By: Drew Hierwarter
Sunday night and Monday morning the non-racing media was full of stories and replays of the finish of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega. And most of the writers and reporters who don’t normally cover motorsports had an opinion about what happened and what caused it and what should be done about it. And most of them are wrong.
Just in case you are the only person on the planet who hasn’t seen it; the finish of race came down to four cars. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was pushing Ryan Newman and it appeared as if they would decide the finish between the two of them. But Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards had a different idea. The two drafted by Newman and Earnhardt on the very last lap and streaked away with the checkered flag in sight.
As they approached the flag Keselowski feigned high and Edwards moved up to block. Then Keselowski dove underneath Edwards and shot forward while Edwards, trying to block again moved back down. But Edwards didn’t realize that Keselowski already had a fender up on him and the two cars touched. The contact turned Edwards’ car around and at nearly 200 mph the air lifted it off the track. The roof flaps opened, did the job they were designed to do, and the car began to settle back down just as Ryan Newman came into the picture. Edwards car bounced off the nose of the speeding car of Newman and was knocked back up in the air and toward the outside wall. The car careened into the catch fence in a crash that was eerily similar to Bobby Allison’s famous wreck in 1987, then it fell back on the track and slid to a stop.
Keselowski went on to win the race, his first ever Sprint Cup win in only his fifth start, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was second, and Ryan Newman brought his damaged car home third.
There’s no question that the safety features in the cars did the job they were designed to do. Carl Edwards was uninjured and jumped out of his destroyed race car and jogged the rest of the way to the finish line, much to the delight of the crowd. There’s also no question that the catch fence did its job too. While it’s true that eight fans were injured by flying debris, all of the injuries were minor, mostly just cuts and bruises. The worst injury was received by one woman who was transported to a local hospital with a possible broken jaw.
The catch fence kept the flying race car out of the grandstand and directed it back down on to the track. The fence posts bent and absorbed a lot of the energy but the cables held and a real catastrophe was avoided.
There certainly can be no question that auto racing is a dangerous sport. And it can be just as dangerous to the spectators as it is to the participants. But injuries can happen in any sport. Hockey pucks occasionally fly into the crowd, and baseball fans are sometimes hit by an errant ball.
One can argue that NASCAR’s rules caused Sunday’s wreck. The restrictor plates make the close racing at such high speeds too dangerous. The double yellow out-of-bounds line makes drivers take unnecessary risks to stay in bounds. But the fact is that in racing you just can’t control every situation. Unexpected things will happen. If Edwards had realized Keselowski was where he was, the wreck might not have happened. If Ryan Newman had been anywhere else, Edwards’ car would’ve settled back down on the track without going into the fence. If each these race drivers was not doing what race drivers are supposed to do, trying as hard as they can to win the race, the outcome would’ve been very different and nobody would be talking about it this week.
But the bottom line is that all of the safety measures that NASCAR requires did the job they were designed to do. No human activity will ever be 100% safe and certainly racing 3300 pound race cars at high speed is inherently dangerous. NASCAR has consistently taken every reasonable measure to make sure that drivers walk away from crashes and that the fans still get to see the kind of racing they paid to see.
The last lap crash at Talladega this week was certainly scary and it’s very unfortunate that a few fans were injured. But it would be a mistake to allow a knee jerk reaction to overcome any common sense and the realization that this was a freak occurrence and will almost certainly never happen just that way again.