Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. In the realm of North American speedways, they are the big boys, the twin towers of motorsports.
Where bigger is better comes to life.
And they are also living dinosaurs.
Relics of a time in stock car racing when horsepower was still relatively contained and aerodynamic technology hadn’t turned racecars into launch ready fliers.
In 1987, when Bobby Allison’s car ended up flying into the catch fence at Talladega NASCAR reacted soon after by slapping power sapping restrictor plates to cars competing at Talladega and Daytona.
Speeds were cut down, but as evolution would have it, in a way the restrictor plates morphed into becoming their own problem causing agents, creating pack racing that only seemed to be the recipe for bigger, wilder and more ridiculous crashes, and higher flying cars joining the fray.
The term “The Big One” has become cliché in NASCAR, representing the absurd and massive multi-car pileups that have become regular occurrences at Daytona and Talladega. And over the past few years, cars taking off and getting back into the fences has become too regular of an occurrence again.
In 2009 it was Carl Edwards at Talladega, riding the fence after getting hit by Brad Keselowski. That wreck ended with seven fans injured.
It happened again Saturday at Daytona on the final lap of the Nationwide Series event at the track. When things got crazy coming to the checkered flag it was Kyle Larson’s car that ended up in the fence.
Watching replays it seems as if the fence was sandpaper to the front end of Larson’s car, making it disappear in a cloud of flying debris rocketing at fans. The crash also sent a full tire assembly from Larson’s car high up into the grandstand. When the tornado of cars passed by what was left was a gaping hole in the fence with the burning motor of Larson’s car sitting just a few feet from the grandstand.
According to track officials, 14 people were transported to area hospitals with injuries and another 14 were treated at the track’s medical facilities. The full scope of the injuries involved is still unclear, though media reports say at least two fans were in critical condition as of Saturday evening.
Across the spectrum of competition, evolution changes sports in plenty of different ways. The NBA is played above the rim, much different than say four decades ago. Golf courses have had to be redesigned because of improved technology of equipment. Football, hockey, baseball, they’ve all seen the rules or standards of the play changed because of the way each sport has evolved.
And it’s been seen plenty in NASCAR too, from the organizational structure of teams at the sport’s highest level to the changes in point systems to continued improvements in the safety of racing facilities and vehicles.
Change born of growth and evolution is only natural.
Then there are places like the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway and 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedeway. High-banked monsters that have long produced some of NASCAR’s most exhilarating competition.
Unfortunately, in 2013, they are essentially equal to leather helmets being worn for an NFL game. They don’t work. You can play with the variables all you want to try to find a happy medium so it feels safe, but eventually you have to address the core of the problem, that you’re playing with the technology of 2013 on a playing field that was built to hold up to the standards of 1960′s racecars.
The sport, the cars, the technology of the game, it has left these tracks behind. Though, NASCAR desperately clings to these antiquated behemoths. Nobody wants to close the Roman Colosseum, for where shall we see the Christians slaughtered by the lions?
Yes, motorsports are inherently dangerous. Yes, we’ve heard that used as a sooth the pain mantra for tragedy in racing for years. But there’s inherently dangerous and then there’s purposely dancing on the edge of disaster lap after lap after lap and calling that competition.
On Saturday there were those in NASCAR saying they had to start working immediately for solutions to fix what went wrong. A fix? A solution? That would be not racing on two tracks where disaster seems so close to reality not only for drivers but also for fans during every moment that a green flag is flying.
No fan should have to go to a racetrack worried about being killed, but yet NASCAR has allowed that to become an all too familiar fear.
This isn’t about improving the protection that stands between the competition and fans. It’s not about building a wall. This is about coming to grips with the fact that safely competing at these facilities is no longer feasible. This is about coming to the realization that to keep these facilities operating the tracks themselves have to be changed entirely.
You can’t keep throwing 3,000 pound plus racecars into fences over and over without tragedy eventually taking place. The undertone of “shock” that this could have happened should not exist.
Shock of seeing what happened is acceptable, but there should be no shock that it took place. With the competition evolving the way it has thanks to technological advances and improvements in the sport over the last decade, at restrictor plate events at Daytona and Talladega it wasn’t a question of if it would happen, but rather when will it happen?
And just sitting back and waiting for “when will it happen” should have been unacceptable in the sport.
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