Monday, April 27, 2009

Rearview: Talladega

The most unlikely things seem to happen in the most unlikely of places. There's no reasonable explanation other than the availability of cheap land back in the late 1960s for Bill France's choice of rural Alabama to build the sport's biggest racetrack. And of course, there's no reasonable explanation for many of the sport's defining moments taking place far away from civilization, but that's exactly what happens. There's no question now that the powers that be in NASCAR's home offices would like their grandest stages to be in megatropolises like New York or Los Angeles, but in reality they are the minitropolises of Daytona Beach and Talladega.

The driver's strike at Talladega in 1969 could have had major implications for the sport. Instead Bill France broke the strike and broke the union. The first unofficial and official 200 mph lap in a stock car came there, thanks to Buddy Baker's winged Superbird and later Benny Parsons' slick Pontiac LeMans. Bill Elliott set the all-time NASCAR qualifying record at over 212 mph and that same weekend Alabama's biggest hero Bobby Allison went sailing into the catch fence forever changing the landscape of superspeedway racing.

Brad Keselowski's win is a big deal, no question at all about that. He was only making his fifth start and it was his first Cup restrictor plate race. Brad is going to be around for a long time, but unfortunately his win has been overshadowed by Carl Edwards' flip coming to the checkered flag. On NBC's Today show on Monday, they spoke of the tremendous accident and the injuries in the grandstand but gave no mention to the winner of the race. They did say that Carl was uninjured and actually jogged across the finish line though.

It was a huge relief to see Carl climb out, and it was a great statement by him to cross the line on foot - even if it didn't officially count. His statements after the race were as spot on as any I've ever heard. He didn't do anything wrong going through the tri-oval; he knew Brad was back there and he had to do whatever it took to block. He also knew that Brad couldn't go below that yellow line without forfeiting the win so he tried to force Brad down to the flat apron. But Brad didn't do anything wrong either. He held his ground because he remembered Regan Smith's penalty last October.

Others will blame the track itself or the restrictor plate. There is only one cause of this crash: the yellow line rule. Brad had the momentum, and even if he had to dip below the line he would have cleared Carl and won the race (just like Regan Smith did last year).

The boundaries in racing are natural: you race on any available surface until you lose traction or hit something immovable. So at Talladega, the track would extend from the outer wall down to the grass in the infield - just like it does at Kansas or Charlotte or Texas or Michigan. The yellow line rule is like the pit road commitment cone and the top-35 rule: it's another example of NASCAR over-regulating and over-managing the sport's rules.

The yellow line rule is meant to reduce crashes as drivers race on the apron down the straightaways and then try to squeeze up in line on the banking to make then turn. Has it stopped crashes or has it caused more that it's prevented? It's very likely there wouldn't have been a huge flip and a car nearly into the grandstands if the yellow line rule wasn't in place.


Everyone says Carl Edwards' flip was reminiscent of Bobby Allison's crash at Talladega in 1987. Allison sailed backwards into the fence and ripped down over 100 feet of the fencing. Edwards's crash reminds me more of Neil Bonnett's flip in the summer of 1993. Bonnett was turned sideways and was hit by another car and it went on a wild tumble into the fence roof first. No two crashes are ever identical, but the flip by Edwards has much more in common with Bonnett's crash than Allison's.


It seems like just yesterday I was walking into the track at Homestead and was introduced to a very tall and thin young man carrying a briefcase filled with setup sheets and notes. I was working with Amy East at ESPN and her husband Terry Cook was driving for K-Automotive in the Truck Series. I was introduced to everyone on the K-Automotive team - some of whom I had known since I was a kid but hadn't seen since the days Bob Keselowski won the track championship at Toledo Speedway in 1983. I met Brad Keselowski that day, and his job then, as a teenager, was to help his father set up the family team's NASCAR Truck. Brad helped building race winning trucks. Now he's a race winning driver, not only in the Nationwide Series, but as of yesterday in the Sprint Cup Series as well.


It also seems like yesterday that I approached a young driver who just climbed out of his truck after making his first laps around Daytona in pre-season testing. He couldn't stop smiling then because he simply couldn't believe he had made it to Daytona. Testing sessions always played to a much smaller media throng than the races, and out of the dozen or so of us there to cover that race I was the only one who had ventured over to the Mittler Bros. truck to talk to the young guy behind the wheel. When the teams came back a month later, the Mittlers had lost their driver - Carl Edwards - to Jack Roush. Carl led the race that day, for a little while, before he thumped the wall extremely hard in what was the first of many lessons he learned that year. Now, six years later, Carl is one of the most respected on the track and after hearing his words after the race he has to be seen as one of the most thoughtful and well spoken in the garage area too.


Many of my friends in the Truck Series used to give me a hard time about the weather up in Ohio during the series' visits at Mansfield. In 2005 a tornado lifted a section of grandstands onto the track the day before practice and qualifying and nearly turned a plane full of crews and drivers onto its top at the airport across the street from the track. In 2007, rain plagued the race and with lightning in the area we had to make the call to evacuate the (aluminum) grandstands and the infield. There was always some conjecture as to what was said on the public address system when the call was made to send everyone for cover, but I am sure it wasn't the "run for your lives there's a tornado coming" that some insist was said. Severe weather at the racetrack isn't a laughing matter because there's tens of thousands of people there and many of them are in campers and have no where to hide should a tornado strike. But once the weather clears and everyone is safe the stories can begin. Like when everyone in the garage huddled in the tunnel at Gateway one year during a particularly hard thunderstorm. Unfortunately some of those same stories are coming out of Kansas this weekend as severe weather struck during the Camping World Truck Series race. For those there, let me know what the announcer there said on the PA system to get everyone seeking cover...

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you explained the yellow-line rule (it still confused me) and clarified that the wreck wasn't a mean gesture - just simply racing. At first I was steamed with Brad for "causing" the crash, but after watching more and more replays I realized he wasn't at fault. I hated to see the race end that way but was very glad to see Carl jog across the finish line. Thankfully there weren't any fatal injuries to the fans or any drivers.