Commentary

Dega a disaster waiting to happen

Updated: April 27, 2009, 7:15 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

The late Bill France Jr. always figured that killing fans is bad for business.

Sunday, the business he built on spectator safety, NASCAR, dodged shrapnel.

Cars are flying again -- literally. There is no greater danger to packed grandstands.

For an instant Sunday, Carl Edwards' airborne car fought to get into the main grandstands at Talladega, Ala. The car was just obeying the laws of physics.

For an instant, thick steel cables, running behind the catchfence and parallel to the track, stretched but didn't break, and Edwards' car landed back on the track. He walked away.

Seven spectators were injured by shrapnel from the wreck, one seriously -- a woman suffered a fractured jaw.

For an instant Sunday, the incident was eerily similar to the 1987 flight of Bobby Allison's car toward the same grandstands at the same track -- the flight that started this whole business of restrictor-plate racing.

And it is a business, restrictor-plate racing. It is meant to stifle engines enough to keep car velocities at less than 200 mph, and therefore keep them on the ground and out of the grandstands.

Roof flaps developed by NASCAR open when a car turns sideways or backward, keeping the vehicle from lifting off.

It's all meant to keep from killing customers. But NASCAR doesn't talk about that publicly. The posture for these 22 years has been that plate racing improves the show.

For an instant Sunday, just as 22 years ago, there flickered a flashback to the worst disaster in the history of all the world's motor racing: Le Mans, 1955.

[+] EnlargeLe Mans Disaster
AP Photo/Jimmy PrickettSpectators flee the searing flames of a smashed Mercedes after an accident at Le Mans killed more than 80 people in 1955.

An instant was all it took for Pierre Levegh's Mercedes to fly into the main grandstand at Circuit de la Sarthe, instantly killing him and ultimately more than 80 spectators. My late friend Gerard "Gabby" Crombac, longtime dean of French racing journalists, reckoned the final death toll of Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans, 1955, at more than 100.

It was precisely the sort of thing Bill France Jr., like his father before him, Big Bill, the NASCAR founder, always kept in mind above all else. Spectator safety was the cornerstone consideration of every rule the first two Frances ever made or changed.

So NASCAR has never had a spectator fatality at a major race, although there was one fan death at a small, NASCAR-sanctioned track in Ohio in 2001.

NASCAR has been luckier than other racing leagues, but it also has been smarter and better prepared. After six IndyCar spectators were killed by flying tires and shrapnel from crashes within a year, three at a CART race in Michigan in 1998 and three at an IRL race at Charlotte in '99, NASCAR immediately tested and mandated tethers for wheels on cars.

You can bet the same phobia abides in Brian Z. France, third czar of NASCAR.

Twenty-two years later, NASCAR suddenly finds itself back at square one at Talladega. Cars are flying again, despite the roof flaps and carburetor restrictor plates NASCAR mandated a generation ago to keep them from becoming airborne.

In '87 and Sunday, NASCAR spectators, and all of NASCAR with them, dodged shrapnel well enough that no one was killed.

Newman We need to develop ... something to keep the cars on the ground. That's not just for the drivers, but for the fans, as well.

-- Ryan Newman

In both the Allison and Edwards wrecks, thick steel cables reinforcing the fence, running parallel to the track, stretched but did not break. If they had in either case, it might have been worse than it was at Le Mans in '55.

"What if a car goes up in the grandstands and kills 25 people?" Edwards asked later, in an understatement from a young driver.

Ryan Newman, whose onrushing car caught Edwards' in midflight and lifted it higher, is an engineer who understands the physics involved.

"Two days in a row," Newman told reporters at Talladega, "we've had a car turn around and get upside down." Matt Kenseth's car had rolled in a Saturday Nationwide Series race, but had slid toward the infield, away from the stands.

"We need to develop … something to keep the cars on the ground," Newman said. "That's not just for the drivers, but for the fans, as well."

So there's a helluvan engineering conclave to be held now, a helluva lot of calculus to be worked in the field of aerodynamics, for weeks and months to come.

But Brian France's quandary is, what now? The original remedy, plate racing, has become the malady. And the Car of Tomorrow, mandated to enhance safety, now is showing aerodynamic peculiarities of its own, which must be addressed.

Plate racing causes such tight packs of cars that multicar crashes are almost inevitable -- there were two such "big ones" Sunday, before Edwards' crash at the checkered flag.

The restrictions have opened a whole set of complex rules, such as forbidding passing below the yellow line at Talladega. When Brad Keselowski tried to pass Edwards at the checkered flag, and Edwards moved down to block, Keselowski knew he would be penalized if he went below the yellow line.

[+] EnlargeCrash
AP Photo/Larry LapkeAdrian Fernandez hit the wall at Michigan International Speedway in 1998, causing an untethered tire and suspension parts to fly into the crowd. Three fans were killed in the stands.

So he chose to wreck Edwards instead. Which, believe it or not, is acceptable procedure in plate racing.

Sunday, speeds were measured at more than 200 mph at the ends of the straightaways, and up to 197 mph through the turns.

So NASCAR's first move likely will be mandating smaller restrictor plates, beginning with the July race at Talladega's slightly smaller sister track, Daytona.

Sooner or later, NASCAR will have to consider smaller engines than the current 351-cubic-inch formula. But NASCAR has clung to that formula for 35 years, and again will be hesitant to change.

The new car design likely will be re-examined, and special rules will be made for Daytona and Talladega.

But the incurable problem is the two tracks themselves, especially Talladega, which has been a white elephant since the day it opened in 1969. At 2.66 miles around with 33-degree banking, it was too fast from the outset -- its first race was boycotted by most of the star drivers of the time.

Since then, there have always been special rules for those two tracks. So the simplest measure would be to tear down their banking, or shut them down entirely.

That will never happen, because the fans love the wild racing. And not only do they love to watch risk-taking, they love taking risks themselves.

They want to participate in the danger.

In '87, after Allison flew, I went down to talk to spectators during the hours-long red flag to repair the fence. Several people had already been sent off in ambulances, one woman with a serious eye injury. The front row was jammed with Dale Earnhardt fans in black T-shirts, their arms and faces still bleeding from the shrapnel from the Allison wreck.

"If our man Earnhardt can take risks for us," said one man, "then we'll take risks for him, by being as close as we can when he comes by."

Sunday evening, winner Keselowski told reporters, "This was NASCAR racing at its finest. This was a great show."

The fans had roared their approval down on Keselowski and especially on Edwards as he climbed out of his car and trotted to the finish line on foot.

It had been dangerous to all concerned, and exhilarating.

But if any had been at Le Mans in '55, or Michigan in '98, or the IRL race at Charlotte in '99, they might feel vastly different.

Risking death can be a romantic notion until mangled corpses become immediate reality.

So here we go again, into what promises to be a long and complex series of measures and countermeasures by NASCAR. Which, of course, is better than killing customers.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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