By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. That headline quote is by NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Ryan Newman, responding to a question from Brant James, after the rain-delayed NASCAR Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400 ended at 2:42 Monday morning at the Daytona International Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated the race for the win, but everything was overshadowed by the devastating crash at the end of the race that saw Austin Dillon's machine fly up into the catch fencing, disintegrating upon impact.
Newman's level of disgust was palpable, but he was by no means the only driver who felt that way. (For more on the crash and its aftermath, read Nate Ryan's excellent piece here.) As I wrote last week, IndyCar played Russian Roulette two weeks ago at the Auto Club Speedway with open-wheel machines that have no business playing the "pack racing" game. And though IndyCar has played this game on occasion in the past with disastrous results, for NASCAR it is standard operating procedure, a macabre dance played out four times a year (twice at Daytona, twice at Talladega), each and every year.
Even though the readers of this column are very familiar with restrictor-plate racing, it might be beneficial to describe it in print just to remind ourselves how resolutely stupid it really is. It goes something like this: The entire field of Cup drivers drive around the high-banked superspeedways with horsepower restricted engines, flat-out in a pack - nose-to-tail and side-to-side - akin to driving on the 405 in L.A., only at 200 mph. And inevitably, a mistake is made. It could be a minor bobble or a major gaffe, but the outcome is always the same - spinning racing cars followed by absolute carnage. Hopefully, the drivers emerge unscathed from the wreckage to do it all over again the next time.
The sick thing in all of this is that restrictor-plate racing was a reaction by NASCAR to the ominous crash by Bobby Allison at Talladega in 1987, when it was only pure luck that his car didn't end up in the grandstands, mowing down scores of people. The powers that be in NASCAR quickly surmised that they had dodged a bullet, that if Allison's car had gone into the grandstands it would have been a devastating crash similar to the horrifying wreck at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955, an incident that would have permanently damaged the sport in this country at the very least, if not worse.
Except that was 28 years ago, and in the ensuing years NASCAR has steadfastly refused to alter the way they go about racing on their superspeedways. Think about that - 28 years. Make no mistake - and I've said this many, many times before - NASCAR has some tremendously talented people in the garages; everyone from naturally gifted, self-taught, seat-of-the-pants mechanical geniuses, to heavily degreed and credentialed engineers on par with anyone in the sport. And it's simply amazing to me that nothing has been done to unleash this talent to deal with this issue.
And why is that, exactly? Why has nothing been done to address the problem? Well, it goes to the very heart of what has driven NASCAR from the very beginning. Everything is subjugated in deference to the "show." And I mean e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, including driver and spectator safety. Disagree? Then why has every safety "innovation" and improvement that NASCAR has adopted over the last two decades been a reaction to an incident after the fact? Let's think about that for a moment. If it wasn't for the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001, where would NASCAR be in terms of safer cars and safer driver equipment requirements? I shudder to think.
It's only pure luck that Austin Dillon wasn't killed early Monday morning, let alone some spectators. And the powers that be in NASCAR can puff up their chests and say, "See? The catch-fencing worked! Our cars are safe! Our driver equipment is world class! It's all good! Business as usual!" But who's kidding whom here? And when is NASCAR's luck going to run out?
After attending races for over 50 years I can safely say that NASCAR's restrictor-plate racing on its superspeedways is without a doubt the most egregiously ridiculous thing in all of motorsport.
I looked at the grim, ashen faces of the drivers after that race last night and they didn't have to say a word. They are locked into this macabre dance because they can't for the life of them figure out how to get out of it. They love to race. And in order to do that there are sponsor commitments, appearances, media tours, and on and on and on. Countless individuals are counting on them to do their job with smiles on their faces, because they're livin' the dream, right? But at some point the drivers at NASCAR's highest level have to collectively say, "This ridiculousness stops right here, right now."
And I can only hope that day comes soon.
Editor's Note: Many of you have seen Peter's references over the years to the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation (HERF), which he launched in 2007. For those of you who weren't following AE at the time, you can read two of HERF's press releases here and here. -WG
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Photo courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Daytona Beach, Florida, February 27, 1966. Pole-sitter Richard Petty (No. 43 Petty Enterprises Plymouth GTX) and Cale Yarborough (No. 27 Banjo Matthews Abington Motors Ford) lead the field at the start of the NASCAR Grand National Daytona 500 that year. Petty won that day (his second win in NASCAR's biggest race), with Yarborough finishing second and David Pearson (No. 6 Cotton Owens Dodge) finishing third. Watch a video here.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD