore or newly-sized hood flaps ducting or roof flaps, job one was to slow the cars down and keep them on the ground. I can’t be the only one that noticed this week at some points during the race, drivers in a tight pack of cars were routinely exceeding 200 mph.
So how do we fix that? Shall we use aerodynamic changes? I’m not sure that’s the answer. The cars at Daytona already had those eight-inch-high rear spoilers you’d think would have slowed them down a bunch. If we go any taller on the rear spoilers, we’d be approaching a Plymouth Superbird/Dodge Daytona level of absurdity. Perhaps we could make each Cup car tow a dual axle U-Haul moving trailer behind it at Daytona and Talladega? That might get a little dicey in the draft. Others suggest that we try a Subaru Outback approach. Raise the cars up a few inches and add some plastic body panels to the rocker panels and a “Save the Whales” bumper sticker in the rear? No?
Well, I suppose some will say that we need a smaller tapered spacer opening at the superspeedways. The thing about tapered spacers is I feel a little vomit in the back of my throat every time I hear the term. That tapered spacers/plates are the problem we’re trying to solve, not the solution. NASCAR of course prefers this approach because it costs the team owners money, not the sanctioning body.
Well, there’s those rumors that next year Cup cars will be running smaller displacement six-cylinder engines with a Buzz Lightyear electric hybrid augmentation. That’ll reduce horsepower dramatically, so perhaps the problem of keeping cars on the ground will fix itself. With 60 years on the clock and a couple of major overhauls, I’ve found that problems tend not to fix themselves. Left unattended, problems seem to get worse. And we’ve got another race at Daytona and two at Talladega before the new rules next year. I’m not going to bank on three more major miracles keeping everyone on both sides of the catchfence safe.
How about a smaller V8 engine? The engine builders who work for Cup teams are a pretty sharp bunch. I think you could give them a Briggs and Stratton Vantage engine out of a riding mower and within a couple months they’d have that engine putting out 700 horsepower pushing top end speeds up to around 200 again.
Wow, Matt, you sure are being a Negative Nancy this week and you look ridiculous in a skirt. C’mon, bright guy. What IS the solution?
Oh, it’s pretty simple, though it’s going to involve a lot of heavy equipment. It’s time to lower the banking at Daytona and Talladega. I’m not saying they need to be as flat as Indy, but the current degree of banking serves as a launching ramp for wayward Cup cars. I’d say 12 degrees of banking on the straights and 13 to 18 degrees progressive banking in the corners. It’s ironic the last major overhaul at Daytona was termed “Daytona Rising” when in fact what we needed was Daytona Lowering. Yeah, it’s going to cost some major coin. But if NASCAR® balks at the cost, there’s another cheaper alternative we haven’t discussed yet. Just take the race dates away from Daytona and Talladega, and perhaps modernize tradition a bit by holding the season opening 500-miler at Darlington.
“Counting on a Miracle” is a great Springsteen song, but it’s not a valid strategy for keeping everyone safe at stock car races.