Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Making a case for ARCA at Daytona

I've been in the media center at NASCAR tracks, and I know how it works. One or two of the more vocal writers finds an angle, and the next thing you know everyone wants to talk about it. It seems the angle this week is the ARCA RE/MAX Series and whether or not it should be racing at Daytona International Speedway.

Saturday's race wasn't the best on-track competition in recent memory. But it wasn't the worst either. Sure, there were crashes. At a place like Daytona there always are crashes, regardless of the series racing at the time. Need proof? Following the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 was the Budweiser Shootout, with 28 of "the best" drivers in the world. The best managed to match the ARCA drivers crash-for-crash.

Three drivers were injured in the ARCA race: Bobby Gerhart went to the hospital after popping a tire and pounding the wall in turn one while Larry Hollenbeck and Patrick Sheltra were taken to Halifax Medical Center after their massive collision with a handful of laps to go. Some writers are suggesting that the spate of injuries alone is enough to banish ARCA from the highbanks.

That's ridiculous.

Fifteen years ago this week the Sprint Cup Series faced the unlikely prospect that multiple drivers can lose their life at a single race meet when Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr were killed in separate crashes practicing for the 1994 Daytona 500. Were there calls for suspending all racing at Daytona as a result? What about after the death of Dale Earnhardt?

Racing is inherently dangerous. The drivers all know and accept the risks when they strap in. Maybe some of us have been desensitized to this fact because injuries (and fatalities) have thankfully been drastically reduced in recent years. But they have not been - and will never be - totally eliminated.

As for the ARCA race at Daytona, it serves a very important role (other than kicking off SpeedWeeks). It also provides young drivers with the first step in learning superspeedway racing. Without ARCA's two races each year at Daytona and Talladega drivers would be forced to learn racing in the draft in the Craftsman Truck, Nationwide, and/or Sprint Cup Series. The ARCA series provides a competitive platform but without the intense pressure found in the other series.

I used the example of Denny Hamlin's ascent to Sprint Cup racing from the local late models in Virginia with one writer earlier this week. Hamlin was planning on racing at Daytona in 2005 but had yet to receive clearance to do so. He raced the 2004 ARCA race at Talladega - unfortunately he was crashed out early - and impressed NASCAR officials enough with what he did in practice and his short time in the race to earn his clearance.

Maybe there are some drivers that shouldn't be allowed to race at Daytona. Maybe there are some spotters who shouldn't be in the spotters stand. But how will we ever find out if we don't let them try? And for what it's worth, there are several drivers involved in crashes week in and week out in the Cup Series too, and I wouldn't want those guys to deliver me a pizza much less drive next to me at 180 miles per hour.

One has to wonder what these writers will say when we see accidents in the Camping World Truck Series race and the Nationwide race later this week. Surely the Gatorade Duel will be spiced with action as nearly 20 drivers vye for just four open positions in the Daytona 500. And of course now that racing at Daytona is as physical as racing at Martinsville, the last 100 miles of the 500 itself it sure to provide a season's worth of action.

I have a feeling we'll see the crashes in the Daytona 500 mentioned in the same light we saw the crashes in the Budweiser Shootout. It seems the same writers who railed against ARCA were also saying the Shootout was the best race in the event's 30-year history. I don't follow that logic. If it's okay for the so-called best drivers in the world to crash into each other, why isn't it allowed for those drivers learning their trade?

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