NASCAR: Time to rethink Talladega’s course

It’s time NASCAR take a good, hard look at Talladega, maybe not from the front row, but from a seat somewhere near the top of its grandstand.

The track provides close racing and huge crowds, but at what price?

NASCAR nearly suffered a disaster. Seven fans were injured when shrapnel from Carl Edwards’ Ford flipped into the catch fence. The injuries to the fans — lacerations and fractured bones — were nothing critical, which is more lucky than important. Edwards, a superbly talented driver, was the least hurt in the spectacular crash and rightfully called out NASCAR after catching his breath. Later, on Larry King Live, he shared more insight

NASCAR can count itself fortunate that Lady Luck’s evil stepsister carried a gun with a faulty sight.

Ryan Newman dodged a bullet because Edwards’ car missed coming through his front windshield.

Clint Bowyer and Robby Gordon dodged bullets as their cars struck the SAFER barriers at high speeds and scary angles eerily reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001.

Yes, these cars are safer. Yes, the tracks are safer, too.

But NASCAR needs to look closely at this Alabama track, where officials, drivers and fans routinely expect a crash so big it has its own name, “The Big One.”

If this is expected — and it is — then NASCAR needs to once again bite the bullet and do something drastic. It needs to protect the drivers — and the fans — from themselves, just as it did in the wake of Earnhardt’s crash when NASCAR finally introduced mandatory safety precautions that had previously been ignored.

This time, the catch fence held. Next time, what if it doesn’t?

Jeff Burton said there is no simple answer, and he is right. He said it could have just as easily occurred at Michigan, and he is right. But it’s not expected at Michigan.

Fans probably don’t realize they consent to a certain element of danger. There is a waiver on the back of their tickets, but that’s not any consolation to a child maimed, a parent widowed, a family wiped out.

If the expectation is that there is going to be a huge crash, then NASCAR is obligated to do something about it. This is not Bristol where fnder-bending is a way of life. This is almost 200 mph, where hefty cars go airborn in the midst of other cars and represent a completely different danger.

Calling for a reworking of Talladega is not a knee-jerk reaction to this singular event.

NASCAR wouldn’t dare eliminate Talladega from the schedule. The late David Poole of the Charlotte Observer, who died Tuesday, wrote in his outstanding final blog that it was time to reconfigure the track, but pointed to the fact that Talladega is operated by NASCAR-owned International Speedway Corp., and not Bruton’s Smith’s rival Speedway Motorsports Inc., and therein was the problem.

If not tweak the cars, which is unlikely given the effort NASCAR has put into it, what option exists to make the track safer without incurring the enormous cost of tearing it up and building (mostly) anew?

Talladega road course infrastructure

Talladega road course infrastructure

Look to Indianapolis. ISC could configure a road course that utilizes part of the existing oval, similar to what Indianapolis Motor Speedway did for its Formula One races. Some of the infrastructure already exists (see photo). Although this will not settle with oval fans or traditionalists, just imagine a road race in which one could see the whole course from the grandstands. What a novel idea.

Talladega in its current form is a free-for-all, even more so than Daytona. It’s a fly-by-your-britches marathon in which finishing is a huge sigh of relief for reasons other than the racing.

For surviving.

If nothing else, improve the odds by making at least one of the two Talladega dates a road event.  That would give NASCAR three restrictor plate races — two at Daytona, one at Talladega — and three road courses, including Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

Such a move wouldn’t make the oval race any safer, but it would reduce the odds of The Big One by 50%, and that should account for something.

Turning both races into road races would leave Daytona as the only restricter plate race. Given that it is the sport’s marquee facility, that’s as it should be. It will place even more emphasis on Daytona, home to NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the season-opening Daytona 500. By comparison, the Indy 500 is the only 500-mile race for the IndyCar Series. Why not make Daytona uniqe as the only restrictor plate facility?

It takes extraordinary skill to navigate Talladega with cars bunched together like socks in a drawer, but what kind of racing is it when leading is the wrong place to be heading into the last lap? A road course reconfiguration will put the  emphasis on driver skill, not the size of his testacles.

Drivers will continue to go as fast as they can, thinking of racing first and safety second. It’s what they do. They push the envelope. That’s what created the near disaster as Edwards tried to protect his position over winner Brad Keselowski.

It’s time for NASCAR to protect drivers from themselves and from the track.

And protect the fans, too.

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