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Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Updated: April 29, 10:35 AM ET
Crash, Burn...Learn?


So, Days of Thunder really was real!

And they walked away …

With all due respect to "Gentleman start your engines," these are the four most popular words in motorsports. Nothing is more horrifying than being at a race and witnessing a frightening fireball of a wreck when that feeling slaps you in the gut that says, "Oh man, I think he's dead … "

On the flipside, there is no greater feeling of relief than when you realize that everyone is going to be okay.

If you saw the end of Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega you know exactly what I am talking about. First, we held our breath as we waited to see if Carl Edwards was okay after flying into the front stretch catchfence at 190 mph. Then we swiveled our heads to the left, hoping that none of the fans on the other side of that fence were injured. Seven were, all of whom had been released from the hospital by Monday.

If you cover NASCAR long enough, you're going to experience all of the above more times than you care to recall. For me, 15 years of showing up at racetracks has produced five such spectacularly scary moments.

I wasn't there that day in 1987 when Bobby Allison blew a tire and flew into the same fence that would later snatch up Edwards's ride. Bobby hit with such force that, as he sat on the track being tended to by safety crews, he started begging to know how many people he had killed in the grandstand. Two weeks later he was racing again.

But I was at Daytona in 2000 for the inaugural NASCAR Truck Series event at the World Center of Racing. All day long we marveled at how the big chunky pickups were able to slingshot around each other and race not in big long lines, but rather breakaway packs. That day has long been an underrated turning point in NASCAR history. The unbelievable racing that took place that day served as the spark of inspiration that has brought us to today's bulkier, racier Car of Tomorrow in the Sprint Cup Series.

It's still hard to fathom that Geoff Bodine survived this scene.

However, great racing is not what people think of when someone brings up that day. They immediately think of one man -- Geoff Bodine.

One moment, Bodine was in contention just past the race's halfway point. The next he was airborne, a launching nearly identical to that of Edwards and Allison. What happened next looked more like a plane crash.

Two trucks to his left got together and cut over into him. He immediately flew into the fence and hit with a fireball of an explosion that singed the faces of the fans sitting on the other side. He rolled end over end six times, sheet metal and chassis parts flying off with each tumble. The pack of trucks behind him tried to slow down, but he was still struck by an onrushing competitor, resulting in another fireball.

His flailing arms now visible through the exposed roll cage, Bodine flipped twice more, rotating counterclockwise as he sailed nearly 20 feet into the air and slamming into the asphalt racetrack between the start-finish line and turn one. That impact bounced him into a couple of more rolls, this time clockwise, before coming to rest in a smoldering fire in the middle of the track. Back in the infield grass and directly in front of us sat the engine block, which had been hurled hundreds of feet away during the flips.

"Oh damn," a coworker said as we stared at the flaming mess, hoping to see him moving around. "Geoff Bodine is dead."

He wasn't. But he was in bad shape.

Several days later, we had an ESPN TV crew by his hospital bedside. He looked more than a little like Darth Vader with his helmet off at the end of Return of the Jedi and was amazingly candid. He talked about the crash, about seeing angels as he lay in bed. And then we asked him if he planned on racing again.

His eyes sharpened and he looked at us as if were stupid. "Hell yes." Two and half months later he was back behind the wheel at Richmond.

Years of putting crashes like those of Bodine and Allison into the rearview mirror allow us all to smile and shake our heads and tell the stories, amazed at what we witnessed.

Here now, in the emotionally-charged days after Carl's crash at Talladega, the public outcry for change is no louder than it was after Bobby's and Geoff's. No doubt some improvements will come, particularly to the catchfence that saved those fans on Sunday … barely. When it comes to fan safety, there should be no compromise. Make the fence 60-feet tall and out of bulletproof Plexiglas -- whatever it takes.

For the racers themselves, the hand they are dealt this fall will likely be the same as it was last weekend. Flips, fireballs and yes, death, are part of the deal.

Which means that, for the next six months, drivers and writers will raise Cain about "Talladega is a death trap" and "tear it down" and "restrictor plates suck." But when the gates of the superspeedway are thrown open on Friday morning October 30, everyone will be there in uniform with their cars ready to go racing.

That's just what they do.