Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Teardown Tuesday: Breaking Down the NASCAR Race Weekend at Talladega Superspeedway

Miss any of the intense action at Talladega? This Tuesday, our Amy Branch breaks down the pros and cons of superspeedway racing.
Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

By Amy Branch


This is Talladega.

Superspeedway racing. Just the thought of it can get the blood pumping: 40 drivers in 3,500-pound rockets on wheels, driving at 200 mph, six inches away from other rockets on wheels, roaring around a 2.66-mile track. The cars form a solid pack in which the last driver is no more than a second or two behind the lead driver. Every one of them is jockeying for position, bumping and banging the bumper ahead of them to inch just a bit farther ahead of the car next to them.

Watching the pack spread out on the straightaways as drivers risk everything fighting for hundredths of a second, hearts race and breath stops. Any fan who has watched superspeedway racing for any length of time knows when things are about to get out of control. All it takes is someone bumping the wrong spot on the bumper of the car ahead, and the inevitability of the Big One plays out as if it were scripted.

NASCAR has made many changes to ensure close pack racing at Daytona and Talladega in the last few years, and it shows. With rain imminent shortly after the halfway point of the Geico 500 this Sunday, drivers treated the first half of the race as if it were the last 30 laps, aggressively moving around and searching for any way to gain just one more position before the rain came.

The rain never came. Showers dissipated or traveled elsewhere in Alabama, but never reached Talladega Superspeedway. That didn't stop the drivers from continuing to be aggressive, and by the end of the race we'd seen multiple Big Ones. Chris Buescher's No. 34 barrel rolled several times in a dust-up with six other cars on lap 96. With eight laps to go, a 12-car wreck sent Matt Kenseth's No. 20 flipping while Danica Patrick slammed hard into the inside wall. On the last lap, Kevin Harvick had at least two wheels off the ground as he grinded down the safer barrier coming to the finish line. In all, 33 of 40 cars were involved in a wreck of some kind. Danica Patrick and AJ Allmendinger took especially hard hits, exiting their cars gingerly and leaning against something sturdy (the wall and his car, respectively).

At the end of the race, Brad Keselowski held off a pack of 3-wide cars, weaving back and forth to protect his position and using up the entire track until the checkered flag waved. His No. 2 Penske Ford was one of the few that was still relatively pristine after the wreck-filled race.

It may have been the most exciting race of the year. However, it has also caused some questions since the race ended. Is superspeedway racing too dangerous? If so, what can be done to fix it without creating a one-lane train ride for 500 miles?


Restrictor Plate Racing Dilemma

Fans love plate tracks. Drivers love to drive (just not wreck) at plate tracks. Yet they are inherently dangerous, and neither drivers nor fans want to see anyone get hurt. Fortunately, NASCAR has implemented so many safety features that every driver walked away from every wreck Sunday. The question that must constantly be asked is, "Are we doing enough?" NASCAR has, in the past, been more reactive than proactive in some cases. The lack of SAFER barriers surrounding every track wasn't completely addressed and corrected until after Kyle Busch broke bones in both legs at Daytona and missed a third of the 2015 season after hitting a concrete barrier at 90 mph.

If 33 of 40 cars wreck, and all of the drivers walk away unharmed, aside from some soreness, isn't that a success? Team owners likely didn't think so, as they watched hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of carnage bounce and shatter down the track. Drivers have a love/hate relationship with plate tracks - it's as exciting for them as it is for fans, but their inherent aggressiveness and the close, fast racing create the very conditions they deplore - wrecked cars and possibly hurt drivers, or worse, fans.


Checkers or Wreckers

For fans, wrecks can cause mixed feelings. It's inarguably exciting; even fans at home feel the rush of adrenaline in that moment, just before the dreadful realization that these cars are traveling over 190 mph and they're heading straight for a wall, or each other, or worse, the catch fence. The worst feeling a fan can have is that sinking feeling - is the driver OK? Are they moving? Is the car on fire, and where are those safety vehicles!? No matter who the driver is, loved or hated, everyone watching breathes a sigh of relief when he or she lowers the window net or exits the wrecked car.

Drivers know the risks of superspeedway racing. They step into their cars with full knowledge they are taking their lives, and others', into their hands. They love the speed, they love the chess game, and they love creating a great show for their fans. Those fans have demanded close pack racing for years. NASCAR listened, made changes incrementally until they found the right recipe, and now fans have what they asked for.


Safety, safety, safety. But also intense pack racing action.

Intense racing without sacrificing safety isn't just possible, and it happened on Sunday. Safety and exciting racing are not mutually exclusive.

This Talladega race was quintessential restrictor plate track racing.

Since Sunday's race, there has been quite an uproar on social media. Fans and members of the media alike have questions regarding the number of big wrecks, the level of danger, and the safety. It's true that NASCAR should look at the wrecks that happened Sunday, particularly the two rollovers and Patrick's extraordinarily hard hit into the SAFER barrier. They announced on Monday they would, indeed, be doing just that.

Safety is and should be NASCAR's priority. Examining the evidence to discover why the roof flaps failed to properly deploy and keep all of the cars' wheels on the ground is something NASCAR will most certainly do, and they should make sure they implement anything that is required to ensure those vital pieces of safety equipment work as intended.


Let cooler heads prevail

In this case, it might be better for NASCAR not to be reactive. Once everyone's emotions settle, then it will be time to speak with the drivers council and get feedback from teams about the Geico 500. If any changes need to be made, they should be done with the intent to make the product safer while still giving the fans an exciting show.

Sunday, we watched a race we'll be talking about for years. The drivers are all safe and ready for Kansas this weekend. It doesn't get much better than that.

As Darrell Waltrip is fond of saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

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