NASCAR made its return to Talladega on Sunday, and to the surprise of exactly no one, there were big crashes.
And bigger crashes.
This is nothing new at Talladega, the treacherous 2.66-mile tri-oval at which speeds of 200-plus mph are attainable, or at least would be if NASCAR didn’t mandate the use of restrictor plates — which limit engine power by cutting down on air and fuel intake. And so we have a situation in which a supposed safety measure — racing at speeds of more than 200 mph would be sheer insanity — is actually the root of the problem.
The Post’s Liz Clarke, who knows more about NASCAR than just about anyone, explained why in 2014.
“That’s because in constraining horsepower, restrictor plates bunch up racecars in dense packs,” she wrote. “As a result, one driver’s misstep tends to trigger chain-reaction pileups. But no racer worth his name can afford to avoid those treacherous packs because the only way to truly go fast at Talladega is to hook up nose-to-tail with a freight train of cars to exploit the aerodynamic draft.”
As noted by the Associated Press, 35 of the 40 cars in Sunday’s race were involved in some sort of accident, though thankfully no one was seriously hurt. Chris Buescher and Matt Kenseth both flipped their cars, with Danica Patrick hitting the wall in the wake of the latter crash, knocking the wind out of her. At race’s end, only 21 of the 40 cars were on the lead lap.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch, who finished second to Brad Keselowski, isn’t a fan of all the mayhem.
“I hate it. I’d much rather be at home,” he said, via the AP. “I’ve got a win. I don’t need to be here.”
Austin Dillon agrees, and probably has strong feelings on the subject. He crashed into a catchfence at Daytona — NASCAR’s other restrictor-plate track — last July, injuring five fans.
“You can’t [have cars go airborne] but so many times before we need to realize something [needs to change],” he told USA Today. “We need to jump on this and try to get it before the next couple speedways in order to keep them on the ground.”
It’s a conundrum. Fans love restrictor-plate racing because of the excitement that comes from near-constant lead changes and, yes, the crashes. Take away any of that — whether it’s via even slower speeds, some sort of roof or hood flap, or removing the banking in the corners — and they’ll howl. Pushing the ticket-buying fans back so they’re not as close to the track also doesn’t have much support from either spectators who relish being so close to the action or from NASCAR itself, which owns both Talladega and Daytona and would blanch at ripping out such expensive seats. And so we have situations like Dillon’s crash last year, the fourth time a drive went airborne into a catchfence since 2009.
Somehow, no one has been seriously injured, either in the stands or on the track. How long can that luck last?
“Is the sport willing to say, ‘Look race fans, I know you want to see it but you ain’t gonna, we can’t do this anymore,’ ” former driver Jeff Burton told ESPN last year. “Is the sport willing to do that?
“Even if you said that, how do you do that?”